Public Archeology in Rural Arkansas

Rurality has been popping up in a few different places in my life recently. I have been talking with a colleague about building some course materials on rural anthropology and sociology, my

Arkansas Archeological Survey station territories with urban areas overlain. SAU territory in yellow

recently-submitted platform for the upcoming Society for Historical Archaeology’s Board of Directors elections emphasized outreach with rural communities, and I live in and work in south Arkansas… look out the window… it’s rural.

But, if I am going to talk about working in rural areas, I wanted to know how rural territory is, and, because I am curious, how rural my station territory is in comparison with the other stations in the Arkansas Archeological Survey system. Because I am me, I threw some GIS at it.

I downloaded a shapefile of urban areas from the U.S. Census Bureau, who define such things, and did some simple statistics in ArcMap.

Station Total Area (sq mi) Urban Area (sq mi) Percent Urban Area
ASU 11,503 182 1.6%
HSU 6,423 354 5.5%
SAU 7,348 75 1.0%
UAF 8,238 311 3.8%
UAM 4,967 36 0.7%
UAPB 5,957 581 9.8%
WRI 7,631 95 1.2%

So, we’re the fourth largest territory, but the second most rural behind UAM. Of course, this is just land mass, which was the easiest to calculate with the given files at hand. I pulled populations for the SAU territory, and we’re 58% rural, well above the 42% that is the state average and 19.3% that is the national average. I don’t have specifics for the rest of the state, as that was going to be a bigger data mining operation.

Why does this matter? Comparing the SAU territory to others is pretty much a just-so story, but in the larger scope, all of our stations work with primarily rural territories in a state that has a rural population twice the national average. That creates a different working context than our colleagues on the coasts (East, West, and Gulf). Somewhere, Robert Earl Keen’s “Out Here in the Middle” is playing in the background…

Finding Wallace’s Ferry: It’s all written down, isn’t it?

One of the banes of the historical archaeologist is the belief that their work is simple because it’s all in the documents. We’ve literally written books about how much the historical record misses, particularly if you’re not white, male, and rich. The belief that it’s all in the documents holds particularly true for conflict sites, as they seem unusually-well reported, given the Sturm und Drang of the event associated with the site. That doesn’t hold true, either, frankly. The search for the site of the Action at Wallace’s Ferry illustrates this well. We’ve got very little in the way of documentation from the Confederate side, and the Union side is mostly reported in the reports of white officers, with no known memoirs or letters from the men who fought in it.

There are other frustrations that crop up. One is frequently encountered when working with historic maps. We know that the Action at Wallace’s Ferry took place along the road leading from Helena to Little Rock. We’ve done enough fieldwork out there to know that the “Old Little Rock Road,” as it is known today, is not the alignment of the Little Rock Road at the time of the battle. I’ve been working with historic maps, trying to reconstruct the path of the road as a means of finding the battlefield. Currently, I’ve got ten maps dating as early as the original General Land Office maps, which were drawn in 1818 and 1820, and as late as 1935. These all show ostensibly the same road, but have vastly different interpretations of where that road lay. Observe…


I deliberately removed the scale and geographic reference points to keep possible site locations obscure, but the map you see covers about five miles north-to-south, so not only are there a lot of different routes, they are all over the place. All of these alignments were drawn from maps that have township lines on them, allowing them to be georeferenced with some surety. There are some chronological shifts, particularly in the 1830s-1840s compared to the 1890s-1930s, but no one map before the 1935 Arkansas Highway map really seems to capture the route well.

This makes the process of locating search areas for an engagement that supposedly took place along the Little Rock Road a lot less cut-and-dried than one would expect. This is why the first two attempts to locate the battlefield didn’t achieve their aim (they weren’t without important scientific gains, however). However, with the aid of archaeological fieldwork and additional historical research, the third time should do it.

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.

The Joys of New Toys

Sweet, merciful satellites, I beseech your signal!
Sweet, merciful satellites, I beseech your signal!

Evidently, there are Trimble GeoXTs and then there are Trimble GeoXTs. The Survey has had a GeoXT, and older version, for about 5 or 6 years now, and it worked well, and we got a lot of mileage out of it. I used it a lot out at Dooley’s Ferry back in the Spring of 2008 to map some of the trenchlines, though satellite acquisition could sometimes be problematic (see picture, right).
When I started working for the Army, we got a GeoXH, roughly the same unit, but a little nicer and with an integral stylus (I think the stylus for the Survey’s GeoXT spent some years rolling around in the cab of my truck… shhhh). Both nice improvements. Plus, it used ArcPad instead of TerraSync, which was just flat out easier to use and made transitioning data into ArcGIS much, much easier.

This morning, I went out to Dooley’s Ferry to check on something, and took along the NEW GeoXT. Wow. What an upgrade over the previous units I’ve known. The integrated camera, which takes both stills and video, which would be very useful for documenting trenchlines, as it could record the views the archaeologist takes while walking along them, catching their topographic subtleties in ways stills probably cannot. Of course, I had the station camera with, which I used as the primary, but the added functionality in the new GeoXT is something to explore.

The other nice bit was the number of satellites it acquired. Minimum 12 the entire time, even though I was walking around in coniferous forest (sort of, it had been logged a bit). Really nice, that. In a few hours, I was able to sketch in the final section of trenches at the ferry crossing, which we’ll probably need to do in greater detail this fall.