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Situating Remote Sensing in Anthropological Archaeology.

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Archaeological Prospection
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
Published online 4 February 2011 in Wiley Online Library
( DOI: 10.1002/arp.400
Situating Remote Sensing in Anthropological
Department of Anthropology,The Ohio State University, Columbus
Department of Anthropology, Loyola University, Chicago
Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida,Tampa
Department of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara
Productive applications of geophysics to anthropological questions in American archaeology necessarily involve
specific research questions or agendas.While only some anthropological questions can be addressed by shallow geophysics, these techniquesprovide an opportunity to address someimportant questionsthat are fundamentalto archaeology. One such agenda is the investigation of ‘persistent places’, which is rooted in anthropological inquiry and which
can be investigated, at least in part, by shallow geophysical techniques.For the next stage in the use of remote sensing
that goesbeyondmere prospection, research agendasmust be clearlylinkedwithbroader theoreticalconcepts of what
we term inquiry-based archaeogeophysics.Specifically with regard to the application ofgeophysics to the study of persistent places, we propose four categories of research that relate to the meaning, context and changing function of such
places. These categories include: construction variation, continuity and discontinuity in the use of space, studying
natural and/or culturallandscape modifications over time and space, and constancies in the use of space and architecture at the regional level. In order to illustrate these points, we provide examples from sites in Mexico and the USA that
represent different time periods (2500 BC to AD 1000), adaptations (hunter^gatherers to intensive agriculturists), and
levels of socio-political complexity (egalitarian to stratified societies).The use of geophysics at these persistent places
contributes to our understanding of changes in the use of space and architecture through time. Copyright # 2011 John
Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Key words: Landscape; persistent place; shallow geophysics; space and architecture; method and theory
Remote sensing, which is a suite of near-surface
imaging methods, has a long history in archaeology.
As Johnson (2006a, pp. 4–5) notes, the category of
remote sensing includes both airborne and groundbased techniques such as multispectral scanners,
infrared photography, LiDAR, ground-penetrating
radar (GPR) systems, magnetics and resistance survey,
and many others. Thus, from the first box kite
aerial photography of Roman sites by Sir Henry
* Correspondence to: V. D. Thompson, 4048 Smith Laboratory,
Department of Anthropology, 174 West 18th St., The Ohio State
University, Columbus, Ohio 43210.
Contract/grant sponsors: University of Kentucky; Georgia Department of Natural Resources; National Science Foundation; University
of West Florida; University of South Florida; Department of Anthropology at The Ohio State University.
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Wellcome in 1913 to A.V. Kidder’s and Charles
Lindbergh’s airborne reconnaissance of the Yucatan
in 1929, archaeologists have gathered data that did not
involve traditional archaeology (e.g. excavation and
survey) (see Giardino and Haley (2006) for a review).
These early applications of remote sensing were
primarily prospection techniques. That is, their use
was based on the idea that they would in some way
aid in the discovery process for locating features
such as buildings or other buried materials of
archaeological interest. This emphasis on discovery
is not surprising; after all traditional archaeology in the
1930 s was still entrenched in the cultural historical
objective of finding objects (see Trigger, 2006). This
situation would change, however, as the field became
increasingly professionalized. Today North American
archaeology is driven by a diverse blend of theoretical
approaches and employs sophisticated concepts
derived from scholars who work both inside and
Received 23 November 2010
Accepted 5 January 2011
outside of the general field of anthropology. These
theoretical shifts within anthropological archaeology
have done much to advance the development of
new methods (i.e. systematic survey, flotation, etc.).
But while archaeologists have become more sophisticated and reflexive in their conceptualization of the
dynamic interaction between the methods used
and their theoretical underpinnings (Hodder, 1997;
Johnson, 2006b), this understanding has not generally
been the case for studies that employ remote sensing
Despite occasional exceptions, remote sensing
throughout the world remains, to some degree, a
prospection method - one that is often applied with
little thought as to how the produced datasets
explicitly articulate with the project’s research design
and theoretical objectives (Conyers and Leckebusch,
2010). Frequently, the remote sensing specialist is
brought in only if the project has extra funds. Such
cases would fall into what we term post-hoc methods
or methods not explicitly integrated into any research
design. For example, zooarchaeology and archaeobotany are sometimes used as post-hoc methods, often
with less than stellar results, as perhaps the correct
screen size was not used or the correct samples
were not collected (see Peres, (2010) and Wright (2010)
for discussion of these issues). The same can be true
for the remote sensing specialist where a failure to
incorporate such techniques at the outset of a project
often results in less than optimal results. In summary,
the use of post-hoc methods in research is most
often an explicitly inductive, ‘let’s see what we find’,
approach to the archaeological record, which is for the
most part unproductive.
We argue that remote sensing is one of the most
often used post-hoc methods in archaeological
research resulting from its nebulous connection to
any larger theoretical framework. Unlike zooarchaeology and archaeobotany, which developed in concert
with distinct theoretical concepts tied to cultural
ecology, ecological anthropology, and environmental
archaeology (see Reitz and Wing, 2008; VanDerwarker
and Peres, 2010), remote sensing has largely remained
unattached to any coherent body of theory. The
singular question then, is why should this be so?
