Geohumanities Tools for Investigating Charcoal and Colliers.

Geohumanities Tools- April 3, 2021

All of these were discussed (or maybe just used) in Ben Carter’s presentation “Geohumanities tools for examining 19th century charcoal-making communities in eastern Pennsylvania” presented at Lafayette College, April 3, 2021. See

  • Pennsylvania Imagery Navigator-
    • Navigate and visualize aerial, satellite and LiDAR data for the entire state. All downloadable with a right click. Note that historic aerial images are not visualized, but are available for download.
  • Pennsylvania Spatial Data Access-
    • Much of the same material above (plus more) is available here. You can find downloadable data as well as WMS (and other) links for streaming GIS data into your GIS software
  • QGIS-
    • Full featured FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) GIS (Geographical Information System) software. Relatively user friendly “out-of-the-box” (but note that GIS programs are complicated, so you will likely need some training- see link to my videos below).
    • Can be greatly expanded with plugins (and Python scripts). My favorite plugins include:
      • QuickMapServices- provides access to a wide array of background maps, Google, OpenStreetMap, NASA, LandSat, USGS, etc.
        Azimuth and distance- for mapping “legal descriptions” of plots of land from deeds
      • Profile Tool- for examining the profile of the landscape (I use this to double check charcoal hearths)
      • MMQGIS- a wide array of tools (some of which are already provided), including Geocoding, which converts an address into a geolocated point (latitude/ longitude)
      • Want to learn how to use QGIS? Try this-
        • Note that the videos are organized into workshops. Start at the beginning.
    • Census and more. Similar to, but more limited than, Must sign up for an account, but not cost.
  • Qfield-
    • Android app designed to take your QGIS maps, layers, etc. into the field. Data is fully editable.
  • LASTools-
    • A simple tool for working with Lidar data (which comes in .las files). Not all components are open source, but there are workarounds. Note that this can also be used within the QGIS environment.
  • Zenodo-
    • Data publishing service. Data gets a DOI (and is therefore permanent), but can also be versioned. Located on the servers at CERN and available for all researchers.
      Some of my data-
  • University of Michigan’s The Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert-
    • Images of and text (most translated in English, but some still in French) of the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (English: Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts). Lots of great information about “crafts.”
  • Kemper’s book on charcoal-
  • Library of Congress Map Collection-
  • Mask R-CNN-
    • You’ll need lots of programming skills for this one. Used for Deep Learning. Sharing in case anyone is interested.
  • Transcribus-
    • Software for transcribing handwritten documents. I’ve only used this on a handful of deeds, but has produced amazing results so far.
  • Is there anything that you would like to share with the group? Share in the Comments.

Why Use Geopackage?

Recently, I rediscovered Geopackage. It’s a long story, but I tried to use them a while ago and it didn’t work so well. But, when I tried to use QField the other day to collect some data as I have done for years, it had -as you may not be surprised to hear- updated automatically. So, some things had changed – mostly for the better and easily adapted to. One of these was that I wasn’t able to load my DEM. It’s a bit of a monster (c. 20 miles long and a couple miles wide with resolution at around one meter- about a 1GB) and I have always used TIFF format (or more precisely GeoTiff). But, QField was now forcing me to convert to GeoPackage. So I shrugged and did it – easily in QGIS, which is where the maps that I use in QField are built.

But, this may have changed my life!

Alright, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic. Here’s the thing. I want to share data and publish it openly. My first experience with this was a bit of a bear (see my data in the Journal of Open Archaeology Data). What’s the problem, you ask? First, the standard file format for vectors (point, line, polygon) is shapefile (Do I hear some “boo”s?). Anyone who has used shapefiles knows that, in order to share shapefiles you need to share a minimum of three files (and usually more). If you have ten layers you would like to share with collaborators this means you need to share around 50 files. That’s just ridiculous! Not only is it an unnecessary hassle that makes it very difficult to collaborate and to version. But, the solution to that particular problem is a GeoJSON file. This solves a number of problems associated with shape files (see these links- 1, 2, and 3– for more information on  other issues with shapefiles). But, this still means that I need to share separate files for each layer, so for five layers, that’s five files. Not too bad, right. By the way, one of the major benefits of a GeoJSON file is that all of the information is internal to the file. That means, for example, I can publish the file online and stream the data (in my case, using QGIS– if you want to try it, you can use my data on charcoal hearths in PA). So, the data can live in an online repository such as Zenodo or Open Context and I can visualize that same data in a GIS program (I recommend QGIS) along with any other layers that live locally. Because the data is stored in a repository, I can rely upon it being consistent and so can my collaborators.

But, that still means that each layer is a separate layer and you cannot use GeoJSON for rasters (that’s not totally true, but it certainly was not designed for it). So, what would work better? How about a file that holds all of your rasters and your vectors AND styles them. That’s what GeoPackage does. It’s actually a “container” for a SQLite database, where each layer is a separate table. Rasters are stored as JPEGs and PNG– JPEGS provide lossless compression and PNGs are used at the edges because they support transparency.

Imagine this. I complete an archaeological project that involves georeferenced historical data, original LiDAR data (e.g., as LAS files), derivatives from the LiDAR (such as DEM, hillshade, slope analysis, etc.), points collected in the field, various polygons (in my case, State Game Lands boundaries, Appalachian Trail boundary, etc.) and lines (historic and modern roads, etc.). I want to archive everything. The way I did this the last time, I archived each file separately. The only link they had was a description (see this) that discussed how each layer was derived and interconnected. But, they still live as distinct, if tenously connected, digital objects. However, Geopackage allows me to bundle all of this together- remember it is a database- into a single package (i.e. file). I can then archive that file and everything REMAINS connected. So much easier for me and for any present or future collaborators and so much better for digital preservation . If I do another project, I can either archive a new Geopackage file or, if is additional research using the same data,  version the old one (retaining all versions, of course).

Lastly, as I mentioned above, it is very important for me to be able to archive data in an online repository AND be able to stream that data to my workstation (in QGIS). I could do this with GeoJSON, so I am a big fan. However, I have not been able to figure out how to do this with GeoPackage, but I’m still investigating.

I would also like to be able to store the files online, stream those to my workstation AND visualize them on the web. There is one tool that seems to be able to do this with Geopackage (see this) that promises to do this. You can use this link to see some a test of some of my data ( ).  Sometimes it does not load (I don’t know why), but even when it loads, it does not seem to support rasters, which is a big problem.

Anyone out there with any thoughts, suggestions or recommendations please comment below!