An Archaeologist’s Take on the Arkansas GIS User’s Forum

I spent yesterday at the spring meeting of the Arkansas GIS User’s Forum. This following are my notes and synopses, and are my own, and if I got something wrong, please let me know (politely) in the comments).

We met at the 4-H Center outside of Little Rock, which has a Donald W. Reynolds building because of course it does (I am beginning to think that it can’t be an Arkansas college campus without something funded by DWR). As a relative newcomer to the state, and as someone who works with GIS in a small academic field, it was stimulating and encouraging to interact with folks who use the same technology in a range of different fields, and to think about possible collaborations down the road.

Opening Business
The meeting started with the usual welcomes and business matters, which included a run-down of the Arkansas GIS Board business. Shelby Johnson, the state geographic information officer, gave an update on various pieces of legislation that were relevant to GIS, most of which touched on things like parcel boundaries. He mentioned that the National Agricultural Imagery Program (NAIP) collection mission was to be flown over Arkansas this summer, which would give access to up-to-date imagery for the state through the USDA. NAIP imagery is 1m or less, so this could be a big help in remotely-identifying sites and looking for changes in land use that could signal site destruction.

Mr. Johnson also mentioned that HB1904, which would have placed limits on the use of unmanned drones, did not pass. This is relevant for archaeologists in that some in our profession have begun using them to locate archaeological sites. As the technology becomes cheaper and more common, there could definitely be a place for these in documenting archaeological sites, either pre-excavation or during excavation. Perhaps we should keep a closer eye on such legislation in the future.

CAST, CORONA Imagery, and the World
The thing that really pulled me in was listing on the flyer of Dr. Jackson Cothren, of the Center for Advanced Spatial Technology at the University of Arkansas, who spoke about using declassified CORONA satellite imagery for finding archaeological sites in the Middle East. CORONA was one of our first spy satellite missions, beginning in 1959, and as the data has been released to the public, CAST has been using it to locate archaeological sites, document them, and build elevation models of them, in some cases. This is particularly helpful in that the data, being several generations old, predate modern land use which has destroyed many of the sites photographed back in the ’60s. Cast has even organized it into a handy-dandy viewer, available here.

While well-publicized, it’s in the Middle East, which is not my thing (don’t get me wrong, it’s cool and fascinating work, but I work in and obsess over Arkansas). Much more germane to my own research interests is their CORONA Atlas of Arkansas. While the CORONA missions focused on areas such as the Middle East, China, and Cuba (places where we couldn’t get access), they did collect imagery across the United States. For archaeologists, CORONA offers high-resolution (up to 2.5m), stereoscopic (allowing for elevation extraction), dated (1959-1972) imagery. CAST is still putting some online, so only eastern Arkansas has significant coverage right now. As more comes online, this could be an important tool. I checked it this morning, neither Dooley’s Ferry nor the battlefield at Wallace’s Ferry is covered… dang.

History of the Landsat Program
Launched in 1970, in space by 1972, and added to most recently in 2013, the Landsat series of satellites provide a wealth of imagery for various applications and disciplines. Bruce Cook, of NASA, gave us a run-down on the project’s history, developing capabilities, and offered a precis on the newly-launched 8th Landsat satellite. The data from this newest satellite could come online as soon as May 30. Landsat data are available from a number of viewer linked to at the bottom of the Landsat Missions home page.

I’ll admit that I haven’t really considered using Landsat data extensively in archaeology. At 30m resolution, most of the imagery is too grainy to be instructive in picking out archaeological features in the way we might use LiDAR or more high-resolution datasets, such as the CORONA imagery presented by Dr. Cothren. One idea that did spring to mind was using this imagery, which dates back to the 1970s, to track loss of forest and wetlands in Arkansas, in the face of agricultural development. Such research could be used to identify areas with high potential for archaeological site loss or disturbance, and allow archaeologists to keep an eye peeled for destruction to significant sites.

GIS Professional Certification
Wes Cleland, of Van Buren, gave a brief synopses of the GIS Professional certification program. Composed of several member organizations, the GISP counts 5,000 members worldwide, only 14 of which are in Arkansas (several of whom were in the room). This is a voluntary certification program that encourages ethical practices and sustained training for its adherents. Though not a license at this point, several states have endorsed it as a mark of professionalism, and it is moving in the direction of having a certification examination as a prerequisite for entry, beginning in 2015. Frankly, this sounded a lot like where the Register of Professional Archaeologists is at and has been at for a long time. I hope this gels well and soon.

GIS Education in Arkansas
The final presentation of the day was a panel session consisting of representatives from the graduate programs in GIS in the Natural State. The University of Central Arkansas offers a BA/BS in geography that is GIS-heavy as well as a certificate (15 hours) and a master’s degree in GIS (MGIS, 30 hours). Its graduate program is entirely online, and costs $1,164 per course.

UALR offers a Graduate Certificate in Geospatial Technology that required 18 hours. Housed in an earth science program, its courses are very geology-oriented (there are six electives to choose from, three of which are geology/geomorphology). Costs are around $280/credit hour for Arkansas residents, which works out to be $1,120 per course, excepting the capstone requirement, which is only two hours ($560).

UAFS is developing an associate’s and bachelor’s degree program that incorporates GPS, GIS, and remote sensing, which will be all-online.

The UofA has several degree tracks through their geosciences department, including a new geomatics focus. Their program is built around the Department of Labor’s “Geospatial Technology Competency Model,” which several other programs referenced. They teach towards ASPRS certification, which Dr. Cothren attributed to the greater recognition of ASPRS certification in the engineering world (as opposed to the GISP certification discussed at the meeting). The UofA is also developing an MS in geography and a PhD in geoinformatics.

Finally, UA-Monticello gave a presentation over their undergraduate degrees in GIS-related fields. I have to say, if I had to do a BA over again, and had known about this (I’m from Texas, we don’t get a lot of literature from UAM down in Houston), I would have been all over this thing. The School of Forestry Resources has personnel that are joint appointments between the UofA and UAM that teach a wide range of classes in both GIS and surveying foci. Total credit hours to graduate are 35, and you have do demonstrate competency as well as pass classes with a C or better. It’s really a neat looking program.

Arkansas Geographic Alliance
Brooks Greene, of UCA, also spoke about the Arkansas Geographic Alliance. The Alliance fosters geographic knowledge amongst Arkansas schoolchildren by hosting workshops for k-12 teachers. Funded by the National Geographic Society, AGA is working towards the goal of having 80% of Arkansas teenagers geographically-literate by 2025; a great and noble goal.


So, I had a great time, and got some great information on GIS at the statewide level, which is good, and it was neat to see the number of educational programs offered. There are possibilities in many places to explore collaborative projects on archaeological research, be it in identification and management, or through predictive modeling or other applications of GIS to archaeology. I got a couple of ideas for research out of it (see the above-mentioned quantification of wetland/forest lost, plus a reconstruction of historic township boundaries to track census data relevant to historical archaeological research, plus others). I would say that I got my money’s worth, but since it was a freebie, that could come off as snarkily insulting. It was a great experience, and I’m going to strongly consider one or two of the workshops offered at the September meeting.

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