We suggest that there are three interrelated key
reasons for the position of remote sensing in anthropological archaeology today. First, remote sensing
largely remains a post-hoc method due to how such
data, particularly ground-based geophysical data,
have been displayed and processed. Also, throughout
the 1990 s, results of these studies have rarely appeared
in anthropological archaeology publications. This
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
V. D. THOMPSON et al.
absence stemmed from the difficulties of actually
mapping some of the data as well as displaying it for
broader archaeological consumption in formats that
would be understood and appreciated by geophysically uninitiated archaeologists. For example, many
early GPR systems produced printed unprocessed
reflection profiles on paper, making it cumbersome to
display and difficult to interpret (especially in the
field). Recent advances in the use and interpretation of
GPR systems as well as the processing programs have
overcome these initial setbacks (see Conyers et al.,
2002; Conyers, 2004, 2007; Conyers and Leckebusch,
2010). The second reason relates to the frequency
with which archaeologists have used techniques in the
Americas. As Kvamme (2003a; see also Johnson, 2006a)
notes, such geophysical survey has largely been
unrealized in the Americas. The third reason is related
to the difficulty of actually operating the instruments
as well as their overall expense (Kvamme, 2003a). All
this, however, is changing rapidly and need no longer
be an impediment as both hardware and software are
now readily available, much more intuitive to use and
final products are often visually interpretable to nongeophysicists.
Many North American universities presently
have access to geophysical equipment through
major instrumentation grants from the United States
National Science Foundation or other programs. As
such, researchers and students are increasingly
exposed to the value of remote sensing in both the
classroom and field settings, producing a growing
body of trained geophysical archaeologists. In
fact, many universities now regularly incorporate
remote sensing as part of students’ field school
training. In addition, more and more cultural resource
management (CRM) firms, as consulting archaeologists are known in North America, incorporate these
technologies in their day-to-day field procedures (see
Johnson and Haley (2006) for a discussion of remote
sensing and CRM). Yet, despite these advances, the
vast majority of archaeological researchers continue to
use remote sensing as a post-hoc methodology.
We argue that for near-surface geophysics to become
more common and widely accepted, the products of
these methods must be clearly linked with broader
theoretical concepts, or what we have termed ‘inquirybased archaeogeophysics’ (Thompson and Pluckhahn,
2010; for examples see Aspinall et al., 2008, pp. 245;
Benech, 2007; Conyers, 2010; Conyers and Leckebusch,
2010). While we do not deny the utility of simple
prospection studies we suggest that advances in the
use of such methods will be greatly facilitated by a
clear connection to a body of theory both at the outset
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
of research in the design phase, and through the
interpretation procedures, to the conclusions. This
linkage, of course, should not be seen as radical, given
contemporary recognition of the interconnectedness of
theory, method and data (Trigger, 2006).
Theory, method and remote sensing data
Kvamme (2003a; see also Conyers, 2009, 2010) has
already begun the process of connecting remote
sensing to larger theoretical concepts in his American
Antiquity article ‘Geophysical surveys as landscape
archaeology’. Therefore, we use Kvamme’s work as a
departure point and delve into some of the specific
connections between method and theory within the
context of the more nebulous subject of landscape
archaeology. Our purpose here is to offer some specific
suggestions and examples that will help bridge the
gulf between theory and remote sensing results.
Unfortunately, as Kowalewski (2008, pp. 251) points
out, landscape archaeology is not a unified body of
theory and instead encompasses a wide variety of
perspectives. However, the myriad studies that fall
within this category are united in their focus on the
concept of place. Unfortunately, a simple focus on
locales leaves us no closer to connecting data and
theory because the concept of place has no obvious
attached body of theory (Kowalewski, 2008, pp. 251–
252). Thus, in order to investigate place we must
draw on concepts that not only situate this issue
within broader social and environmental processes,
but also offer clear methodological links to appropriate
datasets. For example, if we hypothesize, based
on ethnohistoric evidence, that a political centre
should have undergone a major reorganization in its
architectural arrangement due to power decentralization, shallow geophysics offers a way to gather data to
explicitly test such an assumption by examining the
structure and layout of subsurface architecture.
We suggest that the concept of ‘persistent places’,
which is rooted in ideas that can be linked to broader
issues concerning social life, offers one potential
starting point to connect theory, method and remote
sensing results. A persistent place, according to
Schlanger (1992, pp. 92), is a locale that ‘is used
repeatedly during the long-term occupation of a
region’. Understanding such places allows the
researcher to develop links of ‘usage with periods of
population withdrawal and apparent abandonment’
(Schlanger, 1992, pp. 110). Thus, by focusing on this
issue, such research emphasizes human decisionmaking regarding the use of space over time.
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
The way in which social spaces indicate continuity
with previous occupations or depart from historical
usages allows archaeologists to expand their discussions and incorporate some current anthropological
issues concerning traditions, resistance, power and
legitimization. For example, the shift in site plan to a
formalized grid system or a change in the orientation
of structures over time might indicate a centralization
of power and authority from one that was egalitarian
to a rank-based society, such as is observed at the
Mississippian (ca. AD 1100 to 1200) capital of Cahokia,
in Illinois, USA (see Pauketat, 2004). The key concept
here is that the historical use of a place has bearing on
how inhabitants negotiated past uses into something
new. For example, groups or individuals may seek to
reinterpret (e.g. cause a shift in meaning or value) for a
particular place on the landscape. Groups or individuals seeking to preserve traditions or meanings might
in turn react to such changes. What plays out in such
situations is the negotiation and exchange of meaning,
values and perceptions, which are key anthropological
concepts in human uses of certain landscapes and
places. For the archaeologist, this results in what Bailey
(2007, pp. 207–208) refers to as palimpsests of meaning
or ‘the succession of meanings acquired by a particular
object, or group of objects, as the result of the different
uses, contexts of use and association to which they
have been exposed’. In other words, it is actions of
individuals that constitute the meanings of such
places. Such activities are guided not only by the
cultural biography (sensu Schiffer, 1987) of a particular
place, but also by the social histories of places that are
similar to the one under examination (see Appadurai
(1986, pp. 35) for an explanation of cultural biography
and social history). Such a perspective closely parallels
arguments made with regard to materials common in
archaeological research, such as artefacts; however,
here, we have simply scaled up some of the concepts
espoused by Appadurai, Schiffer and others to the
built environment. Our main methodological point is
that the built environment is a phenomenon that can be
analysed geophysically. Thus, for archaeology, any
discussion regarding shifts in the meaning and use
of sites must be grounded in the material record,
which includes remote sensing results of the built
Up to this point our discussion involves broad-scale
theoretical issues that are not necessarily explicitly
tied to near-surface remote sensing results. To fully
comprehend shifts in the built environment and the
use of space the archaeologist must have a firm grasp
of both the natural and cultural formation processes
at sites. Therefore, we suggest that the obvious link
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
between the remote sensing techniques and the social
issues that can be studied are concepts rooted in
behavioral archaeology. After all, as McGuire (1995:
174) has stated, whatever the other shortcomings of
this body of research, ‘behavioral archaeologists were
right when they argued that if we wish to explain a
behavior we must first prove it existed.’ Remote
sensing therefore offers a first step in identifying such
phenomena using the built environment within the
archaeological record. And, while this first step offers a
clear link to the archaeological record, the geophysical
results also offer a departure point to discuss broader
implications related to social and cultural meaning.
