On February 3, Penn IUR hosted the first MUSA Brown Bag lunch talk of the spring semester with presenter Matthew Harris, Department Manager of Geospatial Services / Archaeological Laboratory, Deputy Department Manager Cultural Resources Services, Design and Consulting Services Group (DCS). Following an introduction by Ken Steif, Director the Master of Urban Spatial Analytics (MUSA) program, Harris guided the audience through the history of the archaeological discipline followed by a deeper look at how his current initiatives make use of GIS and other software tools to collect, analyze, and disseminate archaeological data.
Harris began by walking through the history of archaeology and its relationship to quantitative spatial analysis tools, such as GIS. Initially started as collections of artifacts, archaeology grew into a branch of anthropology that sought to understand the past through spatial scientific analysis. In the 1970s and 80s, predictive modeling and archaeological-specific spatial software were used to conduct such analyses. The 90s, however, saw a shifting emphasis toward the subjectivity of archaeological interpretation. Although there has since been a return to a scientific approach, Harris argued, the tension between data and humanist approaches remain very much a part of archaeology today. Despite this tension, Harris explained that archaeology remains inherently spatial and GIS provides an effective tool for conducting applied archaeology.
Through his work in applied archaeology with AECOM, Harris explained that his use of geospatial tools extends well beyond just map visualization to data collection, analysis, automation and information dissemination. He noted that data collection, for example, could now be performed with a wireless-connected tablet that exports directly into GIS with high levels of precision and high levels of automation could now be achieved by integrating tools such as Python and R with GIS to run models. Modeling could be used to extrapolate the depth of soil at every point in a potential development area so the archaeologists could identify with high levels of certainty where digging should be allowed. Harris also highlighted a recent example of predictive modeling in which he used GIS and R to create a Pennsylvania-wide predictive model of Native American site locations to inform highway planning. Archaeologists can take predictive modeling to the next level by employing spatial machine learning methods to gather additional insight into correlation of variables. He also highlighted how the results of their archaeological findings can also be shared with the public via websites, such as diggingI95.com, that aim to create accessible venues for communicating with the public.
The talk concluded with questions from the audience on the different variables considered in Harris’ models, the National Historic Preservation Act that requires archaeological investigation prior to federally-funded projects, and other examples of excavation in Philadelphia, such as the Japanese Bazaar site in what is now Fairmount Park. Steif wrapped up the event by thanking Harris and the attendees and inviting everyone to the next MUSA lunch event. The MUSA Brown Bag lunch talks are part of a series of events highlighting GIS efforts happening across various disciplines in Philadelphia. The next lunch is scheduled for Friday, March 17.