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1. Contextualising Archaeological Information

Archaeological (and, more generally, historical) information is inherently embedded in a spatial and temporal context, from which it derives much of its value. This context may range from very broad "Early Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean" to a specific date, time and a place expressed as latitude and longitude. We may know place very accurately but have only a vague notion of time (the case with most archaeological sites) or know time very accurately but have only a vague notion of place (the case with many early explorers' reports).

It is easy to gloss over these uncertainties in writing historical narrative, and to convey generalisations which may not hold up when the raw data are scrutinised indeed that is often the nature of academic debate. Historical narrative relies on shared understandings which already condition the discourse, so that 'Europe' may implicitly subsume Christian and be set against an equally monolithic non-Christian East, limiting understanding of the variability, gradations and interactions which fall between the extremes. Such message-laden generalisations can, of course, also be expressed as maps (see for example Monmonier 1996, 94-107 on the use of maps for propaganda).

Archaeologists are generally more accustomed than historians to the use of quantitative data and maps, ranging from the landscape level to the site and artefact levels. This familiarity reflects the physical nature of our subject matter and a commitment to presenting primary data as part of reporting and publication. Mapping of primary data can help to highlight gaps in knowledge, providing the viewer with an opportunity to assess the data for themselves and to see its strengths and weaknesses in support of a particular argument.

Dr John Snow's classic study - mapping cholera deaths in an area of 19th century London - was used to support an argument against conventional contemporary views on infection. Similarly, mapping of plague infection cases for early 20th century Sydney highlights the discrepancy between popular perception - that the epidemic related to slum conditions in The Rocks - and the actual distribution of infection cases, which correlates closely with proximity to the wharves (and ship-borne sources).

Educators and the web

With the blossoming of the web in the mid 1990s, people in the higher education sector discovered that they could assemble course materials into web sites and embed images in web pages to provide simple cost-effective delivery of educational resources. Access to the technology has limited penetration into the primary and secondary education sector, although there are many sites offering lesson plans and resources for teachers (e.g. the National Endowment for the Humanities edSiteMent) or encyclopaedic resources which might be accessed by both staff and students (e.g. MacquarieNet, discussed in section 6.2).

These early, straighforward uses of the web are complemented by more targeted web-based systems for creating web sites, managing student interaction, providing Computer Aided Learning (CAL) content, delivering online quizzes, maintaining discussion groups and so forth (e.g. School City, WebCT) , but more sophisticated interaction tends to come at a greater cost in training and software. The strength of the simple web site has been the ease with which anyone with a little imagination and some worthwhile content can assemble an educational resource to augment conventional teaching. However, individual content creators often do not have access to or are not interested in acquiring the IT expertise needed to create sophisticated web resources such as interactive maps and databases on the web.

GIS in teaching

We must pursue GIS as a useful technical framework for encouraging spatial thinking about archaeological problems ... rather than as an end in itself

In this article I intend primarily to address the use of interactive 2-D maps as an educational resource, but this is clearly only a small aspect of the potential for spatial information in archaeology education. Geographic Information System (GIS) tools such as ArcGIS, MapInfo or GeoMedia, which are now widely available in the higher education sector, allow students to apply analytical methods and explore data in ways which were not possible a few years ago. Since, as archaeologists, we are not primarily in the business of teaching geographical methods, we have to be aware of the widely recognised dichotomy between teaching about GIS and teaching with GIS (Sui 1995, 579) and pursue GIS as a useful technical framework for encouraging spatial thinking about archaeological problems, and delivery of information about other aspects of archaeology (Perkins 1997), rather than as an end in itself.

There is a substantial literature - one might even say angst - within geography on the relationship between GIS and teaching. The "S" in GIS is increasingly seen as standing for "Science" rather than "Systems" (e.g. Raper 2000) as the field matures and people address issues of intellectual context rather than straight technology application. However, Audet and Abegg (1996, 21) note an absence of connection between the educational and GIS communities, as judged from the literature, and a similar gap is noted by Malone et al. (2000) in a special section on Education in Archaeology for Antiquity. Major efforts to define the NCGIA core curriculum in GIS (Goodchild and Kemp 1990), which has been widely adopted, also seem to have concentrated on content - what to teach - rather than pedagogy - how to teach (Sui 1995, 578; Chen 1998).

Lloyd (2001, 158) sees GIS as empowering students to become users of spatial data and active learners, emphasising the development of spatial reasoning and higher levels of learning. We have successfully adopted a project-based approach to GIS teaching at the Sydney University Archaeological Computing Laboratory, which is summarised in Appendix I. Chen (1998, 261) argues that project-orientated teaching is necessary to obtain a balance between concepts and technology, arguing that a well designed project-based approach (1997, 262-64) leads to a sense of achievement, broader understanding of the project domain, analytical concepts and procedures, as well as learner-driven acquisition of technical and teamwork skills. At the same time, numerous authors raise the difficulties engendered by the technical requirements (support costs, technical training) and the risk of becoming a "data-rich, information-poor, knowledge-starved and intelligence-devoid society" (Sui 1995, 581). GIS carries both a huge potential and a substantial pedagogical challenge to spatially-orientated disciplines such as archaeology.


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Last updated: Wed Sep 11 2002

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