GIS at Dickinson College

GIS News, Events and Student Work blog

Author: mccuskek

Archaeology Students Rebuild Pennsylvania’s Past

 Did you know that located only 16 miles from Carlisle there was once a secret prisoner-of-war (POW) camp operated by the U.S. Army during World War II, which was used as a site for interrogating German and Japanese prisoners?  And did you also know that there are still visible relics and remnants of this camp on the landscape that you can visit and learn about?  The students in Professor Maria Bruno’s Archaeological Field Method and Theory class (ARCH 300) are studying these remnants by using GIS to conduct an archaeological survey of the area known as “Camp Michaux,” which is located in the Michaux State Forest just southwest of Dickinson College.

The forest and mountain areas surrounding the camp have a long history of human occupation possibly dating back to the Native Americans, but the Camp Michaux area traces its origin to the Bunker Hill Farm, which was associated with the Pennsylvania iron industry during the late 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s.  After the iron industry died out, the site was converted into a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Camp during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and then used as the POW camp in the 1940s during World War II.  Following the war, the site was leased by a group of churches from the Carlisle area for use as a summer camp, an enterprise that continued until 1972 when the main lodge burned to the ground.  After the fire incident, the churches closed the camp, the state auctioned off all the remaining useful buildings, and the site quickly began to revert back to its natural habitat (1).

Today, Professor Bruno’s archaeology students are learning about the rich history of the site by implementing the archaeological methods and theories they learn about in class, such as survey and mapping.  Under a permit from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), and with guidance from the Cumberland County Historical Society and the PennDOT Cultural Resources Program, Professor Bruno and her students spent the SP13 semester completing an initial site survey, which is a necessary first step before in-depth archaeological excavation is possible.  Using GIS to help plan their survey and identify site locations in the field, the students discovered and mapped a variety of historical features at the camp, including paths, foundations, monuments, culverts, and even an old swimming pool!

Professor Bruno plans to begin the second phase of the project at the camp next year with her students, which will continue to survey the research area and possibly select areas for test excavations.  GIS will again play an important role in this phase of the project, as the students will use the technology to maintain an accurate map of the dig site, as well as to record the location of any artifacts they discover.  For more information about the Dickinson College Archaeological Project at Camp Michaux, please contact Professor Bruno at



(1) Information about the history of the Camp Michaux site was obtained from the Camp Michaux Self-Guided Walking Tour, published by David Smith from the Cumberland County Historical Society.

Map and photos courtesy of James Ciarrocca, GIS Specialist and Professor Maria Bruno, Dickinson College.

Benchmark Hunting!

 Like scavenger hunts?  So does the advanced GIS class!  The class, Katherine Heacock ‘13, Katherine McCusker ‘13, and Anna Ramthun ’13, spent a Friday afternoon searching for benchmarks in Michaux State Forest, hoping to find a benchmark near their study site for establishing a survey grid.  Have you ever tried to figure out where you were and gotten different answers from different sources?  Benchmarks are here to help! Benchmarks are recorded co-ordinates taken by various government organizations, like the United States Geological Survey (USGS), the National Geodetic Survey (NGS) and the United States Army Core of Engineers (USACE), that can be used as a correct measurement.   Marked by a brass disk placed into something that won’t be moving any time soon, like a piece of bedrock, benchmarks are like the “You are HERE” on mall signs, but for GIS. 

Unlike the giant “You are HERE” circle that stands out on the mall map, benchmarks are not always as easy to find.  The government provides clues to help surveyors and curious folk find them.  Benchmarks can sometimes be found in your town square, but they can also be more difficult to locate.  As some of the benchmarks have been there since the mid 1900’s, the clues can be slightly off or out-of-date, especially as places like forests grow and change.  Sometimes, the clues can just be downright unhelpful, like this clue that told us to go “30 feet from the center of the road past the oak tree.”  Did I mention that we were in a forest? Or the clue that told us to find a certain telephone pole as the first marker, but the poles had been renumbered since then. 

With expert sleuthing skills, the class was able to discover the location of three benchmarks- one on the corner of a stone cottage!  Unfortunately, none were in a good location to help the class with their work.  If you want to go on an adventure to find benchmarks in your area, the locations and clues can be found by going to the NGS benchmark viewing website!   Happy sleuthing!



-Photos courtesy of GIS Specialist James Ciarrocca

damaged tree

From Tree to Database

 What’s so special about a tree?  Just ask Dickinson College’s Arborist, Mark Scott, who has been heading up an ongoing project to inventory all of the trees on the Dickinson College campus using GPS and GIS.  And there are a lot more trees on our small urban campus than you might think.  Just over a third of the way done, Mark has worked with both students from the GIS program and interns from the GIS Lab to measure the location and record attribute data for over 700 trees.  Mark and the GIS students use a mapping-grade Trimble GPS to plot the location of each tree and then record a variety of characteristics about the tree, such as species, height, diameter, and condition.  The Trimble GPS unit is preconfigured with a set of data forms and pull-down menus that contain selections for all the possible features that Mark would want to record for a tree, so that as the GPS records the location, all of the attribute information is automatically stored in the unit as part of the data record.  This makes the data collection process very efficient and much more accurate than simply writing notes on a piece of paper.

This is an ongoing project and as more data about the campus trees are recorded into the GIS, Mark hopes to eventually make the database accessible to any organization on campus who might find the information useful. 

For example, Facilities Management might use the data to facilitate its landscaping program; Advancement Services could identify trees of significant value that donors might wish to sponsor; or the Climate Action Task Force might find the data useful for computing carbon offsets in support of Dickinson’s Climate Action Plan.  Once completed, Mark also hopes to use the database to certify the Dickinson College campus as an official arboretum for the purposes of research, preservation, and education.  For more information please contact Mark Scott at


-Photo and map courtesy of Dickinson GIS Specialist James Ciarrocca

Detail for Maps of North Korea

On January 29, 2013, Google Maps revealed new map information for North Korea.  North Korea is the last country in the world to get detail on their google map.  Google was able to provide detail for North Korea with help from “citzen cartographers,” who are people on the ground in the city who send in data to Google by using Map Maker, which allows users to edit maps on Google.  The detail that Google has been able to provide for North Korea centers around the capital, Pyongyang.  Such places as important landmarks, hotels, schools, and hospitals are shown, as well has the major roads.  The map also highlights four areas in grey, which represent suggested gulag sites.  Beyond the capital, the map of North Korea is still lacking any detail.  Google hopes to build on this foundation and continue filling in information on the blank areas for North Korea.

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