Recently we began to broach such issues using
shallow geophysical survey on archaeological sites
that fall under Schlanger’s definition of persistent
places (e.g., Thompson et al., 2004, 2009; Thompson,
2007, 2010; Thompson and Pluckhahn, 2010;). Here we
offer some examples that illustrate the value of such
results to understand both how to link geophysical
results to anthropological questions, and how those
questions are related to broader theoretical ideas
regarding the nature of space, and by extension the
built environment. We present and give examples of
several categories of research questions that speak to
some of these site formation and behavioral processes,
and then go beyond this to study other aspects of place
that are important to broader theoretical concerns and
social issues related to the built environment. Archaeologists ultimately need to appreciate and gather data
and produce products that will help in addressing
issues related to the meaning, context and changing
function of persistent places on the landscape. While to
some extent the categories we offer below can be
partially addressed via traditional archaeological
techniques (e.g., total station mapping of structures
that have been excavated or are exposed at the
surface), if the goal is to fully comprehend the history
of the built environment, then in lieu of full-scale
excavation such a research strategy requires remote
sensing. When this is done, what results is a more indepth understanding of the use of space and built
environment over time and space. The basic categories
of human use of space that can be addressed via
remote sensing that ultimately speak to broader social
and cultural phenomena include:
Category 1: Indentifying construction variation in
terms of the built environment
Category 2: Identifying continuity/discontinuity in
the use of space
Category 3: Identifying natural and cultural modifications
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
V. D. THOMPSON et al.
Category 4: Identifying regularities in the use of
space and architecture at the regional level
Investigating space and architecture at
persistent places
In what follows, we offer some brief examples from
our work in Mexico and the southeastern USA to
illustrate the use of shallow geophysics to test ideas
about persistent places and the use of space and
cultural versus natural modifications of the landscape.
The geophysical results are presented without methodological or processing steps used to produce the
images, as we use these results primarily to illustrate
and exemplify our theoretical and methodological
points. Details about these geophysical surveys can be
found elsewhere (Thompson et al., 2004, 2009;
Thompson and Pluckhahn, 2010). We draw on our
work at three different sites: the Sapelo Island Shell
Ring complex along the Atlantic coast of Georgia, USA;
the Crystal River site along the Gulf coast of Florida,
USA; and the site of Teotepec located along the
Mexican Gulf coast near Veracruz. Despite differences
in age and behaviors of the people that occupied these
areas, each of these sites was occupied over an
extended time frame, during which uses of space
and built environments changed and can be studied
Category 1: construction variation
Identifying variation in terms of the built environment
is a central research goal for archaeologists who
focus on architecture, because the built environment
partially personifies and communicates societal
order (Parker Pearson and Richards, 1994, pp. 40).
As Parker Pearson and Richards (1994, pp. 40) state,
the ‘constructed cultural space’ defines where certain
behaviors occur and as such, ‘meaning is realized
through social practices’. If we take this view as our
starting point, then identifying changes in construction
through time and/or space allows for the examination
of the built environment and how it was intertwined
with social order and practice. However, before we can
do this we must identify such behaviors, for instance,
different construction techniques and other aspects
of architecture that might have taken place over time.
Shallow geophysics has proven to be an invaluable tool
for identifying this in the archaeological record
(Gaffney et al., 2000; Kvamme, 2003b; Benech, 2007;
Conyers, 2010).
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
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Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
At both Crystal River and Teotepec the shallow
geophysical survey indicates differential construction
techniques in terms of building materials. Crystal
River was primarily a Woodland Period (ca. 1000 BC to
AD 1000) centre along the central Gulf Coast of Florida,
while Teotepec was a Middle Formative to Late Classic
(ca. 1000 BC to AD 1000) site in the Tuxtla Mountains
of southern Veracruz. Both of these sites contain
substantial architectural structures; however, the
building materials used in the various structures at
each site differ dramatically. Specifically, the amount
of construction materials (e.g. shell, stone, soil) varies
across each site. In these examples both groundpenetrating radar and resistance surveys were used to
study the construction of monumental structures,
monuments and use of space.
Crystal River’s monumental architecture is primarily composed of earth and shell. There are six distinct
mounds and the site covers a minimum of 6.9 ha
(Figure 1), which includes both conical burial mounds
as well as platform pyramid mounds that most likely
served as stages for rituals and temples. One of our
specific research questions at the site was related
to construction stages of these mounds: were the
platform mounds constructed in a single building
episode and to what extent was shell used as a
construction material? Answers to these questions
provide important insight into the nature of persistent
places and allow us to evaluate if similar or different
behaviors were at work across the site in terms of
constructing the built environment. In addition, such
information indicates how quickly certain architecture
was constructed, providing insight into the tempo of
place making. In other words, did the site emerge
quickly as a result of a plan directed by leaders, did the
site grow organically over time, or was there some
combination of the two.
