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Understanding what came before: How Brent Whitford uses GIS to study the Stone Age

Among this year’s Esri Canada GIS Scholarship recipients is Brent Whitford, a Master’s student in Archaeology at Trent University. Find out how Brent uses GIS in his research of Neolithic settlements.

Every year, Esri Canada GIS Scholarships are awarded to students at close to 60 colleges and universities across Canada. This year’s recipients include students in geography, geomatics, GIS, remote sensing, ocean mapping, forestry, environmental sciences, urban planning… and two archaeologists.

Brent Whitford is a Master’s student in Anthropology at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He is currently studying human settlement patterns in the Struma River Valley in Bulgaria during the Neolithic period (c. 6200 - 4900 BCE). Since I’ve always had an interest in archaeology, I asked Brent via email to tell me more about his research and how he uses GIS.

Brent Whitford working at an excavation site in Ilindentsi, Masovets, Bulgaria.

KA: Why did you choose to study archaeology?

BW: I have long been fascinated by archaeology and human prehistory more generally. I hold the strong belief that in order to resolve contemporary problems, we would do best to try and understand exactly what got us to where we are in the first place. In other words: In order to truly understand something, I believe it’s essential to understand what came before. Archaeology (among other disciplines) holds the potential to uncover the deep past, and therefore (from my perspective) can contribute to a better understanding of the modern world.

I completed my undergraduate degree – Bachelor of Arts with a Major in Anthropology, awarded with distinction - at Vancouver Island University. I chose the anthropology program at Trent University specifically because of its research-oriented focus and also because of my supervisor, Dr. James Conolly, who specializes in GIS applications in archaeology.  

KA: When did you start using GIS and why? 

BW: I began actively using GIS in the third year of my undergraduate degree; however, I became aware of its applications to archaeology from reading the introductory textbook Archaeology: Theories, Methods, and Practice by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn prior to entering university. I immediately became aware of the value of applying GIS to archaeology and pursued this course throughout my undergraduate degree. Also, receiving training and education in GIS is a valuable resource in general for obtaining jobs in numerous fields (an added bonus) and not just for archaeology.   

KA: The scholarship includes ArcGIS software, books, training and networking opportunities. What software and resources have you used from the scholarship, or do you intend to use?

BW: In short, I intend to use all of it! From conferences, to webinars and online courses, instructor-led training, textbooks, and software, all of it!

The webinars, textbooks and course subscriptions are particularly useful in order to strengthen my GIS skills in areas where I need improvement. Esri Canada User Conferences are excellent networking opportunities that I certainly intend to make use of, provided that I’m in Canada at the time. My research takes me abroad for several months per year, so unfortunately I’ll be away at the same time as most of the conferences in my vicinity.

The ArcGIS license (and relevant extensions) was my primary motivator for applying to the scholarship. I use ArcGIS in some capacity or another within all of my current projects and obtaining the lifetime license was truly an exceptional award!   

KA: How do you feel the scholarship has or will help you?

BW: Aside from generally making me feel great from the recognition, the scholarship will increase the amount of resources at my disposal. Graduate students generally don't have any extra money to spend on licenses, etc.! Therefore, from a financial standpoint, this scholarship has provided access to resources that I wouldn’t have been able to access otherwise. Furthermore, the recognition serves far more than just making me feel great. It also provides extremely valuable networking opportunities and meaningful exposure to the wider community of GIS users.

KA: Can you tell me about a project where you are using Esri technology?

BW: Currently, I’m using Esri technology to assess human settlement patterns during the Neolithic Period (c. 6200 - 4900 BC) of the Struma River Valley, Bulgaria. The Neolithic is characterized by the emergence of agriculture in the region, and the Struma River Valley served as an important communication artery by which early agricultural practices were spread from the Aegean to Temperate Europe.

I’m utilizing an ecological niche modelling approach to discuss which environmental factors may have influenced how Neolithic communities selected the location of their settlements. Essentially, I’m conducting a diachronic evaluation of the results by dividing my analyses into Early, Middle and Late Neolithic models to further assess how (and potentially why) settlement patterns changed over time. The primary goal of the research is to better understand how shifts in settlement patterns affected the cultural evolution of the Neolithic communities in the area (or vice versa), but the models may also serve in a predictive capacity to locate new archaeological sites. I’m using ArcMap to prepare and compile the various datasets (environmental variables, terrain variables, landcover variables, location of Neolithic sites, etc.) for my analyses and exporting these for use in the R package for statistics and MaxEnt.

Climate and terrain variables used in analysis of settlement patterns during the Early, Middle and Late Neolithic periods of the Struma River Valley, Bulgaria.

KA: Are you working on any other projects?

BW: My undergraduate senior project involved the development of an integrated object-relational geodatabase model for the documentation of context based archaeological excavations. In short, I’m using ArcGIS as a means to create a unified excavation database system for archaeology that can bring together all of the (typically) fragmented datasets collected during the process of archaeological excavation. My efforts have earned me an active research position on the excavation team at the Neolithic site of Ilindentsi, Masovets, Bulgaria, where I’m continuing to expand on this project for eventual publication. Also, I dabble in producing 3D models of excavation units at Tell Yunatsite, Bulgaria, with the intent of incorporating this method within the greater excavation database system.   

KA: Do you think GIS skills are important to have in archaeology?

BW: I believe that GIS provides a unique approach to better address certain kinds of archaeological problems and that GIS applications in that regard have proven useful time and time again. Therefore, I believe that there is great potential in choosing to specialize in GIS applications for archaeology.

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