Internet Archaeol. 16. GIS theme. Editorial


Doortje van Hove and Ulla Rajala

Introduction: GIS and archaeological theory: introducing the 2002 TAG session

Cite this as: Van Hove, D. and Rajala, U. 2004 Editorial, Internet Archaeology 16.

The discipline of archaeology studies the nature, meanings and effects of past human behaviour over time and space. Moreover, it seeks to clarify the processes that determined this behaviour (Barrett 2001, 144) through the study of material culture and structured landscapes. Among other things, archaeology tries to understand past human volition and subsequent action, disentangling the reasons why people chose certain places to live, utilised specific social, cultural and religious concepts, or applied a particular economy. Perspectives on the subject include material, economic, social and cultural hypotheses, varying through the changes in archaeological theory (e.g. Higgs and Vita-Finzi 1972; Bender et al. 1997; Thomas 1999). In this respect, we have gradually moved towards seeing archaeological landscapes as continuous records of past human behaviour in spatial terms with emphasis on the complex, reciprocal relationship between people and their surroundings. This relationship is considered crucial to how groups categorise and 'construct' their own social and cultural landscapes. This construction should be considered as holistic, based on an embodied experience within a particular environment (e.g. Tilley 1994).

Over the last decade, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) have been increasingly used to contribute to the interpretation of spatial aspects of past human activity. GIS are spatially referenced databases that can store, manage, retrieve, display and create geo-referenced data (Wheatley and Gillings 2002, 9-10). They have been used within a wide range of disciplinary contexts and applications, each emphasising specific functionalities of the software (cf. Wheatley and Gillings 2002, 13-21). In particular, they are a means to integrate vast and diverse bodies of information, enabling a fast visualisation of spatial patterns. By inference, GIS models based on fundamental archaeological questions and evaluating the experience of a past landscape, allow us to present a series of hypothetical scenarios that can potentially broaden our understanding of the kind of inter-relationships that exist between people and their physical surroundings.

In the past, there has been a tendency to use GIS solely as a tool (see discussion by Wright et al. 1997, 346-62), without any link to archaeological theory. We emphasise that although GIS are a useful tool for storage and visualisation of multiple forms of data, manipulation and analysis should take centre stage, emphasising theory driven research questions and the exploration of traditional archaeological interpretations with new research methods (Lock and Harris 1996, 216, 239-40; Maschner 1996, 302-3; Witcher 1999: 18-20). New theoretical concepts can also be tested using GIS, which might lead to the formulation of alternative theoretical perspectives to be examined further (Wansleeben and Verhart 1997, 57).

One of the traditional criticisms of GIS has been that it is of an environmental deterministic nature. Because the inclusion of 'human' factors is often obstructed by their poor spatial definition (Kvamme 1997, 1-4; Lock and Harris 1996, 240; Maschner 1996, 304; Witcher 1999, 14-15), for a long time, GIS studies have, therefore, tended to focus on physical and environmental data, leaving the discussion of socio-cultural landscapes largely unexplored. As it has now been accepted that environmentally determined analyses alone do not represent people's real landscape behaviour, Jensen (2003, 179) urged for an integration of empirical and social approaches to GIS inputs.

A second, more novel critique considers the synchronic structure of many GIS applications. Though generic GIS research has much improved the study of spatial processes within archaeology, most analyses deal mainly with phenomena at a single instant of time and focus on spatial dimensions (cf. Worboys 1995, 302-3). However, the linking of temporal events (in past and present) is crucial to modelling and understanding archaeological trends.

More recent archaeological GIS research has begun to move beyond Environmental Determinism to represent and interpret social, cognitive and perceived landscapes. Because 'determinism is a product of our interpretation as reflected through the way we use our information' (Llobera 1996, 613, our emphasis), we need to state explicitly which types of behaviour are implied within GIS model construction and interpretation to explore fully its utility as a generic explanatory device (Gaffney and van Leusen 1996, 367-82; Jensen 2003, 179). In addition, by incorporating complementary behavioural data and by paying attention to culture-specific interpretations and archaeological theory, alternative perspectives of past human behaviour can be developed and critiqued (cf. Verhagen et al. 1995; Harris and Lock 1995).

These research themes were the subject of a TAG session, which we organised at the University of Manchester in December 2002. The GIS-related articles brought together in this issue function as the proceedings of that session. Having become extremely frustrated with the way GIS has been treated in past archaeological discussions, we wanted to explore how this traditional view of GIS could be changed, especially in the light of specific archaeological theory. It is clear that there are many archaeologists out there that use GIS in inventive ways, transforming the way GIS is perceived as an archaeological methodology. It was time that these people were brought together to exchange views and to argue for a proper place for GIS in relation to archaeological theory. In particular, issues like temporality, agency, socio-cultural concepts, cognition, perception and experience, high on the list of desirable topics to include into GIS, were discussed. This inspired one of the contributors of the TAG session, Carla Parslow, to organise a theoretical GIS session at the Society for American Archaeology Meeting in Montreal in April 2004. During the same month, Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology organised its first theory session in history, during its 2004 conference in Prato, Italy. Finally, John Chapman, present at the original TAG session discussion, proposed a session on GIS and Social Archaeology for the European Association of Archaeologists Meeting in Lyon in September 2004. It is clear that the debate on GIS and archaeological theory is only just beginning.

