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Modern technology meets history: Archaeologist discusses GIS analysis on Antietam National Battlefield

By Staff | Mar 30, 2019

From left, C.W. Shipley Elementary School fifth-grader Ashton Oliver, Bolivar resident Catherine Oliver, Shepherd University alumni Dennis Frye and archaeologist Stephen Potter discuss history, following the program on March 21. Tabitha Johnston

SHEPHERDSTOWN — “Archaeology holds all the keys to understanding who we are and where we came from,” according to world-renowned American archaeologist Sarah Pacek. And, while Pacek has proven this true through the use of satellite imaging in Egypt, local archaeologists have also found this to be true.

On March 21, Stephen Potter, regional archaeologist emeritus for the National Capital Region of the National Park Service, spoke about “Bullets, Canister, Case and Shrapnel: Archaeology and GIS at the Piper Farm, Antietam National Battlefield” in the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education auditorium.

“It is Piper Orchard that is the main focus of our research. In addition to Captain James Hope and Colonel Ezra A. Carman,two other men must also one recognized for their work in documenting the Battle of Antietam — photographer Alexander Gardner and his assistant, Timothy O’Sullivan,” Potter said, mentioning Gardner’s photographs, Hope’s painting of the battle titled “Wasted Gallantry” and Carman’s publication of “Atlas of the Battlefield of Antietam” were vital to finding out what happened in Piper Orchard on Sept. 17, 1862.

Throughout his speech, Potter described his research team’s use of GIS analysis, 3-D terrain modeling, viewshed analysis and a review of the historical record resulted in the identification of unit positions and movements derived from an examination of 2,033 military artifacts.

“Based on the history of this landscape, the National Park Service worked to return the orchard to its original state,” Potter said, mentioning archaeological study of the orchard didn’t start until around 1997. His own work on the plot of land didn’t begin until 2002.

“Identified artifacts showed where most of the activity here occurred. If I was given this technology and someone asked me where the fire was being shot down from on the Confederates into Piper’s Orchard, I could show you exactly where,” Potter said, mentioning only areas within the orchard were excavated, leaving 75 percent of the orchard untouched for future research.

Other, more visible areas of the battlefield have been combed-over for relics over the years, but Potter Orchard had not received much attention until recently, which has made it possible for archaeologists to confirm or deny records of the battle. These discoveries, Potter said, will be included in a book he is planning to write.

“The written version is going to come out in 2020, I hope! It will show what all this stuff looked like, especially what the ammunition, rifles and maps looked like,” Potter said, mentioning he plans for the book to be published in-house, as the final book in a series he started in 1982.