From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Visualizing Humankind

Visualizing Humankind

By Kristen Munson

Human beings tend to leave an impression on the places they have traversed. It can be as simple and as unintentional as a spoon left behind at a campsite. Buried over time, it waits centuries to be found—a clue from the past and a connection to a bygone era. But marks can be deliberate too. A painting on the wall of a cave, a signature etched in stone announce to passersby I was here.

Researchers at Utah State's Spatial Data Collection Analysis and Visualization Lab are using new instrumentation to develop robust techniques that document the archeological record. The goal is to learn what the past and the present reveal about human behavior by analyzing spatial patterning.

The lab was established in 2010 when the awarded $418,000 to USU anthropologists to develop a leading edge spatial analysis laboratory for faculty and students. The SDCAV lab is the only one of its kind in the Intermountain West. Scientists are catalyzing new strategies for investigating human behavior using precision instrumentation for mapping landscapes and artifacts. They use global positioning system (GPS) units, light detection and ranging technologies (LiDAR), and geophysical instruments such as magnetic gradiometer and ground penetrating radar that allow researchers to effectively “see” underground. But the lab isn’t just for anthropologists.

“The lab isn’t tied to any one field of study,” said Director Molly Boeka Cannon. “I would like it be a college-wide resource. I would love to work with historians. Spatial data analysis can be used in disciplines from history to anthropology, and political science to sociology.”

For instance, in the fall the lab completed its first project, a two-year study for the National Park Service that examined potential sites of the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado. Despite its listing on the National Register for Historic Places, the exact location where hundreds of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians were massacred by Colorado militiamen in 1864 is unclear. Tribal narratives, historians, and archaeologists only agree the event happened somewhere along a 5-mile swath of prairieland in Kiowa County.

“The tribes have their interpretation of Sand Creek and where it occurred, but the archaeological record tells a slightly different story,” Cannon said. “One goal for this project is to appropriately represent both interpretations of the cultural landscape at Sand Creek.”

The park service approached the lab to help clarify opposing theories. USU researchers from the Center for Active Sensing and Imaging flew over the site using LiDAR technology which uses light to measure properties such as distance to an object and to map features of the area. However, not all instrumentation in the lab is for surveying and modeling geographic spaces. The NSF grant also funded the purchase of voice recorders, transcription pedals, and software needed both record and secure information while scientists are in the field performing ethnographic research.

“The lab is here to integrate these different technologies for data collection,” Cannon said. “We work closely with USU faculty to devise a data collection strategy that works for their project. We learned a great deal from Maggie Zraly this past summer on how to incorporate technology into ethnographic data collection and are refining our options available for future projects.”