The proceedings

This issue contains a diverse selection of papers discussing the relationship between GIS and social theory. These cover theoretical issues like epistemology, agency and ethnography, alongside practical case studies presenting new modelling perspectives and techniques. This selection combines recent studies by young researchers at the start of their archaeological career and by current PhD students. We, as editors, firmly believe that it forms a valuable critique on the current use of GIS in archaeology and that it plays an important role in the current debate. We emphasise that this issue shows some very promising, if not perfect, paths to follow in order to find alternative archaeological applications, as all articles take GIS far beyond its traditional uses.

The introductory paper by Ulla Rajala opens new ground by discussing the implications of a philosophy of archaeology on GIS models. By critically looking at the theoretical frameworks behind input, analysis and production of GIS data and discussing the principles of Bhaskar's realistic philosophy, she argues that Geographic Information Systems are an important and integral part of every archaeological research process. By understanding more clearly what particular type of knowledge GIS can provide, pragmatic and realistic frameworks can help to answer specific archaeological theoretical questions. Furthermore, the integration of post-structural ideas is shown to be crucial in the explanation of results provided by GIS modelling.

Motivated by a similar research perspective, Thomas Whitley introduces the use of proxies to GIS studies and applies this within American historical archaeology. Proxies relate straightforward physical spatial variables with agency, motivation and causality and become, therefore, a key element in the reconstruction of social and cultural landscapes. After playing out the differences between North American and European GIS traditions, and discussing individual and group cognition, in addition to the meaning of explanation and causation within spatial analyses, Whitley illustrates how cognitive decision making processes and social agency can be modelled. This demonstrates that social and cultural variables can be introduced into GIS analyses in a much more subtle way than simply adding another layer to the spatial database.

Caroline Phillips reminds us that, to reconstruct realistic past environments, cultural and contextual data must be integrated within GIS modelling. Through examining the land-use systems practiced by the New Zealand Māori, she defends the need to include ethnographic explanations within settlement patterns, to improve the explicative quality of GIS models. Therefore, a landscape must be conceived as the result of the variable relationships that exist between people and land. The integration of multi-disciplinary data and dynamic modelling concepts can help to model untypical situations.

If GIS models are to represent the reasoning behind people's spatial behaviour realistically, Doortje Van Hove insists that the notion of human action needs reformulating. With a specific focus on Neolithic land use within southern Calabria, elements of agency and time are integrated within a diachronic GIS analysis, to be able to refer to the culturally constructed landscapes and taskscapes within an economically utilised area. By renegotiating the types of behaviour GIS models can address, traditional critiques such as ED and the static nature of most GIS productions are addressed. This new perspective is applied within the Calabrian case study and should help improve the quality of future GIS research.

On a different angle of GIS research, three further articles explore the visual and audible qualities of, and the events within, landscapes, with regard to human presence and activity. Dimitrij Mlekuz encourages new ways of approaching landscapes by discussing and interpreting soundscapes, challenging the vision privileged status of many GIS applications. A theoretical introduction and critique, including the concepts of soundscape, taskscape, direct perception and affordance, is combined with the presentation of tools to create a truly audible experience, within the late medieval soundscape of Polhograjsko hribovje, in Slovenia.

While being aware of the criticism at the address of visibility studies within GIS, Steven Trick prefers to advance viewshed analyses by combining traditional forms of landscape recording with recent developments within GIS-based visibility tools. Attention is focused on the importance of visible events for the spatial behaviour of people within the Teleorman Valley in Southern Romania. By including the wider topographical setting, and by focusing on the habitually viewed areas from six tell settlements and the practical possibilities within these, the nature of vision within a riverine environment is re-explored. This provides clear indicators for how people engaged with their surroundings in everyday life and how they actively chose places to settle.

Finally, Corinne Roughley and Colin Shell put GIS into practice through the innovative use of a variety of modelling techniques that offer new insights into the meaning of Neolithic monuments in Carnac, in southern Brittany. They argue that digital techniques are not only particularly informative for the study of a topographically very subtly varying landscape, but also necessary to overcome the traditional focus on sites within archaeology. With new technologies, landscapes can be modelled without the practical difficulties related to visibility studies in the field and the conservation of archaeological structures. A combination of traditional viewshed maps and VRML models concerning the visual contexts of earthen long mounds and angled passage graves is necessary to represent and explore the whole of the human visual experience of these monuments.

In conclusion

We feel that each author in this volume has linked archaeological theory and the implications of specific human behaviours within GIS modelling on an arguable basis, whilst addressing potential problem areas. All authors indicate that the development of social theory has brought beneficial advances to archaeological computing. We have moved away from inbuilt positivistic technical wizardry, lacking critical discussion concerning the choice of a specific method, towards the adoption of suitable theoretical modelling frameworks. This change has enabled GIS modelling to integrate the analysis of socio-cultural and material-environmental landscapes within a wider archaeology of place (Wheatley 2000, 129).


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