Study will help protect state funds, archaeological sites at same time

June 20, 2001

CHAPEL HILL -- North Carolina's prehistory soon will meet cyberspace, an introduction that eventually could save the state millions of dollars, researchers say. They aim to use the newest scientific methods to locate and map archaeological sites so highway planners can take them into account before construction starts.

"The technology of archaeological predictive modeling has advanced significantly in recent years, and we will now move the technology from the academic to the practical environment," said Dr. Scott Madry. "Geographic Information System technology is a powerful tool that can make a real difference in both increased productivity and protecting North Carolina's cultural resources."

Madry, research associate professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and president of Informatics International Inc., will co-direct the multi-year project for the N.C. Department of Transportation. It will involve computerizing all 37,000 recorded archaeological sites and developing models for the probable location of undiscovered sites.

"To help the state save money on roadwork, the NCDOT wishes to help engineers avoid planning roads through areas that might contain undiscovered ruins or villages," said Matt Wilkerson, archaeologist for the project development and environmental analysis branch of the NCDOT. "If an archaeological site is found during road construction, the work must stop for an investigation, a delay that costs time and lots of money."

Using sophisticated computer-mapping technologies, hidden sites can be mapped, and road-building expenses can be cut, he said.

To obtain data, the NCDOT awarded a contract in May to Environmental Services Inc. (ESI) of Jacksonville, Fla., which enlisted Madry as lead scientist for the project. Madry is an expert in creating computer models to predict locations of archaeological areas. Initially, the N.C. Board of Transportation has committed $750,000 for the study. Wilkerson's group will manage the project. Madry and ESI will first create a computer record of all N.C. archaeological site records, now chiefly listed on paper. The new records will be available to governmental planners, contractors and researchers over the Internet. GAI Consultants of Pittsburgh and the University of Arkansas Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies will serve as consultants.

Dickey Harmon, vice president of ESI, said he is pleased that such modeling will help the state both preserve its cultural resources and build roads more economically.

"The computer models produced by this project will help NCDOT streamline and manage the cultural resource portion of their planning process, thereby lowering costs, which will be a great benefit to all the people in the state," he said.

After each known cultural site is mapped, analysts will compare them with various environmental factors such as soil types and distance to water. Using Geographic Information System technology, the team will then produce a series of computer models that will predict the location of both prehistoric and historic archaeological sites throughout North Carolina. The team will provide the state with new software and training for viewing the data. The NCDOT will use the data to plan road construction that avoids the predicted cultural areas and meets both federal and state environmental regulations.

Another cost savings will come from not having to secure permission from property owners unnecessarily, Wilkerson said.

"But lowering expenditures is only one great benefit that the computer model will provide," he said. "The cultural dividend is at least as important. We won't run the risk of ruining pristine archaeological sites with earthmovers. Thanks to the computer models, we will be advised right from the very start of a road project of areas to stay away from."

Mapping will begin immediately in the Piedmont and later the coastal and mountain regions. The project first will focus on Cabarrus, Chatham, Granville, Guilford, Randolph and Wake counties.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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