Archaeology and Geoinformatics: Case Studies from the Caribbean

By Neiman, Fraser D. | Caribbean Quarterly, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Archaeology and Geoinformatics: Case Studies from the Caribbean


Neiman, Fraser D., Caribbean Quarterly


Basil Reid (Ed.): Archaeology and Geoinformatics: Case Studies from the Caribbean. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008. 234 pp. ______

Historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists have agreed for decades that the Caribbean is an ideal laboratory in which to study the demographic, ecological, and social dynamics that shape human history. Central to the history of the region was a series of demographic expansion of foragers and then farmers out of South America and across the island chain, followed by the biggest demographic expansion in human history: the movement of Europeans and - by force - Africans into the New World. Sugar and slavery made the Caribbean one of the wealthiest places in the world; wealth enjoyed by a tiny fraction its people for more than a century. With emancipation and later independence, the legacies of slavery and shifting world markets helped ensure that the vast majority of its residents remained impoverished.

Over the last half century, U.S. and European vacationers have been attracted to the region in growing numbers. They have brought with them an exponential increase in the construction of vacation villas, condos, hotels, walled resorts, golf courses, and airports. While these activities promise much needed cash for the region, they also mean that the Caribbean laboratory - particularly its irreplaceable archaeological record - is being annihilated, along with the possibility of using it to advance historical understanding. Because of the region's fraught past, its governmental and non-governmental institutions are poorly equipped to deal with the onslaught. Basil Reid, the editor ?? Archaeology and Geoinformatics notes in his concluding chapter, local archaeological expertise is scarce and funding constraints are severe. Can recent technological developments help?

The essays in this volume raise that question. The contributors use 'geoinformatics' as shorthand for three technologies on which their essays focus. The first is Geographical Information Systems (GIS), software that blends computer mapping with relational database technology and recent advances in spatial statistics. GIS gives archaeologists new and powerful ways to make and analyze maps. The second is Global Positioning Systems (GPS), a blend of satellite and computing technology that not only guides upscale U.S. shoppers to the mall but allows archaeologists to map the location of sites and their components with greater ease and reliability than has hitherto been possible. Finally, there is the growing acceptance by archaeologists of geophysical prospecting methods which rely on small-scale anomalies in soil magnetics, electrical resistivity, and ground-penetrating-radar echoes. Under favorable geological conditions, they can map buried walls, pits and other features without excavation. These essays document how Caribbean archaeologists are beginning to benefit from all three technologies.

Farmer and Ramlal and Reid describe pilot projects on Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, respectively, to build GIS systems that contain accurate data on known archaeological sites and their locations. When fully operational, these systems might forestall the destruction by development of sites registered in them. As Farmer hints, positive outcomes depend critically on communication among agencies that manage cultural resources and those that control development and land use.

The analytical capabilities of GIS are highlighted in three chapters. Armstrong et al. collected data on plantation and parish locations from historic maps of St. Johns, joined them to contemporary tax records, and were able to demonstrate significant shifts at the parish level in the spatial distribution of enslaved people at the end of the eighteenth century. The article, based on documents, reminds us that historians can benefit from GIS, too. Reid uses some of the statistical functionality built onto GIS to predict the locations of unknown prehistoric sites in three regions of Trinidad, using a small sample of known sites and modern land-cover data. …

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