There are four pyramid platform mounds at the site
– the largest is over 9 m tall (Pluckhahn and
Thompson, 2009; Thompson and Pluckhahn, 2010).
To address our questions, we conducted GPR surveys
over the mounds and produced GPR profiles and
amplitude maps. When we correlated the GPR maps
with notes and photographs of previous excavations
conducted in the 1960 s (Weisman, 1995), we were
able to discern that at least some of the mounds
contained evidence of different construction techniques (Figure 2). In particular, we found that platform
mounds varied considerably in the amount of shell
used as a construction material.
Comparisons between Mounds H and K show
significant changes in the constituents of strata in
the GPR reflection profiles (Figure 3). While there are
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
a considerable number of reflectors in both
mounds, Mound K appears to have many more
horizontal reflective surfaces. In fact, the mound
appears to have ubiquitous point-source reflections
bounded by horizontal layers in what are multiple
construction episodes. The thick deposits of pointsource reflections are individual layers of shell
construction material, while the horizontal reflections
are layers that represent living surfaces at different
times of occupation as the mounds grew in height over
time. Based upon old excavation photographs and our
knowledge of GPR surveys at other coastal sites with
shell deposits (e.g., Thompson et al., 2004), we infer
that these horizontally and vertically stacked horizontal reflections indicate very dense shell deposits and
are the primary construction material for Mound K. In
contrast while Mound H has abundant layers of pointsource reflections, it also has several horizontal
surfaces with a high coefficient of reflectivity along
the interfaces. We interpret the highly reflective
horizontal surfaces as distinct layering in Mound H,
representing use surfaces that bound temporally
distinct construction stages. Those use surfaces could
be compacted shell, soil horizons or construction
material of a different sort that was used to produce a
living surface. In addition, reflection profiles over
Mound H contain some large point-source reflections,
which we interpret as a collapsed structure and/or
the addition of large limestone blocks within the
mounds, or large objects from nearby that were used
as construction fill during each construction episode.
These interpretations were based on a correlation of
GPR results to excavation records and photographs
from previous research at the site. (Thompson and
Pluckhahn, 2010).
By combining these data sets, we were able to
examine and make interpretations regarding construction variation at this site over a long period of time,
perhaps for 1000 years. This evidence, along with
excavation data, documents an extended occupation of
this site, during which some structures were built
quickly, while others were the result of periodic
construction and use episodes. Therefore, in terms
of conceptualizing persistent places, this information
from the GPR analysis suggests that multiple actions
were involved over time to create Crystal River’s
built environment. In some cases, like Mound K,
the interpretation suggests a relatively rapid construction and implies that labour was mobilized and
directed during a single event. In contrast, Mound
H seems to have a more protracted history, suggesting
that periodic labour organization was the norm for
construction of this platform.
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
V. D. THOMPSON et al.
Figure 1. Topographicmap of Crystal River,Florida. (Adaptedfrom Pluckhanand Thompson,2009, figure 3.) Thisfigureisavailablein colouronlineat
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
Figure 2. (A) GPR sampleprofilesfrom Mound Hat the Crystal Riversite. (B) Locationof GPR surveyareason Mound H. (C) Photographof Mound H.
(Adapted fromThompson and Pluckham, 2010.) This figure is available in colour online at
Similarly, geophysical research at the site of
Teotepec also identified different kinds of construction
techniques for the mounded architecture (Thompson
et al., 2009). In this example, the resistance maps aid
in the identification of construction behaviors that
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
changed over time. In this region, much of the
mounded architecture consists of earthen mounds
faced with basalt stone. The degree to which stone
is used in construction varies over time, ranging from a
sparse facing of superficial stone during the Formative
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
V. D. THOMPSON et al.
Figure 3. (A) GPR sampleprofilesfrom Mound Kat the Crystal River site. (B) Locationof GPR surveyareason Mound K. (C) Photograph of Mound K.
(Adapted fromThompson and Pluckham, 2010.) This figure is available in colour online at
and Late Classic periods to room walls constructed of
these materials later on during the late Postclassic and
the Historic Contact period (ca. fifteenth and sixteenth
centuries) (e.g., Venter et al., 2006).
Teotepec is a large ca. 80 ha site with a minimum
of 25 platforms and pyramids, most of which have
visible surface evidence of stone facing. One of the key
questions for research at Teotepec was related to the
long plaza group (LPG), an architectural arrangement
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
of two parallel linear mounds delimited by a large
mound at one end and a small platform at the other.
Such architectural groupings are common throughout
the Olmec Heartland, a region that saw the development of one of Mesoamerica’s earliest complex
societies, and which emerged during the Formative
period around 1200 BC along the southern Gulf Coast
of Mexico (Coe and Diehl, 1980; Borstein, 2005). This
similarity in architectural layout may suggest some
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
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Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
sort of continuity with earlier Formative peoples
(Adams, 1991; cf. Symonds et al., 2002, pp. 109).
One of our objectives in the geophysical research
at Teotepec was to see how the LPG compared with
other architecture at the site, with similarity in
architectural layout and construction suggesting a
consistent conceptualization and practice regarding
the built environment over both time and space at the
site. Such information is a key to understanding the
history of the use of space and architecture at sites with
extended occupations, otherwise known as persistent
places. Specifically, we want to know if people were
using different building materials and if structures
were superimposed over one another. Such information can lead to the identification of culturally and
temporally distinct reinventions of the built environment by the site’s occupants.
