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2. Interactive Maps

Contextualisation through maps

Conventional (paper) maps and atlases are, and always have been, an essential tool for presenting information in context as part of archaeological teaching and in many museum displays. Applications of maps, whether paper or digital, include (the list is by no means exhaustive):

These applications can be divided by type into geographic situation maps, landscape-related maps and intra-site maps, and by function into maps whose primary roles are spatial indexing, display of distributions and relationships, contextualisation of attribute data and demonstration of change through time.

Application of interactive maps

Advances in technology now give us the ability to deliver information to students as interactive maps, whether on physical media such as CD-ROM, standalone map viewers for local or Internet data (e.g. ArcExplorer, ArcReader) or web applets embedded directly in web pages (e.g. Yorston 1999 and examples in this paper). With the widespread availability of the web, freely downloadable map viewers and the greater flexibility offered by access to back-end databases across the Internet, CD-ROMs have an increasingly narrow role. I am restricting this discussion to map viewers rather than full Geographic Information System (GIS) software, which opens up pedagogical issues well beyond the scope of this paper.

The educational value of maps in historical disciplines has not only been recognised, but also theorised, since the 1820s (Black 1997, 74-76). Contextualisation through time-enabled interactive maps takes mapping a step further, enhancing its value for understanding and communicating spatial data and the events and processes underlying it. Democratisation of spatio-temporal mapping by software which extends the tools beyond the domain of the GIS specialist and into the viewer's control, will have a huge impact on the use of maps in education and elsewhere (cf. Kraak 2001b, 11), although there is undoubtedly a need to develop effective approaches informed by an understanding of the visual culture of archaeology (Bateman 2000) and of spatial contextualisation. For example, Purves et al. (2002) provide a succinct discussion of navigation and observe that experts use 3-D (landform) context whereas less experienced navigators use only a 2-D feature representation of the landscape (2002, 177).

There are a number of critical advantages in interactive maps as a means of information delivery, which derive from their spatial structure. These advantages apply specifically to two-dimensional interactive maps, and the more analytical tend (with current technology) to be lost when visualised in 2.5-D or 3-D. Only a subset of these capabilities are likely to be available in any given interactive map:

The full functionality of desktop GIS, including 2.5-D and 3-D visualisation, will increasingly become available in interactive maps on the web, as the boundaries between desktop computing and distributed computing blur.

Barriers to adoption

The main barriers to widespread adoption of interactive maps as a standard educational resource, in museums and in teaching, lie in technical barriers to production (acquisition of software, training in use of software, acquisition of data and time investment needed to generate useful products), problems of diffusion (lack of technology in classrooms) and lack of a substantial well-organised body of existing material to seed the effort and provide example. We also need to develop approaches to the use of interactive maps in teaching which exploit their special characteristics.

The technical and budget problems are fading away with the increasing availability of powerful, free or low cost, consumer-orientated software tools, and the spread of Internet-linked computers to many classrooms and students' homes. The creation of a critical mass of useful resources, and the organisation of those resources to facilitate their adoption as a routine component of educational materials, is another matter. The routine use of digitally generated maps, let alone interactive maps directly accessible to students, is still the province of a small minority of educators. The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative clearinghouse, described in section 6.3, goes some way towards tackling this issue.

Seductive images

Although mapping of primary data may help to point out specious generalisations, maps are themselves seductive and can acquire false authority if accepted uncritically. Monmonier's classic book How to Lie with Maps (1996) is devoted to the way that maps can mislead, either intentionally or accidentally, and in an epilogue he cautions on the increased likelihood of cartographic distortion when maps are designed to impress as well as, or instead of, to inform (1996, 184). Current GIS and visualisation software places a powerful tool in the hands of na´ve, as well as not so na´ve, users, and can lead to 'cartographic window dressing' (ibid). Rapid iterative modifications (i.e. trying and re-trying a visualisation with small changes) may lead to optimal communication of a message, but they may also lead to inductive discovery of spurious patterns and to visual effect triumphing over content.

