Sensuous and Reflexive GIS: exploring visualisation and VRML

Mark Gillings1 and Glyn Thomas Goodrick2

1School of Archaeological Studies, University of Leicester, Leicester, LE1 7RH, TEL: 0116-252-2723.
2The Archaeological Practice, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU. TEL: (0191)-222-8130, FAX: (0191)-222-7809.
Mark Gillings Glyn Thomas Goodrick


GIS - A Tool or a Frame of Mind?

Over the last five years, landscape-based archaeological research has been transformed as the widespread introduction of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) has begun to revolutionise the way we, as archaeologists, manage and manipulate spatial information. As GIS-based applications begin to reach maturity and the role of GIS as a flexible mechanism for the articulation, exploration and analysis of landscape data becomes more fully realised, GIS is increasingly being seen as much as a place to think as a simple data management and mapping tool.

Drawbacks: The Lack of Theoretical Underpinning

The dramatic growth of GIS applications over the last two years has, however, highlighted a number of shortcomings that will have to be addressed if archaeological GIS is to realise its enormous potential to the full. The first of these can be characterised by a relative impoverishment in the underlying theoretical basis of many applications. Studies involving GIS have been characterised by Cartesian notions of space as an abstracted, timeless backdrop and the reduction and simplification of complex cultural landscapes and social realities down to dustings of discrete points on distribution maps. It is fair to say that the practical development of archaeological-GIS and its widespread take-up within the archaeological community has not been matched by a similar acknowledgement in theory. This becomes particularly obvious when attempts are made to integrate the GIS approach into the growing field of more experiential and perception-based landscape studies.

The Static Nature of GIS

In addition to the lack of a developed and critical theory, a further limitation has been concerned with the essentially static, abstracted nature of many GIS-based representations and analyses. In acknowledging the dynamic complexity of many past social landscapes, we encounter enormous problems in adequately integrating these critical spatio-temporal dynamics into our GIS-based frameworks.

Developing Specifically Archaeological Tools for GIS

In this paper we argue that the principal challenge facing GIS is in the development of uniquely archaeological concepts, tools and approaches to permit and legitimise these avenues of enquiry. Only by doing so will it be possible to realise GIS more fully as an informed and reflexive environment in which to organise, articulate, explore and think.

Developing a Synergy between VRML and GIS

We look in detail at a possible pathway for this development, based around an evaluation of a developing facet of the internet commonly referred to as the Virtual Reality Modelling Language or VRML. In the following discussions we aim to define VRML and contextualise it within a broader discussion of the role and limitations of traditional GIS-based approaches. Through a number of case studies, attempts to create a synergistic link between GIS and VRML will be introduced and explored.

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