Our resistance survey of Teotepec identified basalt
foundations and facing on the mounds, indicating that
construction of the LPG and its surrounding architecture involved the use of a considerable amount of
basalt stone. In contrast, other architectural elements
located away from the LPG are only superficially faced
with stone and do not provide as high resistance
values that are commensurate with architecture
that involves dense stone deposits (Figure 4). This
comparison provides important insight into how
construction practices varied across the site and aids
in our understanding of how space might have been
conceived across different categories of monumental
platform constructions. In sum, our survey suggests
discontinuity in construction practices between the
LPG and other platform architecture at the site. We
argue that this represents a temporal and/or cultural
shift in people’s conception of the built environment
at Teotepec. Radiocarbon dating this architecture,
however, will be necessary to place these changes in
construction within a historical context.
Both of the examples offered here illustrate how
geophysics can be used to investigate the nature of
architecture. In these two cases we use both GPR
and resistance survey to examine variation in construction across space at these two sites. Such
information is important if we are to address one of
the fundamental questions regarding persistent places
that have substantial architectural components. That
is, to what extent are there variations in the built
environment? As we argue above, depending on the
context, such information can be used to address a
host of social issues. In particular, such information
can be used to discuss how peoples over time worked
to create and recreate the built environment. This
information is important if archaeologists are to make
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
statements regarding specific architectural traditions
or conversely new spatial orders. At Teotepec we
found that people had constructed platform architecture differently in various parts of the site, which is
similar to the pattern of construction variation that
we also observe at Crystal River. This suggests
that for people at Teotepec there was no set way to
construct a platform.
Category 2: continuity and discontinuity
Identifying continuity and/or discontinuity in the
use of space is key to the study of settlement
organization, as the use of space is structured by
social interaction (Gargett and Hayden, 1991; Whitelaw, 1994). In Category 1 we focus on the differences
between architectural forms in terms of their construction techniques, which, as we state above, can
indicate how people create and recreate the built
environment over time. Here, we address a related
matter, the use of space. This includes the spatial
layout of buildings or where architecture is located in
relationship to other structures, as well as the use of
space in a more generalized sense, for example,
activity areas, refuse areas and other features distributed across the landscape. An understanding of
these phenomena provides insight into the consistent
use of space over time, which can indicate particular
cultural preferences for certain spaces. Similarly,
discontinuity can reflect a change in attitude toward
specific areas of the site. We offer two examples: one
concerning the built environment and the changing
layout of architecture at Teotepec and another looking
at the accumulation of refuse at a hunter–gatherer–
fisher site along the Atlantic coast of Georgia.
As we have described above, our study of Teotepec
focused on the LPG. In both GPR and resistance results
we identified archaeological deposits that deviate
considerably from the other observable spatial layout
of the architecture at the site. In other words, there
are previous subsurface structures that do not follow
the orientation and alignment of the visible surface
architecture. In the resistance results, we defined
two linear areas of high resistance values that departed
from the orientation of the rest of the architecture in
the vicinity of the LPG. These linear areas of high
resistance form roughly an angle of 458 with the LPG
(Thompson et al., 2009, pp. 444), most likely representing stone architecture associated with earlier structures. This also seems to be the case as indicated by our
GPR survey of adjacent areas, as part of the LPG is
superimposed over an earlier structure. Similar to the
structures identified by the resistance survey, our GPR
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Figure 4. (A) Resistanceimageofthe Long PlazagroupatTeopec. (B) Resistanceimageoftheadjacent architectureshowingdissimilarconstruction
with that of the Long Plaza group. (Adapted fromThompson et al., 2009.)
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
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Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
survey also identified an early structure that does not
conform to the observable spatial layout of the visible
architecture (Thompson et al., 2009; see Conyers and
Leckebusch (2010) for a similar point using an example
from Petra). We conducted a GPR survey over one of
the linear mounds associated with the LPG. In these
results there are rectangular planar reflections with
high amplitude that are perpendicular to the linear
mound. Although no excavations were conducted in
this area, GPR mapping over other areas of the site
produced similar images and excavations revealed
these to be linear stone alignments, which pre-date
the LPG construction.
In summary, our geophysical results at Teotepec
indicate that there was a temporal shift in the
construction of the built environment and use of
space. The changes in orientation, as indicated by the
comparison of the subsurface features to the visible
architecture, suggest that a complete reorganization
of space occurred at some point in the occupational
and use history of the site. As the layout of space and
architecture is linked to cultural practices, we argue
that this discontinuity with the past site layout
indicates a cultural shift in the way in which people
perceived and constructed the built environment,
and by extension their world. At this point, we can
only speculate as to the cause of such changes, but
they likely have their roots in shifts in socio-political
The Sapelo Shell Ring complex stands in stark
contrast to the stone and earthen monuments of
Teotepec, Mexico. This shell ring complex is a Late
Archaic (2200 BC to 1100 BC) site with three circularshaped shell midden deposits that are, in part, refuse
accumulations, although some argue that they are
intentionally constructed architecture (see; Trinkley,
1985; DePratter, 1979; Russo, 2004; Saunders, 2004a,b;
Thompson, 2007; Thompson and Andrus, in press).
