Hitting the Sweet Spot Between Progress & Preservation

With Trimble Catalyst, Cooper says surveying out in the field, such as at Australia’s Lake Tyrell, is really easy.

From farm fields to subdivisions, cultural heritage sites tend to turn up in the most unexpected of places. And when they do, these artifacts can bring development and construction to a screeching halt.

Helping balance the sometimes-competing needs of developing the future and preserving the past are archaeologists like those with Cooper Heritage Management.

“If a planned road or building project could put Aboriginal cultural heritage at risk, they call us,” says Abby Cooper, a director, principal heritage advisor and historian at Cooper Heritage Management.

An archaeological management consultancy company based in Western Victoria, Australia, Cooper Heritage Management specializes in Aboriginal cultural heritage. This includes preserving such tangible assets as scarred trees (a tree that has had its bark removed to make, for example, a canoe, shield, or dish), stone artifacts, and quarry and meeting sites, along with such intangibles as songs, dances and stories.

The company tends to work for local and state governments, private developers, extraction companies, and Aboriginal traditional owner groups. A typical project involves ensuring that a new development complies with the Victorian Aboriginal Heritage Act and Regulations. “Our job isn’t to stop a development,” explains Cooper. “We want to ensure that a project can move forward in a way that maintains the integrity of the cultural heritage.”

For this, she depends on Trimble Catalyst.

Flexible for the Field

An example of a stone artifact recovered from an excavation site.

Trimble Catalyst is a subscription-based GNSS solution offering precise (1—2 cm) positioning for the location-enabled workforce. With Catalyst, Trimble delivers professional-grade positioning as an on-demand, easy-to-use service. It’s simple, lightweight, plug-and-play USB antenna—with a simplified set-up when compared to more traditional hardware receivers—makes it convenient for the in-the-field work that Cooper Heritage Management does.

For Cooper, one of the key benefits of Catalyst is that it is quick and easy to use. Before going out on a job, she simply uploads the project area and any previously registered Aboriginal sites onto the Trimble Connect collaboration platform, and syncs the data to Trimble TerraFlex, Trimble’s GIS data collection software.

“Out in the field it’s really easy,” she says. “I just connect up to Catalyst via the Trimble Mobile Manager app on my phone and attach the Catalyst DA antenna to either a 2-meter rover rod or Trimble backpack, depending on the terrain I’m working in.”

Prior to using Catalyst, Cooper did much of her field work using Trimble’s Juno handheld system. But once she had the opportunity to try Catalyst, there was simply no turning back. “I was immediately drawn to the color graphics and its simplicity, especially how it lets you upload an entire activity area directly,” she adds.

Catalyst also provides Cooper with the right amount of accuracy. “While the Victorian archaeological standards require 1 meter accuracy, for most jobs I use the 2-cm level,” says Cooper.

However, some jobs don’t require such precise accuracy. For example, when working under a dense tree canopy, Cooper tends to use decimeter accuracy as this allows her to conduct the survey faster, which saves money.

“I like the flexibility that Catalyst offers, giving one the option to have centimeter-, decimeter-, or meter-level accuracy depending on need,” says Cooper. “This is a great feature.”

An Accuracy for Archeology

Cultural heritage sites tend to turn up in the most unexpected of places, including here, where artifacts indicate human occupation as early as 32,000 cal BP.

Cooper recently used Catalyst to record a stone hut, part of a World Heritage Site, made from basalt lava that dates back 6,600 years. The remnants, which are laid out in a C shape, were recorded at 1- and 2-cm level accuracy.

“Using Catalyst, my phone, and a rover rod, I could go around and record the inner and outer circumference, which gave us a very good indication of the shape and size of the hut,” explains Cooper. “Without Catalyst, we wouldn’t have had the accuracy needed to do this.”

The company is currently working with a local council on a tourism trail that will run along a local river. Using Catalyst, the Cooper Heritage Management team has recorded 16 scarred trees, one shell midden—a heap predominantly composed of Mollusk shells—and an artefact scatter, a place that holds material remains of past Aboriginal people’s activities. At the time of writing, the team was heading into the field to undertake excavations to determine whether any sub-surface artefact or shell midden deposits exist along the river.

“Its 1-to-2-cm accuracy makes Catalyst particularly ideal for recording these types of in-situ archaeological deposits,” adds Cooper.

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel

Cooper in the field, excavating a site in Western Victoria, Australia.

Prior to using Catalyst, these types of projects would require Cooper to record every site on an individual recording form. “These forms could range anywhere from three to five pages in length,” she says. “When you’re in the field for days or even weeks on end and finding many sites, this can quickly add up to a lot of paperwork to carry around and keep track of.”

To save time on projects like these, Cooper created different templates within TerraFlex that she can use with specific site types, such as scarred trees, artefact scatters and shell middens. This allows her to easily record all the relevant elements for a given site and enter the data directly into Catalyst—no paperwork needed. The feature also allows her to attach photos to the data, which helps with identifying sites when collating data.

“Being able to tailor how we use Catalyst to our needs allows us to streamline the entire operation—and even go completely paperless,” says Cooper. “We don’t need to have multiple maps in the field or shuffle through papers, everything is there on one device.”

Develop the Future, Preserve the Past

According to Cooper, although development is essential to society, it’s equally as important to take steps to preserve our past—our cultural heritage. After all, this heritage is what forms our identity as individuals, as communities, and as nations. By giving us a glimpse into where we come from and who we are, it also helps us learn from the past and shape our future.

“Catalyst makes striking this balance between progress and preservation so easy I don’t understand why every archeology company isn’t using it,” notes Cooper.

Thanks to its ease-of-use, the right amount of accuracy and ability to customize, Catalyst gives Cooper Heritage Management a distinct competitive advantage—one they continually use to protect Australia’s rich cultural heritage
for generations to come.

Nick Klenske, based in Chicago, USA, is a freelance writer and editor specializing in science, technology and innovation.