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EYS runner-up Christine Davidson studies ancient landscapes using GIS

Of all the reasons one might have to learn GIS, studying ancient landscapes probably won’t come to mind for most people. Yet, software tools such as ArcGIS Field Maps, ArcGIS Drone2Map and ArcGIS Pro can help to capture, process and analyze data from archaeological excavations. Christine Davidson, the runner-up in this year’s Esri Young Scholars Award competition in Canada, taught herself to use GIS and works in collaboration with Patrick DeLuca at McMaster University as part of her PhD research in Classical Archaeology to document and analyze the landscape around an ancient Greek settlement in southern Italy.

Every year, Esri distributors around the world select students from their respective countries to receive the Esri Young Scholars Award (EYS). In Canada, applications for the EYS come in from students in a variety of programs with a broad range of research interests. The projects submitted by this year’s finalists include urban safety and design issues, hydrology and marine biology, wildfire risk assessment, and historical and archaeological investigations. Christine Davidson, a PhD Candidate in Classics at McMaster University, submitted her project on farmstead-sanctuary connectivity around the ancient city of Metaponto in Italy. Her research, which is part of the Metaponto Archaeological Project, an ongoing project directed by Drs. Spencer Pope (McMaster University) and Sveva Savelli (St. Mary’s University) and supported by many international collaborators, combines traditional archaeological methods with drone surveys and digital field data collection tools. The judges awarded her second place in the EYS competition.

I contacted Christine via email to find out how she balances old world studies with modern technologies.

What inspired you to study classical archaeology?

I believe my interest in the study of Greek and Roman history began as early as high school and as a fascination with myth and ancient storytelling. I had an avid interest in the fantasy genre growing up and was thrilled by the narratives of 2500-year-old theogonies and their parallels in modern day. My interest in archaeology came later, when I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship allowing me to travel to Greece and take courses there exploring ancient art and architecture. Suddenly being able to engage physically with an ancient space was somewhat magical and I recall falling deeply in love with the Temple of Poseidon in Sounion, which overlooked the Aegean Sea and represented the first anthropogenic landmark ancient seafarers would witness on approach to southern Attica. I returned home with a new interest in the study of ancient spaces and a need to pursue graduate studies in classical archaeology.

For those who haven’t studied Classics and aren’t familiar with the term, what are theogonies?

Theogonies are literally the “birth of the gods.” Along with Greco-Roman cosmogonies (“birth of the cosmos/universe”) they make up the creation myths of the Greek and Roman pantheons. These are myths many are familiar with, even if they have experienced them in subtle ways. Around Metaponto there is evidence of Orphism (an ancient cult), for example, which places heavy focus on the birth of the god Dionysus and is named after the famous mythical musician Orpheus, the protagonist of possibly my favourite myth. He attempted, unsuccessfully, to save his wife from the Underworld and it was this myth that inspired the plot of one of my favourite movies growing up, Moulin Rouge. These are the types of parallels that I found fascinating when my journey into Classics began.

You’ve said that you taught yourself to use both open-source software and ArcGIS Pro for your graduate research. Which do you think is easier for beginners to pick up?

The user interface of ArcGIS Pro is far more ‘newbie’ friendly than other programs dealing with spatial analysis that I have tried. Part of that definitely stems from the plethora of online tutorials which explain tools in detail, something which many open-source software developers perhaps lack the resources to provide.

I am particularly grateful for ArcPy, which enabled me to repeat multi-step processes across several unique datasets. The nature of diachronic studies is that I need to perform identical analysis across subsets of data that are the result of time-based queries, and being able to use an easy-to-learn programming language to do this was immensely helpful. I had interacted with Python during my tenure as a research assistant in my undergraduate studies and even this limited exposure was enough to grasp the fundamentals of ArcPy.

What resources did you use to learn ArcGIS? Have you completed any tutorials or web courses that were just for fun, rather than specifically for use in the Metaponto project?

My experience in teaching myself to use Esri’s software has been highly context specific. When I first began, much of my education can be credited to a GIS specialist on our project, Patrick DeLuca, and to trial and error. I had many iterations of project files as I experimented with different geoprocessing tools. For example, I would calculate the change in elevation and degree of incline for our walk up the hill to our excavation site simply to practice (and to fuel my complaints about the early morning walks with sound scientific analysis, of course).

The greatest resource for me was the ArcGIS website, beginning with the “Resources” page. Here I read through many of the help pages which explain each toolbox and function and, most helpfully, provided the syntax necessary to incorporate these tools into ArcPy scripts. Whenever I reached an aspect of my research which required the use of a process I didn’t entirely understand, I was typically able to find a helpful tutorial online (e.g., YouTube). This, I think, is one of the major benefits to using software with such a large and active userbase.