One of the key questions for research in this area on
these types of sites is determining how these ringshaped piles of shell formed. Understanding the
formation of these rings is central to understanding
their function, as archaeologists have historically
viewed such sites as being the result of a singular
process. This perspective is in stark contrast to the idea
of persistent place, which necessitates a perspective
that is rooted in a long-term perspective of site creation
and its concomitant behaviors. In other words, all sites
are the product of cultural practices over time. The
question then is, whether these practices were
consistent both spatially across the site as well as over
time. Geophysics has been instrumental in providing
information regarding this question, as it provides
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
insight into both the horizontal and vertical extents of
archaeological deposits. Such information can be used
to infer both the spatial extent of behaviors, as well as if
such behaviors were consistent in a given locale over
Much of the archaeological research at shell ring
sites in the American Southeast consists of excavating
trenches bisecting portions of the ring. Thus, while
exposing profiles of strata, little is usually known
regarding their horizontal distribution. If Late Archaic
people intentionally constructed shell rings, and if a
ring shape was the intended form, then we would
logically expect to find that such strata extend around
the circumference of the ring and possibly represent
building episodes, much like we see at later earthen
mound sites. If this is the case, then an argument can
be made that such structures represent intentional
built monuments. However, as we discuss below, the
archaeological record reflects a much more complex
Thompson and his colleagues’ (2004) work at the
Sapelo Shell Ring complex was the first intensive
geophysical survey of a shell ring site and has allowed
for an understanding of their form and structure over a
large area. The GPR survey and resistivity tomography
have defined the strata and examined their horizontal
distribution around the rings in ways that cannot be
done by excavations alone. Based on this work we have
found that at least one of these rings did not initially
form as a ring shape, but rather as discrete piles and
pits of dense shell deposits surrounding a central area
(Figure 5). Only later was it modified and made
circular. This suggests that a ring shape was not the
intentional end form of shell rings at their inception
and therefore the shell rings, at least at their inception,
were not intentionally constructed monuments.
Thompson (2007) proposes a model regarding
the changing use of space at these sites based on an
integration of the geophysical results and limited
excavation at the Sapelo Shell Ring complex. In this
model the shifting use of space around the central area
occurred first as domestic locations and only later
modified into ring shaped midden deposits. In terms
of this model some rings were created as a result of this
process, but the geophysical data also show that there
were other deposits that reflect large-scale deposition
episodes that may represent intentional mounding of
feasting debris forming a part of the upper strata of the
ring (Figure 6). When geophysical results were
incorporated with stable isotope analysis of shellfish
to determine season of collection (Thompson and
Andrus, in press) the results show that some deposits
may have been intentionally mounded. These data
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
V. D. THOMPSON et al.
Figure 5. (A) Resistance image of Ring III at the Sapelo Shell Ring complex. Black to dark grey areas indicate high resistance whereas light grey to
whiteareasindicatelowresistance. (B)) Resistivityprofilingtransectsover Ring III. (C) Resistivityprofilingstudy time slicemodelof Ring III.Theresulting resistivity values ranged from a high of12111 ohm m 1.The white areas have resistivity values above 1825 ohm m 1 and are identified as dense
shell deposits.
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
Figure 6. (A)Photographof1950 s’excavationtrenchthrough Ring Iatthe Sapelo ShellRingcomplex. (B)GPR transectonthenorthwest sideofRing I.
(Adapted fromThompson et al., 2004.) This figure is available in colour online at
suggests that that mounded feasting debris was
collected, consumed, and deposited during the same
season (however see Thompson and Andrus (in press)
for a more detailed version of this analysis). Thus, it
seems that at least for the Sapelo Shell Ring complex,
the rings are the result of both feasting refuse, as well
as a product of debris associated with domestic
occupations by hunter–gatherer–fishers. Without the
geophysics such nuanced interpretations regarding
the changing use of space at these sites would have
been impossible based on available excavation data.
The results from these multiple lines of evidence
suggest that no single function (e.g. feasting, habitation, etc.) can fully account for the archaeological
record, and that these sites are best thought of as
representing the result of multiple behaviors and
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
actions over time (Thompson, 2010). Therefore the
standard interpretation presented by archaeologists
in this area is not valid and the actual behaviors were
much more nuanced.
In summary, the results from the Sapelo Shell Ring
complex contribute to our understanding of persistent
places, as they show that sites that seemingly look to be
intentionally constructed monuments can, in actuality,
be the result of multiple, but similar, behaviors over
time. For Sapelo, it seems that hunter–gatherers lived
at these sites and created a built environment over a
long period of time; however, these ring features
are more than accumulations of refuse by the people
who lived at these places. Rather they are the results
of the domestic debris of everyday life that was
modified over long periods of time and comingled
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
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with feasting debris that was part of an elaborate
ritualized world that represents a part of the complex
whole of cultural practices of these people.
Category 3: Natural versus cultural modifications
The identification of features on the landscape as
being formed by natural processes or by cultural
modification lies at the heart of archaeological
inquiry (Schiffer, 1987). While in many instances
such processes are easily discernable on a small
scale (i.e. excavation units, etc.), larger processes
(e.g. depositional events), be they cultural or natural,
that affect the site as a whole, or large architectural
features, are often not as identifiable. In addition,
in many instances the occupants of a site will
often modify natural features (e.g. transforming hills
or other natural features into burial mounds [e.g.,
Charles and Buikstra, 1983]), thus further confounding
archaeologists’ ability to distinguish between the two
Discerning such differences is important to the
concept of persistent place, as it can lend evidence as
to why a particular spot on the landscape was
occupied and reoccupied for extended periods of
time. In the case where natural landforms are modified
to become part of the built environment, this may
be the exact reason such locales became persistent
places on the landscape. This can occur for ideological
reasons, for example in Mesoamerica where hills and
mountains factored heavily in the ideology of the
peoples who occupied these regions. Or it could also
have been for economic and more practical reasons.
For example, it takes less labour to modify an existing
landform into an earthen pyramid. It also might have
been some combination of reasons, which would be
hard to determine using standard excavation techniques. However, before such ideas can be tested at a
given locale, we must have a firm grasp of how much
and to what extent natural landforms are incorporated
into site layouts. Geophysics is a highly effective way
of accomplishing this goal.
