Geographical models bring new perspective to archaeology

May 18, 2010

Computational modeling techniques provide new and vast opportunities to the field of archaeology. By using these techniques, archeologists can develop alternative computerized scenarios that can be compared with traditional archaeological records, possibly enhancing previous findings of how humans and the environment interact.

An article published in the April 2010 issue of the journal American Antiquity by researchers at Arizona State University and North Carolina State University describes the use of computational modeling to study the long-term effects of varying land use practices by farmers and herders on landscapes. It compares the results with the Levantine Neolithic archaeological record, which preserves a record of the long-term socioecology of subsistence farming. Download Full Image

“Using computational modeling is a new approach in the field of archaeology. Archaeology is known for learning about the past, but these methods can help us predict the future,” said Michael Barton, co-author and co-director of ASU’s Center">">Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity.

“Computational Modeling and Neolithic Socioecological Dynamics: A Case Study from Southwest Asia” demonstrates how new modeling techniques are used to simulate different land use practices such as intensive farming, shifting cultivation (also called swidden or slash-and-burn) and grazing to determine long-term effects on landscapes. The research models land use in the Wadi Ziqlab drainage of northern Jordan, an area where ancient Neolithic inhabitants cultivated cereals (wheat and barley), pulses (lentils and chickpeas), herded sheep and goats and raised domestic pigs 8,000 years ago.

Intensive farming is where a plot of land is cleared of shrubs and trees and used year after year. Shifting cultivation is where new land is cleared every few years, but only farmed for a few years before it is abandoned. Abandoned, or fallowed, land regains its fertility as the natural vegetation regrows so that it can be farmed again in the future.

“One of the more interesting findings from our study was that a combination of shifting cultivation and grazing results in more erosion run off, but that run off actually makes the farmland around tiny hamlets more fertile,” said Barton, who is also a professor in ASU’s School">">School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College">">College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

However, Barton notes that the same kinds of land use will cause increasing degradation and loss of productive farmland around larger villages.

Numerous simulation experiments were conducted to identify long-term landscape and land use dynamics. Researchers used the Geographic Resource Analysis and Support System, an open-source, general purpose geographic information system to combine detailed maps of topography, soils, vegetation and regional climate to model the consequences of different forms of land use.

Most experiments spanned land usage over a 40-year period and a few extended over a 200-year period. Experiments were also conducted where there were no inhabitants to separate landscape changes over time due to natural influences from the effects of human activities. 

“We’re filling in the gaps in the archaeological record,” said Isaac Ullah, co-author and ASU research assistant. “We are finding ways to make archaeology applicable to what we are doing today and possibly impact future policy decisions.” 

Ullah added that by creating these models and combining them with archaeological data we are also learning about the origins of the vegetation typical of the Mediterranean today. This allows us to achieve a series of vegetation profiles that provide a model of long-term landscape dynamics that cannot be seen using traditional archaeological techniques.

The experiments for this study go one step further than other geographic information system modeling projects by exploring human decision-making.

Helena Mitasova, co-author and an associate professor in the Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at North Carolina State University assisted with the development of the soil erosion model that was used to determine how ancient societies land use practices impacted the landscape evolution.

She said that geospatial simulations allow them to better understand the relationship between the development of prehistoric settlements and landscape evolution, especially the consequences of agricultural practices that could degrade land well beyond the settlements and have broad long-term effects on entire landscapes.

“We can explore various hypotheses on how the communities interacted with their land and how they managed it,” said Mitasova. “Although soil erosion is a natural process, through the models we are able to investigate the contribution of different agricultural practices used by prehistoric societies to land degradation and how it influenced the evolution of these communities.”

“The research shows the importance of threshold effects when people alter landscapes for agriculture. Land use practices that are beneficial in one context can be very harmful in a different context,” said Barton.

Barton added as communities grew, they passed a threshold where farming practices that once increased yields began to cause soil loss. Faced with declining productivity, farmers were forced to make decisions, either to return to the small hamlets, choose herding over farming, or invest more labor in their fields in the form of terraces, diversion dams or new forms of cropping. All of these solutions can be found in the archaeological record of the ancient Near East.

The study was the first of several funded by the National Science Foundation’s Biocomplexity in the Environment Program. Similar experiments spanning different time periods and different locations are also planned.

Scott Southward,

Dose of ASU is prescription for sixth-graders' classroom improvement

May 18, 2010

Many of the parents are looking for work.  A pair of prominent gangs call the surrounding neighborhood home.  A food donation program helps students and their families stretch the budget.  These challenges are not unique to Palomino Intermediate School in the Paradise Valley Unified School District, but they are real.

