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5. Archaeological GIS reconsidered: what is the 'hidden agenda'?

We might learn one significant lesson from this comparison: that disciplinary context is highly significant in the success or failure of a wider methodological project. From this we might therefore argue that if we are to continue developing interesting applications of GIS to archaeology we should take greater account of the professional and intellectual conditions in which it is to be applied.

In simple terms, it has been argued that predictive modelling (in the restricted sense of correlative predictive models of archaeological site location) has not been successful because it is isolated from wider theoretical concerns within the discipline, while visibility analysis, albeit with significant unresolved methodological problems, has shown that it articulates with a wide range of current concerns. This is, it is acknowledged, something of an extreme position and certainly a simplification but it is also one that is necessary for the purposes of debate and in order to try and ensure that it is an archaeological agenda that determines the ways in which archaeological applications of spatial technologies may develop.

That it is apparently not an archaeological agenda that has determined the extent to which effort is expended on different applications of spatial technologies led to the conclusion that there was, in some sense, a 'hidden agenda' behind the use of GIS for archaeology (Wheatley 1993). This terminology carries with it connotations that were not intended, of deliberate activities to 'pervert' archaeology from some 'true path' and, as a result, it is necessary to clarify what was meant by the term.

Institutions carry with them a certain intellectual and social momentum that cannot be easily overcome. In the case of archaeology, many of the theoretical ideas that prevailed in the 1960s and 1970s are embodied in the practices, routines and even legislation of our social and professional institutions. This is rarely a real problem, as most ideas remain appropriate and unproblematic and, if they change at a rate at which institutions can keep up with them, then our practices and our theories remain broadly synchronised. But in some cases, our ways of thinking about the past change sufficiently quickly that those that are embodied in our institutions rapidly lose their currency, and sometimes ideas that have been rejected by the majority of archaeologists remain on the agenda within universities, archaeological units or government agencies simply because of this institutional momentum. It is in this context that I see the issue of an 'agenda' (hidden or not) for archaeological applications of GIS. I do not claim that there is a sinister group of functional-processual archaeologists meeting in secret to determine how archaeological funding is allocated to different application areas of GIS, but I do think it is possible to see how habitual practices and institutional issues such as heritage legislation in which spatial archaeology is developing might have an impact on how we determine what are the most productive ways to explore the past.

If we want to take control of the agenda, we need to engage with our institutions and seek to change our practices in such a way as to make them more aware of contemporary ways of thinking. This can be achieved by communicating new ideas more effectively, both to fellow practitioners within archaeology and also to the politicians and civil servants who frame legislation and ultimately determine archaeological practice. This might involve political and practical as well as intellectual action, but if we can overcome this inertia, and take control of our own agenda, it would allow us far greater freedom to develop an archaeology of space that is informed by current theoretical thinking.

This is not to say that we must be committed to some single philosophical school or subscribe to whichever social theorist is currently fashionable — on the contrary, greater theoretical diversity, pluralism and debate would be most welcome — but it does suggest that continuing to plough our energies into developing ever more expensive projects to create inductive, correlative predictive models is not only going to be detrimental to the future representativity of the archaeological record, but stands in direct opposition to this aim.

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