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An interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Amsterdam and the University of New Hampshire successfully identified spatial and environmental variables of importance to the placement of historical buildings. By applying a modeling technique (MaxEnt ) that is commonly used for the analysis of ecological data, the team contributed to the understanding of the distributions of an important past cultural process: monument construction. The results were recently published in the academic journal PNAS.

Monuments like pyramids, temples, and mounds have long attracted archaeological attention, but there is also a legacy of focusing on these monuments exclusively. There is little consideration of the environmental conditions and broader social developments within which they were built. These factors can be of importance, for example to understand the many instances where past societies built multiple types of monuments at the same time across the globe.

Reconstructing the Great Lakes region

The team, including Crystal McMichael of the UvA Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, applied the so called maximum entropy (MaxEnt) modeling technique to data about hunter-gatherer and early agriculturalist groups that inhabited the Great Lakes region (Michigan state) between ca. AD 1000 – 1600. During that time relatively low population density and small-scale societies built two different kinds of ceremonial monuments: burial mounds and circular earthwork enclosures. The goal was to identify which spatial and environmental variables were important to the placement of these monuments.

Contrasting patterns

The results revealed two contrasting patterns in monument placement. Burial mounds were located near inland lakes, probably to serve local socioeconomic needs (food, shelter, and community). Circular earthwork enclosures were located near rivers which were travel conduits and so these likely served more regional needs (inter-societal trade and shared ritual). The strength and persistence of these patterns,  identified through the modeling,  suggests that the application of MaxEnt to archeological data is an effective means to gain insight into large-scale cultural consensus about what is important on the landscape.

Archival archeological records: surviving information

The team also highlights the critical importance of working with archival archaeological records, including monument location records. In the Great Lake Region, nearly 80% of the mounds and enclosures ever reported have been destroyed. While archival records can be incomplete and hard to work with, it would be a disservice to cultural heritage to ignore the data they contain. As development continues across the globe, archival data may someday be the only surviving information. Modeling approaches like MaxEnt, which also works well with limited data sets, will become an increasingly important tool for archaeologists to explore the past. 

Publication details

Howey M.C., Palace M.W., McMichael C.H.Geospatial modeling approach to monument construction using Michigan from A.D. 1000-1600 as a case study. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jun 21. pii: 201603450