“It is difficult to teach students about fractions when they are constantly worried about other serious issues,” says Shannon Woodard, a 2007 graduate of Arizona State University’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership (now the" target="_blank">Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College) who now stands at the head of a sixth-grade classroom at Palomino Intermediate.  “Our students have a lot to face in their everyday lives.  If we can give them something positive to believe in, they are able to forget their troubles, if only for six hours, and have some fun.” Download Full Image

The prescription Woodard has hit upon is a healthy dose of ASU in her classroom of 34 students.  From “Sparky” mascot pennants and posters to t-shirts, and from a trip to an ASU football game at Sun Devil Stadium to the university fight song, her students are bathed in maroon and gold and the promise of a college education.

The program she created, with collaboration from co-worker Nicole Clark, is a result of a 2009 Turn Around Schools seminar that focused on promoting higher education to at-risk students.  The conference shared with attendees the positive effects of higher education symbolism in the classroom – seen in college flags and banners hung on doors, felt through the partnerships forged between classrooms and universities, and heard in the college chants and fight songs that echo around home room settings.  Woodard and Clark, a graduate of the University of Arizona, returned from the conference and went to work.

“I chose ASU as our university because I graduated from the" target="_blank">West campus, and I felt that I would be able to promote ASU as a great place to learn and advance and follow your dreams,” says Woodard, who received her B.A. in elementary education in 2007.  “Nicole was going to adopt U of A, so we thought it would help the program if we had a healthy rivalry among our classes to kick it off.”

Through different connections and the individual efforts from a number of ASU faculty and staff, Sparky-branded materials began to flow into Woodard’s classroom.  The topper was t-shirts and a trip to Sun Devil Stadium to watch the Sun Devils challenge Pac-10 Conference foe University of Washington.  The combo contribution was courtesy of ASU President’s Professor José Náñez, a" target="_blank">New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences faculty member at the West campus and executive director of the university’s community outreach efforts.

“Three weeks after we received our t-shirts, our students beat their previous spelling goals,” says Woodard, who includes “college readiness” in every one of her daily classroom motivational presentations.  “Then ASU won the game against Washington and, of course, that means our t-shirts made it all happen.”

Woodard, who joined the faculty at Palomino Intermediate a month after receiving her teaching degree, uses ASU facts, figures and trivia in her vocabulary lessons.  She has taught her students the ASU fight song, and ASU posters and pennants wallpaper her classroom.

“ASU has truly become a driving force in our students’ minds,” she says.  “I explain to my students that they represent ASU when they are at school and at home.  They know that if they misbehave or act without integrity, they are not representing ASU well.  I have had less behavior problems and much more honesty in my classroom.

“I believe our adoption of ASU has been a big part of the positive behavior I have witnessed in my classroom.”

Evidence of ASU is everywhere in Room 108 at Palomino Intermediate, located in the northeast corner of Phoenix.  Recently, as the class prepared for AIMS testing, students created a Sparky and surrounded it with paper pitchforks, each one containing a testing tip.  The students asked Woodard if they could cover the walls in maroon and gold paper to help focus on assignments and classroom lessons.  A book, “Sparky Goes to College,” is a student favorite during silent reading time, and the ASU fight song was committed to memory before the end of the first week of school.  “Fight Devils Down the Field,” is sung by all at the end of each school day.

The students are hooked and dive into their assignments enthusiastically, especially when the subject matter focuses of ASU.  In one instance, Woodard asked students to take pencil and paper and write about ASU’s impact in their classroom.

“I like ASU because it’s the best university you can go to, and it teaches you a lot,” wrote Paola Gonzalez, who also noted, “I have learned in Ms. Woodard’s class that it is very important to attend a university.  To become someone, you have to follow your dreams and that there are no excuses not to go to college.”

Another student, Erika Miranda, turned in her assignment after writing, “I know that ASU will help me get to where I want to go and what I want to be,” while Diana Valenzuela, who says she likes math “because it turns you smarter,” wrote, “I will never forget the experience that we had with ASU.  It is the best university ever.”

Woodard has expanded the college promotion program at her school.  She has 27 colleges and universities providing supporting materials to Palomino Intermediate’s fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classrooms.  Another five have expressed an interest in participating next year.

“I can’t express in words how this has changed my students’ lives,” she says.  “They are seeing the future in a completely different way, which is difficult to do in these hard economic times.”

Steve Des Georges