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INEEL develops computer tool to save archaeological treasures

Now, archaeologists exploring the southeastern Idaho desert have a new tool. Computer scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s INEEL have developed a geographic computer system that sifts through data from various sources to help find and map archaeological sites. The system will save archaeologists time and money. Archaeologists need to protect 12,000 years’ worth of artifacts lying forgotten among the sagebrush and basalt on the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory’s 890-square-mile desert site. To help them, scientists in the INEEL’s Ecological and Cultural Resources Department developed a computer program that merges data about the history, anthropology and archaeology of the terrain into one integrated system. Users can navigate through a friendly interface to call up detailed information and draw customized interactive maps. Computer scientist Sera White demonstrated the system Aug. 12 at the 2004 Environmental Systems Research Institute International User Conference in San Diego.

The new tool will help the archaeologists keep tabs on artifacts ranging from 12,000-year-old mammoth bones to 150 year old pioneer homesteads and even help them predict where more pieces of the historic puzzle might be found. Organizing the sprawling collection of information was the real challenge. A backbone of three separate databases-historical, archaeological and anthropological research of the INEEL site – supports the system. GIS technology then ties the information together and presents it in interactive maps.

To create a new map with the system the archaeologists start with a basic outline of INEEL terrain. Then they add color-coded layers of information -locations of bodies of water and pioneer trails, for example as if they were adding sheets of illustrated transparencies over a printed map. The researchers can further fine-tune the maps by telling the program to display only certain types of information, such as archaeological sites greater than 5,000 years old.