In order to illustrate the value of shallow geophysics
in discerning such ancient endeavors in modifying the
landscape we once again turn to our work in Mexico at
the site of Teotepec. One of the primary goals for our
geophysical survey there was to distinguish between
the natural and cultural features at the site. Specifically, we wanted to know how much of Teotepec’s
architectural core incorporated natural features of the
landscape (Thompson et al., 2009, pp. 442). One of us
(Arnold) suspected that at least some of the architecture incorporated naturally occurring volcanic hills
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
V. D. THOMPSON et al.
and was not entirely anthropogenic construction.
We soon discovered, by studying resistance values
of different areas of the mounds, that some of the larger
landforms were indeed basalt flows, as they had much
higher resistance values than other areas of the site that
were clearly culturally constructed platform architecture. In addition, there was little soil development on
the basalt flows, which suggests these surfaces were
subject to considerable erosional processes. Furthermore, we encountered the bedrock with our metal
resistance probes as we conducted the survey. While
the majority of the basalt flow landform represented a
natural feature, there were artificially constructed
platforms on top of them that were identified based on
surface inspection (Thompson et al., 2009, pp. 450).
Where geophysics aided greatly in the distinction
between natural and cultural modifications at Teotepec was in the plaza area (Figure 7). We conducted
both resistance and GPR surveys in that area and
found a large area of high resistance values near the
base of one of the main pyramids that flanks the plaza
(see Figure 7B). This was originally interpreted as
a buried stone monument; however, the GPR results
indicated additional aerially distinct point-source
reflections to the south of this area (see Figure 7A).
Based on these results in conjunction with small-scale
excavations we now suggest that the plaza in fact is
an artificial construction. The large area of high
resistance values is a basalt flow that occurred prior
to the occupation of the site. The inhabitants of
Teotepec appear to have levelled this naturally formed
basalt area by bringing in gravels and soils from other
locales, which did not have the same resistance values
(Thompson et al., 2009, pp. 446). This shows that
even areas that are seemingly devoid of architecture
(e.g. plazas) can also be part of the built environment
(see Kidder (2004) for another example).
Therefore, in summary, it seems that the inhabitants
of Teotepec incorporated natural landforms into the
built environment. They did this in two specific ways.
First, they modified an existing landform by constructing earthen platforms on top of them. Second,
they artificially levelled the main plaza with earthen
fill. The incorporation of the natural landforms in
these ways suggests that one of the reasons that the
inhabitants of the region continued to occupy Teotepec
was, in part, due to the natural features surrounding
the site, which were important to these people in civic–
ceremonial contexts. And, we suggest that once these
features were incorporated into the built environment,
people ceased considering them as part of the natural
landscape, and they were henceforth part of the civic–
ceremonial core of the site.
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
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Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
Figure 7. (A) Sample GPRprofile oftheplazaareaat Teopec. (B) Resistanceresultsoftheplazaarea showinganomalies. (C) Excavationphotograph
ofthe plaza area in the vicinityofthe strongresistance anomaly indicatedin (B). (D) Location ofthe resistance surveyarea and the sketch map of surrounding architecture.
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
V. D. THOMPSON et al.
Category 4: regional level patterning
Our final category, which focuses on regularities and
discontinuities in the use of space and architecture
at the regional level, is perhaps the area where
geophysics can contribute the most to our anthropological understanding of issues connected with
these types of results (e.g. region-wide trends in house
size, types of formal architecture, the presence of
closed spaces or plazas, etc.). Ideally, for this type
of analysis many sites in a region must be comparably
surveyed with the same geophysical techniques and
compared in terms of architectural similarity and use
of space. In addition, we also suggest that areas around
architecture, and possibly even sites in some cases,
should also be surveyed to provide a more complete
picture of the regional landscape.
At present, we do not know of any specific instances
where this regional approach to geophysical survey
has explicitly been employed as part of a larger
research programme. However, Johnson’s (Johnson,
1991, 2006a; Johnson et al., 2000) work at Mississippian
sites in the American Southeast most closely approximates this method in the United States (see also
Kvamme, 2003a, 2003b, 2008; Kvamme and Ahler, 2007
for work in the Midwest, and Parkinson et al. 2010
work on the Great Hungarian Plain). Johnson has not
only surveyed several major mound centres in the
Mississippi valley, but also has documented domestic
architecture at many of these sites. This undertaking
offers exactly the type of dataset that we argue can
form the basis of large inter-site regional geophysical
comparisons. Similar large-scale geophysical surveys
have also been undertaken in England (see Gaffney
et al. (2000) and Jordan (2009) for a review).
Research of this kind can lend insight into the nature
and spread of particular forms of architecture and
consistent and divergence uses of space across the
region. Such comparisons in terms of the continuity
and change regarding the use of space and architecture
are important in terms of identifying the development
and persistence of cultural traditions. In addition,
such information can be used to evaluate past ethnic
and/or political boundaries, as architecture is often
an indicator of such cultural practices. Thus, we
argue that an inquiry-based archaeogeophysics
has much to contribute to the understanding of the
density, standardization and permanence of domestic
architecture at persistent places. Too often, inferences
regarding these topics are extrapolated from limited
samples of excavated houses (or even portions
of houses), owing to the high cost of broad-scale
excavations and a need for site conservation (Pauketat,
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
2007, pp. 102). The integration of geophysics
and targeted sample excavations can lead to revolutionary insights into the organization of the smaller
domestic landscapes of households and communities,
as evidenced by recent work in the Caddo region of
southeast USA (Perttula et al., 2008).
We realize, of course, that a regional approach to
geophysical survey would be time consuming,
expensive and require detailed analysis at a number
of sites. While this task is not easy there is no reason
not to incorporate geophysics into regional analysis
and in doing so cover as much ground as possible.