Have there been any opportunities for field work at Metaponto since the pandemic started? Is any field work planned for this year (or next)? If not, has that changed anything for your research?

An unfortunate result of the pandemic has been that we have had to cancel both our 2020 and 2021 field seasons. What is remarkable, however, is that these GIS-based analyses are perhaps some of the only aspects of our survey and excavation which can be performed remotely. While many of my colleagues have struggled with a lack of access to archaeological materials, I have been fortunate in my ability to manipulate our data fruitfully while abroad. The topographical features which represent the core of my research have been repeatedly ground truthed already, and I can therefore be confident in the accuracy of their digital representations. We plan to revisit Metaponto and our excavations at Incoronata next year (Spring 2022) and I am optimistic that we will be able to conduct additional remote sensing of areas of interest outlined in the research I have performed during this hiatus.

Archaeological excavations involve slowly and carefully removing dirt from a site and meticulously recording what is found and where it was found. What technologies have been used to assist in documenting the Metaponto excavations?

This is something which is emerging across many ancient classical sites, this use of remote sensing techniques and GIS in archaeology. At Metaponto there is a decades-long history of using GIS, beginning with the project’s use of ArcMap to record sites located during surface survey of the countryside surrounding the ancient Greek city of Metaponto. More recently, geomagnetic surveys were conducted at the site of Incoronata (a sanctuary featuring several rich votive deposits) in order to identify areas which would yield the best materials in excavation. Once we broke ground, we also documented our progress using remote sensing, capturing images using a quadcopter and creating a DEM and orthomosaic, which will be compiled with those of future seasons to create a comprehensive 3D record of progress. While useful for the purposes of analysis, these are also incredible visual tools to be used when presenting the efforts of our project participants at conferences and colloquia. In many ways we are able to take our work home with us, to a degree that archaeologists 50 years ago could never have accomplished.

Given its usefulness in identifying potential excavation sites and documenting excavations, do you think archaeology education should include courses on working with technology?

I am a huge proponent of incorporating digital methodologies into classical archaeology. This is something we see more frequently in traditional archaeological education, but less so in classical archaeology, meaning archaeology specifically related to ancient Greece and Rome. Classics is a somewhat insular discipline, and it is not uncommon to see limited crossover between departments of anthropology (where scientific archaeology is typically found) and classics, the latter of which puts heavy focus upon ancient language and literature (of course with exceptions). In our (Classics) programs, we tend to favour a comprehensive understanding of Greek and Roman history over the evolving methodological approaches to research of material culture and remains. I would love to see adaptability in course selection that allows interested students to learn about digital analysis in archaeology, even to take courses from an earth sciences faculty which teaches remote sensing and GIS. Many undergraduate programs already allow for such versatility and even enforce breadth requirements, which allows humanities students to take a course or two in the sciences. I know I certainly benefited from this when I was able to study computer science as a Classics undergraduate, and would love to see this carried over to graduate level study more universally as well. I am fortunate to be in a supportive and progressive department which allows me the freedom to explore these approaches to classical research and hope others will benefit from similar opportunities in future. All this is to say that, yes! I would love to see more interdisciplinary approaches to the study of classical archaeology.

I know I shouldn’t ask this, but when do you anticipate completing your PhD? What are your plans (or hopes) for after graduation?

I hesitate to make any definitive predictions here, but I do hope to have a completed dissertation within a year (although I am sure any current or former graduate student will appreciate that these goals are ever elusive and shifting). Once it is defended, I am eager to pursue post-doctoral fellowships and both research and teaching positions in the field of classical archaeology. Of equal interest to me, however, are careers beyond academia and I am excited to seek out opportunities to apply some of the skills I have honed throughout the course of my graduate studies to new and unexpected fields. Perhaps even a career in geospatial analysis! Time will tell.

This post was translated to French and can be viewed here.

About the Author

Krista Amolins is a Higher Education Developer and Analyst in the Esri Canada Education and Research group. Her responsibilities include developing resources for use by students and faculty at colleges and universities, focusing particularly on LiDAR, JavaScript and Android app development; collaborating on projects with researchers at select universities; and coordinating the Esri Canada scholarship programs. She has a PhD in Geomatics Engineering from the University of New Brunswick and also holds the Esri ArcGIS Desktop Associate Certification.

Profile Photo of Krista Amolins