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Processual GIS Archaeology

Processual GIS Archaeology


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The use of this technology in archaeology started in the 1960s, immediately after the arrival of the first GIS programmes. Initially, GIS approaches to explaining archaeological remains were of a predominantly descriptive nature. The co-occurrence of an environmental variable (such as good farmland) and archaeological observations (such as ancient farms) usually led to simplistic inferences of a possible relationship. With the advent of New Archaeology in the late 60’s, which featured a strong integration of positivism and natural sciences in archaeological analyses, such simplistic inferences were dismissed. In line with the more scientific rigorous methods developed within, for example, New Geography, such inferences were modelled into hypothesis that then should be statistically tested. Turning back to an archaeological example, a simple inference such as sites are located on high spots in the research area because that allows its inhabitants a good view of the surroundings (with all potential advantages in terms of control) would be turned into a hypothesis. Then, based on generating random locations in the research area and calculating viewsheds for them, an average viewshed could be calculated which would be representative for a settlement that was placed without taking the view of the surroundings into consideration. A simple statistical test is then sufficient to decide whether the site-viewsheds were significantly (in other words, to a very confident degree) different or comparable to the average viewshed in the area. By practicing the scientific method, it was held possible to deduct general laws of human behaviour in their environment. A concept which became very popular in this period was that of systems theory. This was based on the idea that past developments could be studied as the result of functional systems and relationships. This implied that human behaviour could be studied objectively and universally. Combined with a strong emphasis on the relationship between ancient populations and their environment, this led to a range of ecological explanations for spatial patterns encountered in the archaeological record. The landscape was regarded as a set of resources and barriers which largely determined where peoples would found their settlements and build their roads. Simplistically speaking, water and good farmland were regarded as prime factors in attracting occupation; a road would be not constructed over a hilltop but would run through the valley. Clearly, these concepts also implied a certain predictability in human behaviour and were therefore applied to create predictive models.

Turning to methodology, these principles led to a range of analytical tools which assessed the influence of ecological factors. Physical aspects of the environment were qualified and quantified and computed into maps which represented the possibilities and probabilities of ancient peoples in their environment. For example, cost-distance analysis was used to create site-catchment areas which showed what resources were likely to have been exploited by the inhabitants of a settlement. Other methods which originated in this period are the earlier mentioned visibility and viewshed analyses and Thiessen polygons and their derivatives (prediction of boundaries between polities based on distances and size of settlement).

Research topics: Software & Technology