GIS has been ubiquitous in archaeological research and management for some ten years or more now. For an applied technology, it has generated an unprecedented level of interest and spawned a large number of projects both in the research context and also in the arena of cultural resource management. At least five edited volumes (Aldenderfer and Maschner 1996; Allen et al. 1990; Lock 2000, Lock and Stançic 1995; Maschner 1996; Westcott and Brandon 2000), one book (Wheatley and Gillings 2002) and countless papers in journals and proceedings volumes have been dedicated to this single technological area, marking it out as probably the most discussed area of computer technology there has ever been in archaeology.
Despite this, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are not remotely revolutionary in technical terms. This is because GIS are not single technologies in the sense that they depend on one novel innovation to define them. Instead, they comprise a variety of hardware and software components packaged together and provided with a convenient label. At present, what we refer to as 'a GIS' normally consists of
There is (and has never been) anything magic about the label that we choose to give to this particular re-combination of components that, in this case, derive from other software areas such as computer-aided mapping, computer-aided design, database management systems and image processing.
In fact, the most extraordinary thing about GIS has been that it has been so successful without it being a significant technological innovation. Most computer scientists have never shown significant interest in GIS and many are openly baffled by the popularity of a technology that appears, to them, to be nothing but a re-application of existing, sometimes even outdated, components. By contrast, archaeologists and geographers have sometimes seemed to reify GIS to the extent that they claim that it has changed their academic disciplines forever.
In a sense, then, GIS has always been 'beyond technology' because they are more important for what they can do than what they are. What they can do, I have argued elsewhere, is give us the freedom to begin to construct an 'archaeology of place' (Wheatley 2000): a body of theory and method that permits us to explore the meaningful spatial configuration of archaeological remains. 'Meaningful' is the key distinction between an archaeology of place and what Clarke termed 'Spatial Archaeology' (Clarke 1977) because it acknowledges that the spatial organisation of materials depends on the meaningful actions of knowledgeable agents, and that the larger scale patterns that we observe in the archaeological record are the products of the intended and unintended consequences of these human actions (Giddens 1984).
With this 'mission statement' in mind, it is worth reviewing the applications of GIS to archaeology up to the present time, in order to understand something of the wider relevance of GIS for archaeological theory and practice.
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Last updated: Wed 28 Jan 2004