The Fiske Center Blog

Weblog for the Fiske Center for Archaeological Research at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Muskeget Island Through Time


While archaeology studies people and cultures of the past, much of what we do can be valuable to a number of other disciplines.  The Fiske Center recently worked with Dr. Rob Stevenson of the UMass Boston Biology Department on his research into vole species on Muskeget Island, off the coast of Nantucket.  In reading up in the island Dr Stevenson found that Wetherbee et al (1972) had shown that the island was moving and changing shape.  Dr. Stevenson confirmed this looking at historic maps and photographs.  Since this something that archaeologists frequently deal with, Dr. Stevenson asked the Fiske Center to help him quantify the changing shape and position of Muskeget Island through Geographic Information System (GIS).

Even though we often think of it as static, both human and physical geography are constantly changing.  In this case, Muskeget Island has shifted 2.3 miles to the east and has lost almost 2/3 of its area over the past 240 years.  The below images created by the Fiske Center Digital Archaeology Lab show how the island has changed in shape and position since 1776:

Muskeget Island Stages

Muskeget Island Before After

The Fiske Center was able to understand the changing nature of Muskeget through historic maps.  Starting in 1776, maps of Muskeget and its location off the coast of Nantucket were quite accurate as it was located on a major shipping lane.  Maps from 5 different years were traced into GIS and georeferenced based on the larger island of Nantucket.  By digitizing the historic maps and locating them in space through GIS, it allows us to not only display how the island has shifted, but also understand the rate of movement and area loss over time.

Through the use of historic maps and GIS, this project allowed Dr. Stevenson to get a better understanding of the dynamic environment of Muskeget and how this may have affected the species that live there.  More broadly, this sort of project has a great deal of potential both for archaeology and other disciplines.  Utilizing newer technologies like GIS to analyze historic maps can help us to get a new understanding of how the space of environments, geographic features and human settlements change over time.

Wetherbee, David K., Raymond P. Coppinger, and Richard E. Walsh.1972. Time lapse ecology, Muskeget Island, Nantucket, Massachusetts. MSS Educational Publishing Co., Inc. New York 173 pp.

Author: Jared Muehlbauer

Jared is a masters graduate student at UMass Boston. He is interested in African Diaspora Archaeology and public, collaborative archaeology.


  1. The image at the beginning of the article looks interesting but it is not described or referenced in the article. Could you please provide some details about this image? Thanks

  2. The images in the article were created by the Fiske Center as part of working with Dr. Stevenson. They show how the island has moved towards the east and changed shape from 1776 to today. Thanks for your interest!

  3. Looking to obtain a copy of this work by lead author Wetherbee for historical reference with rising sea levels.

  4. Looking to obtain a copy of Dr. Stevenson’s work for review of climate change and tides on island geography.

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