A New Spatial Analysis of the Early Chesapeake Architecture

poster / demo / art installation
  1. 1. Wayne Graham

    University of Virginia

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A New Spatial Analysis
of the Early Chesapeake
Graham, Wayne
University of Virginia
Practitioners of the "new social history," which
came to prominence beginning in the 1960s
and 70s, utilized digital tools and data-driven
methodologies to glean an understanding of
people who left little documentary record of
their daily lives. Perhaps most enduring of
these techniques has been the utilization of
quantitative methods to describe communities
and to build better arguments about the daily
lives of historical subjects. The focus for these
historians is not only the high points thought
worthy of record in diaries, newspapers, or
court papers, but also how quotidian interaction
and daily chores – such as cooking, cleaning,
or plowing – were accomplished and how
their patterns differed across regions. While
quantitative techniques have yielded a rich
analysis of the past, temporal, social, and
geographic dimensions of historical data often
diverge and can be muddled in the choices
scholars make about how best to tell their story
given time and resource considerations, as well
as how to argue the larger points of a particular
person's, event's, or object's societal influence.
In our recent work at the Scholars' Lab at
the University of Virginia Library (where we
support geospatial technology in the humanities
and social sciences and have recently played
host to an NEH-funded Institute for Enabling
Geospatial Scholarship and a Mellon Scholarly
Communication Institute on spatial tools
and methods), we have been advocating the
idea that incorporating geographic information
systems into projects can yield interesting new
interpretative apparatus for scholarship. This is
neither a new concept, or an especially easy path
to take. Martyn Jessop has detailed the obstacles
to incorporation of geospatial information in
humanities research in the pages of Literary
and Linguistic Computing.
However, to test the
approaches we advocate to others, I decided
to revisit a project that I undertook a few
years ago with several prominent historians and
archaeologists of the architectural development
of the Colonial Chesapeake.
While the data
resulting from their work is the basis of two
important essays on Chesapeake architecture,
and additionally served as the framework for
an NEH grant investigating the development
of slave quarters in Virginia, it has languished
and few outside the project team actually know
of the data’s existence.
I considered this a
perfect example of an important project to
rethink by adding a more defined geographic
dimension to its analytical approach. Could the
application of GIS technologies further test our
long-held beliefs about the development of the
In their seminal essay on "impermanent"
Chesapeake architecture, Cary Carson, Norman
Barka, William Kelso, Gary Wheeler Stone,
and Dell Upton first attempted systematically
to synthesize and analyze data extracted from
several investigations into early Chesapeake
This article was squarely focused
on the structures settlers built between first
shelters and more durable buildings. Despite
the genius of their work, the Carson team
was limited in that archaeological work in the
Chesapeake region was then still young, and the
data from a scant two dozen sites supported
their analysis.
In the nearly three decades since this piece was
published, more than ten times that number
of sites has been identified and excavated.
However, this boom in investigation of the
Colonial Chesapeake resulted not in masses
of usable data for broad-scale analysis, but in
the explosion of a so-called "gray literature"—
reports produced for project clients and funding
organizations, but circulated only in limited
numbers. Often, after their initial compilation,
these reports have languished in state or
institutional archives and little systematic work
has been done to organize, or even make
available, this often tangled mass of data. As
a result, the accumulation of archaeological
data has far outpaced its published analysis.
Further complicating matters are embargoes
placed upon research reports (usually meant
to help protect against artifact theft) that even
further distance access to raw facts on these
early sites from the hands of researchers.