After all, the more sites and areas covered by
geophysics in a region the better we are able to
make substantive observations regarding their
relationships (see Fish and Kowalewski (2008) and
Kowalewski (2008) for observations regarding regions
and survey). Such information would thus provide a
greater understanding of why some sites show
evidence of persistent occupation and or reoccupation,
while others emerge and are abandoned on much
shorter time frames. Such comparisons of occupational
persistence could lend insight into the nature of
political dynamics of individual sites and/or polities.
For example, a former capital, or subset of sites, might
be abandoned and then once again rise to prominence
in a region. Geophysics could allow us to identify
such events at multiple sites with a relatively limited
budget, as compared to what would be required to
obtain the information via excavation.
At the Sapelo Shell Ring complex we determined
that the visible part of the archaeological record, which
is the shell ring, was actually the remains of a more
complex suite of behaviors not attributable to a single
function. By coupling geophysics with other datasets
we learned that what appeared on the surface to
be an intentionally constructed monument was
actually a product of domestic habitation, as well as
ritual feasting activities. At Crystal River, our investigations revealed that the platform shell mounds
were constructed using different quantities and
types building materials. Further, some mounds
appear to have been constructed quickly, perhaps in
one event, while others evidence multiple building
episodes. Such information has allowed us to make
some preliminary statements regarding how labour
may have been organized at the site. That is, while
labour for some platforms was organized as a single
event, the way in which other platforms were built
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
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Situating remote sensing in anthropological archaeology
suggests periodic labour pooling for their construction
stages. Finally, at Teotepec the geophysical results
helped us to identify a reconceptualization of the built
environment by the site’s occupants where the
orientation of the site’s layout changed. This interpretation is based on our geophysical results that show
subsurface architecture that does not follow the same
orientation and is, in some cases, superimposed by the
visible later structures. Finally, our work shows that
Teotepec inhabitants incorporated natural landforms
into the built environment, which may be one of the
reasons that this site became a persistent place on
the landscape, as natural features of this sort held
religious and mythical significance to Mesoamerican
peoples. Their modification and incorporation into
civic–ceremonial architecture would have solidified
the importance of these landforms to the site’s
occupants, a phenomenon that has significance elsewhere in Mesoamerica (Brady and Ashmore, 1999).
Our research at these three sites illustrates the
importance of geophysical survey to broader anthropological interpretations. Specifically, use of these
methods has allowed us to make substantive statements regarding construction variation, the incorporation of natural features, and continuity and
discontinuity in the use of space. In all three case
studies, the observable surface architecture belied a
much more complex subsurface archaeological record.
Short of large-scale, costly excavations, geophysics
offers the only way to access these more complex
records. Use of these techniques in these case
studies allowed for a broader view of the past, one
in which geophysical results are linked to interpretations of actions of individuals in terms of the built
We argue that until recently archaeologists used
remote sensing largely as a post-hoc method. Unlike
other specialty methods in archaeology remote sensing
is usually not linked to a specific, or even general,
theoretical framework. This situation, however, is
changing. Kvamme (2003a) and others (Hargrave et al.,
2007; Conyers, 2010; Conyers and Leckebusch, 2010)
have taken the first steps towards integrating remote
sensing into larger theoretical programmes such
as landscape archaeology. We heartily agree with this
approach and suggest that thinking about remote
sensing in this way will further not only our understanding of the method, but also our ability to link
these results with broader anthropological issues.
While landscape archaeology is an appropriate entry
point to articulate remote sensing and anthropological
theory, we present a specific illustration of how remote
sensing results are particularly important to studies
Copyright # 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
that draw on this perspective. In particular, we suggest
a framework that focuses on the analysis of persistent
places within a regional context. We argue that remote
sensing results can be used to tease apart and track
both behavioral and natural processes that work to
create these at such sites. This perspective provides a
clear link between remote sensing results and broader
theoretical issues, while still remaining empirically
grounded. As an illustration of this point, we suggest
four categories of research that include variation in the
built environment, examining continuity in the use
of space, discerning between natural and cultural
modification, and finally identifying regularities in
space and architecture at the regional level.
The goal of this paper is to offer a clear way to
articulate remote sensing results within broader
anthropological concerns. Remote sensing need not
be tied to one specific theoretical framework, nor will
a single theoretical framework be appropriate for all
remote sensing applications. Nonetheless, we argue
that it does need to be more clearly linked in the
chain of data, method and theory than as it currently
stands. We offer at least one avenue where this can
be accomplished. There is a growing acceptance of
the importance and use of remote sensing results;
however, many researchers remain skeptical of its use
or do not fully realize its potential in addressing
questions (see Johnson, 2006a; Jordan, 2009). We feel
that its full integration in anthropological inquiry, as
opposed to its use as a post-hoc method, is the next
revolution in the specialty that will foster both
theoretical as well as methodological advances.
We thank James Enloe and Jason Thompson for inviting us to present this paper in their Society for American Archaeology meeting symposium entitled
‘Anthropological Geophysics: Scale and Configuration
in the Archaeological Record’. We would like to especially thank Lawrence Conyers and Chris Gaffney for
their insightful comments on our paper, which
dramatically improved the quality of this work. Funding for research at the Sapelo Island Shell Ring complex was sponsored in part by the University of
Kentucky and the Georgia Department of Natural
Resources, through the efforts David Crass. We thank
Matt Reynolds for all his help with the resistance
tomography work at the Sapelo Island Shell Ring
complex. The National Science Foundation sponsored
funding for research at Teotepec. Funding for research
at Crystal River was sponsored in part by the University of West Florida and the University of South Florida. Finally, work on this manuscript was sponsored
Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
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Archaeol. Prospect. 18, 195–213 (2011)
DOI: 10.1002/arp
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anthropological, remote, archaeology, sensing, situating
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