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1.0 The Current Setting

Landscapes are created by people, through perception and engagement with the world around us. Landscapes are constantly recreated through acts of seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and moving. However, in archaeological engagement with past landscapes one sense has become privileged: vision. Past landscapes are thus silent, odourless and intangible.

Over recent years, a range of diverse and innovative approaches that address the complexities of people/landscape interactions have been emphasised. Through the work of Bender (1993), Tilley (1994) and Thomas (1993), to name but a few, landscapes become experienced, socially constructed, both medium and outcome of power-filled social relations.

There has been an impressive theoretical development over the last decade through the integration of social theory within GIS studies, which resulted in more culturally relevant or 'humanised' use of GIS. These humanistically oriented GIS studies have tried to respond to theoretical developments in landscape archaeology mainly by incorporating vision (visual perception) and developing viewshed and visibility studies (cf. Wheatley 1995; Llobera 1996; Wheatley and Gillings 2000).

However, these studies and applications failed to tackle the central problem, which – at least in my opinion – lies in the confusion between the concept of vision and that of perception.

This problem stems on the one hand from the privileged status of visual perception within Western civilisations and, on the other hand, from the technical convenience of ready-made tools available within GIS toolkits (cf. Gillings and Goodrick 1996 section 1.4).

Many have commented on the dominance of the visual in Western culture, which reflects a deeper ideological bias towards vision as the 'noblest sense' and promotes visual metaphor as necessarily natural or intrinsic to the meaning of knowledge. Marshall McLuhan (1962) – in his influential study, The Gutenberg Galaxy – argued that Western 'visualism' has its roots in the advent of the written word and dominance of printed media. This predominance of vision is also evident in scientific discourse, with emphasis on maps, diagrams and development of 'scientific visualisation', and in the emergence of what is termed 'visual culture' in cinema, television, photography and digital imaging.

This situation is also reflected in the pattern of availability of GIS tools, where commercial GIS packages offer ready-made modules for analysis of visibility and inter-visibility only (viewshed, line-of-sight), and simply ignore other modes of perception.

I believe that the real challenge facing GIS research lies in the development of uniquely archaeological concepts, tools and approaches that can enable us to analyse and understand the complexities of human engagements with the world. This points to a creative use of GIS for more holistic analyses of past landscapes.

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Last updated: Thur Nov 11 2004