In conjunction with celebrations marking
the 400
anniversary of the founding of
the Jamestown settlement, a new team
(consisting of Willie Graham, Carter Hudgins,
Carl Lounsbury, Fraser Neiman, James
Whittenburg, and myself) looked to the
more recent archaeology.
Having collected
references to archaeological sites mentioned
in articles, research reports, conference
proceedings, and in personal interviews,
Willie Graham of the Colonial Williamsburg
Foundation amassed an index of known
sites dated before ca. 1720 in the Colonial
Chesapeake. From this index, our research team
designed a data model that provided a crucial
new dimension into this particular facet of
history by combining solid statistics pertaining
to material culture with an appreciation for the
historical discourse in this area of study. Dubbed
the Database of Early Chesapeake Architecture
(DECA), we took a quantitative approach to this
expanded set of archaeological and architectural
data making it possible for the first time to
accurately date significant shifts in the cultural
repertoires of Chesapeake colonists and link
them in convincing – and testable – ways
to the unique ecological, economic, and social
conditions to which they were a response.
Through the use of solid data modeling
techniques, information from hundreds of new
archaeological and architectural investigations
provided a fresh opportunity to analyze the
emergence of regional building practices and
chart the dynamics of social interaction in the
tobacco colonies through the arrangement of
planters’ houses and outhouses, as well as in the
types of goods the colonists possessed and food
they consumed.
When the database was initially designed,
it was composed of a handful of simple
tables detailing building and phase dates,
dimensions, floor plan types, chimney types,
and foundation characteristics and documented
using the unified modeling language (UML). As
the project progressed, the database structure
evolved to include owner information and
documentary references, resulting in a complex
implementation of relational tables. However,
the only documentation of place was in the
recording of a town or county in which the site
was located.
My current work reimagines the original DECA
project to include not only its core statistical
information, but also well-defined geographic
locations allowing scholars to ask new questions
of the data and visualize them in new and
compelling ways. Through the addition of well-
constructed geospatial information, and the
application of tools and methods, we are refining
a more striking analysis of the Chesapeake data
for the use of our faculty collaborators in the
Scholars' Lab. A new presentation, not only
of traditional statistical outputs (distribution
curves, ANOVA tables, etc.), but of distribution
patterns in architectural and archaeological
details manifested across time and across
the landscape of the Chesapeake, affords
researchers even more insight into regional
differentiation in building patterns, and more
striking opportunities to display and engage
their data. This presentation will describe the
spatial tools and methods we advocate in the
Scholars' Lab including the use of the PostGIS
data store, Ruby on Rails (with the GeoKit
gem), and OpenLayers, outline their application
to the Chesapeake dataset, and offer some
observations on lessons (both methodological
and substantive) learned in my revisiting of this
digital humanities project through the lens of
geospatial analysis.
Martyn Jessop, “The Inhibition of Geographical Information
in Digital Humanities Scholarship,” Lit Linguist Computing
(November 20, 2007): fqm041.
Willie Graham, Carter L. Hudgins, Carl R. Lounsbury, Fraser
D. Neiman and James P. Whittenburg, “Adaptation and
Innovation: Archaeological and Architectural Perspectives on
the Seventeenth-Century Chesapeake,” The William and Mary
Quarterly 64, no. 3 (July 2007),
See Doug Sanford (University of Mary Washington) and Dennis
Pogue (Mount Vernon), "Measuring the Social, Spatial, and
Temporal Dimensions of Virginia Slave Housing," National
Endowment for the Humanities, 2009 and Cary Carson et
al., “New World, Real World: Improvising English Culture
in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” Journal of Souther History
LXXIV (February 2008).
Cary Carson et al., “Impermanent Architecture in Southern
American Colonies,” in
Material Life in America
, 1600-1860
(Boston: Northern University Press, 1988), 113-158.
The data that the "Adaptation and Innovation: Archaeological
and Architectural Perspectives on the Seventeenth-Century
Chesapeake" and “New World, Real World: Improvising
English Culture in Seventeenth-Century Virginia,” articles
were based on is available for browsing at

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2010
"Cultural expression, old and new"

Hosted at King's College London

London, England, United Kingdom

July 7, 2010 - July 10, 2010

142 works by 295 authors indexed

XML available from https://github.com/elliewix/DHAnalysis (still needs to be added)

Conference website: http://dh2010.cch.kcl.ac.uk/

Series: ADHO (5)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None