Community-Oriented Digital Archaeology


Since 2020, two applied courses in digital archaeology offered by the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM) and sponsored by the Netter Center for Community Partnerships have emphasized work relating to African American cemeteries, providing students with the opportunity to use digital methods to help tell the story of the Black burial spaces in greater Philadelphia. In these courses, Introduction to Digital Archaeology and Geophysical Prospection for Archaeology, practical lessons are designed to connect students with interested groups to:

  1. Identify cultural resource issues that can be addressed with digital methods
  2. Design and carry out investigations or analyses
  3. Synthesize and present their results


During the 19th and 20th centuries, dozens of cemeteries in Philadelphia were overtaken by urban expansion and development, while others were left neglected as their related communities were displaced through hostile policies. This pattern is not unique to Philadelphia and is the subject of a nationwide effort to restore African American cultural heritage. As a discipline that can recreate unwritten histories, archaeology can help empower communities to reconstruct their stories and reclaim historical spaces (Montgomery et al. 2023).

Above is a map of Philadelphia’s existing and past burial places, courtesy of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum. Students used a geographic information system to relate spatial and non-spatial data and to experiment with visualization.


Course work has thus far focused on three sites in southeast Pennsylvania: Mt. Zion AME Church in Devon, Ebenezer ruin in Frazer, and Eden Cemetery in Collingdale. The primary objectives of work at these sites is to reconstruct the original plans, layout, and histories of these spaces, to interpret our data in the context of broader histories of threatened and lost African American mortuary landscapes, and to share and develop our interpretations with the communities who care for them today.


Cemeteries are well-suited for teaching field archaeology as built landscapes where material remains are easily accessed and readily connected to textual evidence. Digital approaches benefit from the fact that they are commonly non-invasive, repeatable, and non-destructive. Moreover, the products of digital surveys present rich images that often do not require specialized training for interpretation, offering an avenue for engagement with our partners and the public.

Specific skills that are taught in CAAM community-oriented digital archaeology courses include:

  1. Digital data recording and management
  2. Spatial data management and analysis in a geographic information system (GIS)
  3. Topographic and aerial survey techniques
  4. 3D data collection and processing
  5. Geophysical survey
  6. Digital data communication and dissemination


In both courses, students are introduced to digital tools and methods through a series of exercises. At the end of the semester, each student submits a final project that uses two or more of the techniques covered in class.

Mapping and Recording

Students explore how digital data management systems and geographic information systems (GIS) can be used record field data, integrate multiple datasets and analyze patterns.

One course project brings together scanned plan maps, historic imagery, and public lidar data to create a flood risk map of Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, PA (after Ortner and Herrmann 2021)

3D Data Capture and Visualization

Students practice creating and manipulating 3D models of the landscape and the built environment. 3D based analyses are useful for reconstructing past objects and environments or for highlighting subtle surface features that have been affected by erosion.

Geophysical Survey

Near-surface geophysics including magnetic gradiometry, electrical resistance, and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) are useful not only to locate unmarked burials, but to map evidence of past built and natural landscapes.

Shown at left are some examples of landscape-based investigations at Mt Zion AME cemetery. Clockwise from upper left: an aerial orthomosaic, photogrammetry-derived elevation map of cemetery showing distribution of depressions and headstones, and a map of magnetic intensity showing the presence of a buried electrical line that crosscuts the cemetery and some burial positions.



Montgomery, Lindsay M., Anna S. Agbe-Davies, Cipolla, Stephen Mrozowski, Nate Acebo, Stacey Camp, Wade Campbell, et al. 2023. “Advocating for Archaeology’s New Purpose.” SAPIENS, March 15, 2023.

Ortner, Vaughn, and Jason T. Herrmann. “Protecting Cultural Landscapes: Using Digital Tools to Understand the Historical Context for Runoff Damage at Eden Cemetery (Collingdale, PA).” Submitted for University of Pennsylvania course: Introduction to Digital Archaeology.

About CAAM

A joint endeavor between the Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences, CAAM is a center for research in the archaeological sciences that provides  applied courses, laboratory and classroom facilities, materials, and equipment.