GPS and Total Station technologies generate positional and topographic data using satellite and laser technologies respectively.


Archaeologists currently have several different types of surveying technologies which can help us map positional and topographic data in different ways. In order to record the Jewish cemeteries chosen as our case study sites, we employed a variety of mapping tools.

First, we used a purpose-built mobile application to record matzevot (tombstones) that survived within the cemeteries or which were found outside their walls. This allowed us to give each matzevah a unique reference number, to photograph it and to record information about its inscriptions, and the extent and nature of any damage present.

Creating a database of matzevot at Oświęcim Jewish cemetery (© Steven D. Reece)

Next, we used a combination of GPS and Total Station survey to record the positions of the matzevot, cemetery boundaries, any structures present in the cemetery and any other surface remains that might indicate the presence of buried remains e.g. vegetation change, depressions, surface finds etc.

The use of GPS in archaeology has advanced the field significantly by facilitating the fast and accurate recording of topographic features to sub-centimetre accuracy. GPS works by connecting to a network of satellites which orbit the earth. These satellites transmit a signal to a GPS receiver to determine the exact location of the surveyor and this position is then digitally marked on a map. It can be used to measure single points or to map larger features and landscapes.

As GPS signal could not always be achieved (e.g. due to the presence of trees/bad weather) at all sites, then a Total Station was also used to map the position of features identified within some of the cemeteries. Total Stations record topographic features by emitting a laser pulse which is reflected off a prism (see image below). The time of flight is calculated between the laser leaving the Total Station and reflected from the prism, back to the Total Station. The prism is often located on a pole and moved by another surveyor, allowing different features to be recorded within a landscape. The data produced by a Total Station is primarily used to create plans of spaces and features, and to measure distances and angles.


Total Station survey being carried out during fieldwork in Oświęcim Jewish cemetery (© Steven D. Reece)


Case Study: Oświęcim Cemetery  

 In August 2016, the “Recording Cultural Genocide and Killing Sites in Jewish Cemeteries” team conducted a mapping exercise to document the locations of matzevot and other surviving structural remains within Oświęcim Jewish cemetery in Poland. A tailor-made application was developed to record the GPS location and characteristics (such as motifs, style and text) of surviving matzevot and scattered fragments. Total Station survey was then used to map the cemetery boundaries and remains connected to the forced labour camp that was built on the site after it was vandalised by the Nazis. The results included a detailed plan of the cemetery as well as individual records relating to the matzevot that survived.

Map of Oświęcim Jewish cemetery created using a Total Station (© Centre of Archaeology, Staffordshire University)

Read more about our work in Oświęcim

Our experts:

Kevin Colls

Archaeological Project Manager

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Kevin Colls