1.2.2 Pointillism

One characteristic of the bulk of archaeological GIS applications has been the tendency to reduce, abstract and simplify the full complexity of the archaeological data under study. This is perhaps best typified by the frequent reduction of complex, socially enmeshed cultural landscapes down to discrete dustings of arguably meaningless points, the only virtue of which appears to be their statistical suitability for spatial analysis. These reductionist tendencies have been seen by some authors as the inevitable product of a technique-driven trajectory (Gaffney and van Leusen 1995) where the integrity of the archaeological data is compromised in an attempt to make it more amenable to the types of analysis GIS 'does best'.

There is, however, a second problem, more intimately tied up with the quality of the archaeological information under analysis and study. In attempting to address this issue and redirect applications of GIS towards a clear problem-oriented archaeological framework, distinct inadequacies in the primary archaeological record have been highlighted which serve to restrict the breadth and potential impact of the GIS-based studies greatly (Biswell et al 1995, Miller 1996). Amongst many GIS-based researchers there has been a growing realisation that for the full potential offered by GIS to be realised in an archaeological context there must be a more fundamental re-think in terms of the nature and focus of basic data collection.

The practical effects of this simplification and abstraction, whether technique enforced or the result of data inadequacies, have been to reinforce the sense of critical theoretical stasis remarked upon earlier. A considerable body of critical research in both archaeology and anthropology has been directed towards the study and conceptualisation of landscapes, the role of perception and the relationships between people and the places they experience and dwell through. These developments have, however, had almost no impact upon the conceptual basis of most archaeological GIS-based applications. Perhaps this is again due to the technique-led nature of much GIS work, for to begin to utilise the GIS approach to investigate the dynamic and deeply enmeshed human-landscape relations suggested by such studies, a clear re-think in the basic nature of the GIS itself is in order. For example, in discussing the issue of territoriality and tenure Ingold suggested the following:

To proceed we need a set of terms to describe the geometry not of abstract, isotropic space, but of the substantial environment in which humans and other animals move, perceive and behave. Thus following Gibson ... we speak of surfaces rather than planes, paths rather than lines and places rather than points. (Ingold 1986, 147)

Bearing in mind that points, lines and areas comprise the fundamental spatial building blocks of the bulk of vector GIS systems such as Arc/Info, the challenge facing us is obvious.

For the purposes of clarity a definition is in order. The term pointillism is used here in the musical sense as defined by Bullock and Trombley, where melodic lines are made so disjointed that the individual notes comprising them ..seem to stand alone and not refer to each other, sounding rather like points of sound (Bullock and Trombley 1988, p.657)


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Last updated: Tue Sep 5 1996