The appearance of accuracy lends authority to the product and affects the way that we perceive it (Bateman 2000, section 4). Eiteljorg cautions us on the power of the image to seduce the viewer into believing what they see, even in contradiction to actual knowledge (Eiteljorg 2000, section 2). Furthermore, "A good image...may convey to the viewer far more than we as archaeologists really know" (ibid). It is essential that the results of archaeological visualisation - whether maps, graphs or 3-D reconstructions - be presented in a context which informs the viewer of their genesis, and that we develop methods for recording and rendering the uncertainty so characteristic of archaeological and historical data.

Maps and virtual reality

Gillings (2002) neatly captures the problems with much contemporary Virtual Reality (VR) work. Digital recording and virtual reconstruction of archaeological and historic sites often emphasise data accuracy and visual effects (sometimes accompanied by improbable trajectories) over the delivery of real knowledge or understanding of the site and its context. VR practitioners have generally emphasised technology over delivering low cost, high volume, just-adequate methods for real-world data recording projects. Visualisations which are technology-driven - motivated by the creator's access to advanced equipment or technology skills - are rarely useful as educational tools, most often because they have not been conceived with an end beyond the means. The best visualisations are often technically simple and contextually powerful, placing what we know in spatial (and perhaps temporal) context and/or providing written or graphical explanation keyed to elements of the visualisation.

Much has been written about issues of perception and landscape in archaeology (e.g. Tilley 1994; Gillings and Goodrick 1996). In the Internet Archaeology special issue on visualisation, Larkman and Cummings argue that QVTR scenes are a good low-tech way of communicating an understanding of landscape context. Larkman (2000, Methods) argues that maps, drawings, photographs and video all suffer from subjective selection and restricted perception, while immersive VR is too costly in technology and data collection. He illustrates contextualisation of QVTR scenes from a clickable map image, but unfortunately the map in question provides very little landscape context and the scenes replace the map in the browser, losing what context there is. Similarly, jumping from one site to another through hotspots on his linked QVTR scenes, provides good visualisation of the surroundings of each site but very little sense of landscape context. Cummings (2000, 6) also observes that it can be difficult to orient oneself within the landscape from a fixed viewpoint. Purves et al. (2002, 188) decided that 'teleporting' was not appropriate in their Computer Assisted Learning project aimed at teaching navigation skills.

An excellent example of a contextualising, low-tech visualisation is the 'Visit the Cave' section of the French Ministry of Culture web site for the Grotte Chauvet, which uses a perspective map of the cave as reference. Symbols indicate the location of photographs of the parietal art and cave features; rollovers show thumbnail images and direction of view; clicking on the symbols opens a pop-up window with a larger image and informative textual description. This site uses good design, simple technology and good old-fashioned photography to present useful information in context.

I would be so bold - and polemical - as to state that, in the absence of the immersive sense of space which accompanies physical experience, VR representations which do not provide either a map-based or model-based reference to current position and direction of view, and/or textual information in context, about what the viewer is observing, do not promote much understanding of archaeological and historic sites or landscapes.

Data-rich visualisation

To make effective use of maps and visualisations in archaeology, we need to devise goals which relate to archaeological issues and provide interactive opportunities to carry out these activities

The student's ability to move beyond canned interpretations and draw their own conclusions is enhanced if the data can be freely interrogated and visualised. The essential of data-rich visualisation - encouraged by the convergence of CAD and databases which is characteristic of vector GIS - is that the underlying attributes of the objects mapped, and their spatial relationships, are accessible to the viewer. In order to promote active learning, we need to combine data-rich visualisation with the contextualising ability of maps, allowing students to ask questions, to understand the spatial relationships within the data and to understand the spatial context of data which is not in itself spatial - artefact or site attributes, soil analyses, photographs, VR scenes etc.

We can take an important lesson in pedagogy from computer games. The reason they engage and 'educate' (in the sense that the players learn something about the virtual world they represent) is because they are not simply passive visualisations of what might have been. Players are goal-directed and actively required to engage with the virtual world, to test its behaviour, to ask questions about the way it behaves, to retain a mental map and to remember behaviours. If we are to make effective use of maps - and more generally of visualisations - in archaeology, we need to devise goals which relate to archaeological issues and provide interactive opportunities to carry out these activities - testing, questioning and remembering. In short, we need to get down and dirty with the data: passive navigation teaches us as much about the real world as 5-star coach tourism.


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Last updated: Wed Sep 11 2002

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