How Do We Capture Culture on a Map?

October 30, 2019

Sharing is Caring

In past articles I’ve covered how GST is used in cultural resources management, focusing primarily on how we the map the past and manage the data. I have illustrated modern-day case studies, including Hurricane Katrina, as well. In this piece, we’ll see how cultural resource GST isn’t just about the past.

What are Cultural Resources?

That’s a big question, and the answer depends on who you ask. An anthropologist, a historian, a tribal elder, a geographer and others will all give different responses, and a definitive answer is beyond the scope of this article. At its most basic, a cultural resource is anything that matters to people, whether artifacts from the ancient past or the historic house across the street or the meals your grandmother made from traditional ingredients. That covers a lot of ground, both figuratively and literally.

This broad definition makes mapping cultural resources a challenge. As you know, mapping hard features that don’t change location, like buildings and ruins, is fairly straightforward, if not always easy. Then there are “softer” resources such as wooden structures and rock art; their locations don’t change, but they are less durable and more subject to compromise or destruction. Most challenging to map are the less tangible but still significant aspects of culture: historic landscapes, traditional use areas and ecosystem services. Many of these are defined primarily by the people who use them, and don’t necessarily appear on aerial photos or maps of record. They may not even have legal status. So how does one turn subjective interpretations like these into empirical data?

A Matter of Scale

The United Nations is offering some guidance in this area. They have offered a framework resolution to support sustainability mapping using GST for the continent of Africa. While the framework does not address specific efforts or actions, it provides a road map and vision for ongoing endeavors, demonstrating that GST gives us the ability to collect and deliver data, and thus facilitate decision making, from an individual structure to an entire continent and beyond.

However, most cultural resources mapping occurs at a very detailed scale, both spatially and temporally. At that level, it can be difficult to clearly separate cultural resources from natural resources, and it can be equally difficult separating contemporary resources from history or archaeology. Let me give you some examples.

Among the most important and era-crossing elements of culture are the dead. From massive pyramids to humble markers, we seek to honor those who passed before us. Graves link us to our past and, also, serve as reminders of what awaits us all.

At both the national scale and the local level, GST is a powerful and appropriate tool for mapping cemeteries. The National Park Service has an interactive web map showing National Cemeteries. Although still in the development stage, it offers information on the locations and names of these sites.

Local communities have also invested in mapping gravesites. Jefferson County, Idaho, recently released an interactive map as “a hub for burial information.” Like many of the other mapping efforts, this began with primary data collection from paper maps and records, then moved on to digitization with ground-truthing. Several of the cemeteries, notably the Pioneer Cemetery, already had digital databases that were easily integrated into the GIS database. In other cases, it was participatory mapping, with locations and data added incrementally.

The Power of LiDAR

Drilling down further in scale, we can map individual structures, from great to small. On April 15, 2019, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was badly damaged in an all-night fire. Completed in 1345, it united generations of craftsmen who worked for nearly 200 years, and after its completion, united many more generations as one of the most visited and revered worship sites in the western world.

The cathedral’s construction took centuries, yet its partial destruction took only hours. Fortunately, Andrew Tallon, a Medieval Studies professor from Vassar College, took over a billion LiDAR points of the cathedral, as well as high-resolution panoramic photos. As the decades-long reconstruction progresses, these data will prove invaluable for restoring this iconic structure to its former glory.

Less majestic but covering a much larger area, the rock walls that were once modern infrastructure in colonial New Hampshire are now functionally obsolete, and have been forgotten as farms have returned to forest over the centuries. Using drone-mounted LiDAR, participatory mapping and crowd-sourcing, The New Hampshire Planners Association is mapping these structures with an interactive web app.

Although not as materially enduring, the wooden structures of sweat lodges, hogans and corrals in Grand Canyon National Park also span generations. Even in the high desert aridity, these structures are perishable, and the need to document them for current and future generations is urgent. A team of researchers, contractors and National Park Forest staff mapped and visualized these structures using ground-based LiDAR, survey-level ground control and photographs.

This mapping project was part of a larger program within the NPS, Vanishing Treasures, of which GRCA is one of 45 participating NPS units. Archeologists conduct three types of projects: architectural condition assessments, architectural documentation, and preservation maintenance (stabilization treatments). All of these ongoing efforts involve a combination of modern GST, including LiDAR, GPS and GIS, as well as analog site records, historic photographs and on-the-ground surveys, again illustrating the ability of GST to integrate both the old and the new.

These cases illustrate the complexity of mapping our cultural resources. What was once the past is now the present, and needs to be mapped to preserve the future. However, other cultural resources that span the past, present and future are less tangible, and therefore more difficult to map, but still as important.

Mapping Ecosystem Services

Given that we live in what many call the Anthropocene — a new era, when human activities profoundly affect the environment — it is impossible to separate cultural resources from natural resources. Culture, in its broadest terms, is the collection of behaviors that humans use to interact with themselves and the environment. Thus, nature affects culture, and culture affects the natural environment. This concept was first addressed academically in the field of cultural ecology, pioneered by the eminent geographer, Carl Sauer.

Ecosystem services are the benefits of nature to humanity. The most tangible and important examples of ecosystem services are breathable air, drinkable water and, my favorite, food. But how do we map these services which include both nature and culture?

Case studies in Nepal and the Colombian Amazon, show how participatory mapping can be used to turn local knowledge into empirical data. Both projects involved meetings and interviews with stakeholders, but one of the challenges in both projects was the lack of local-scale GIS data. This was mitigated with on-the-ground mapping and the use of public-access satellite data.

Participatory GIS was critical in both of these projects. Local knowledge provides a starting point for which places to further investigate. However, it is up the stakeholders to decide who is involved in the participation. As I mentioned in a previous article, confidentiality is a critical element of CR mapping.

Indigenous Mapping and Resources Sovereignty

The Grand Canyon example illustrates one of the primary goals of mapping cultural resources: to co-locate a people with a place. We’ve seen examples here from many cultures, but many of the most recent efforts for mapping cultural resources involve indigenous populations. Although they have used ecosystem services for countless generations, in many cases they have not been empirically mapped within the legal framework.

Mapping resource sovereignty and traditional uses of the landscape is a topic unto itself, and will be the subject of an upcoming article. However, the concept and deployment follow the paradigms discussed above: use local knowledge and participatory mapping; balance data accessibility with confidentiality; and harness the power of geographic information as a system to integrate various technologies techniques, from LiDAR to tape measures to oral histories.

Get Involved

Cultural resources are all around us. Few of us can trek off to Nepal or the Amazon or the Grand Canyon, but we can participate locally and virtually. If you have a community organization, offer your exceptional mapping skills for their projects. If you are in the classroom, consider using some of the Geoinquiries for Human Geography, or maybe even write your own!

As we collect data and create maps, these become cultural resources themselves, just like the earliest maps of our forebears. Future generations may someday look at our work and study it just as we do in the present. Generations may die, but culture lives on.


Sharing is Caring

Geospatial Newsletters

Keep up to date with the latest geospatial trends!

Sign up

Search DM

Get Directions Magazine delivered to you
Please enter a valid email address
Please let us know that you're not a robot by using reCAPTCHA.
Sorry, there was a problem submitting your sign up request. Please try again or email

Thank You! We'll email you to verify your address.

In order to complete the subscription process, simply check your inbox and click on the link in the email we have just sent you. If it is not there, please check your junk mail folder.

Thank you!

It looks like you're already subscribed.

If you still experience difficulties subscribing to our newsletters, please contact us at