GIS Use in Landscape Archaeology

GIS Use in Landscape Archaeology

Cristina Corsi (Università di Cassino, Italy)
Copyright: © 2009 |Pages: 9
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-59904-845-1.ch045
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Abstract

Information technologies (ITs) entered and irreversibly changed the discipline of archaeology during the last 20 years of the second millennium. The first experiments involved databases and alphanumeric data processing, then in the late 1980s GPS technologies, associated with spatial data processing, were first tested to locate archaeological objects in the geographical space. Computer-aided design (CAD) software has progressively replaced the traditional procedures of topographical and architectural design, while “New Archaeology” and “Processual Archaeology” focusing their attention on the quantitative aspects of phenomena (Binford, 1989; Binford & Binford, 1968; Clarke, 1968; Clarke, 1977) adopted “spatial technologies”, consisting of computer-based applications concerned with the acquisition, storage and manipulation of spatial information (Wheatley & Gillings, 2002).
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Introduction

Information technologies (ITs) entered and irreversibly changed the discipline of archaeology during the last 20 years of the second millennium. The first experiments involved databases and alphanumeric data processing, then in the late 1980s GPS technologies, associated with spatial data processing, were first tested to locate archaeological objects in the geographical space. Computer-aided design (CAD) software has progressively replaced the traditional procedures of topographical and architectural design, while “New Archaeology” and “Processual Archaeology” focusing their attention on the quantitative aspects of phenomena (Binford, 1989; Binford & Binford, 1968; Clarke, 1968; Clarke, 1977) adopted “spatial technologies”, consisting of computer-based applications concerned with the acquisition, storage and manipulation of spatial information (Wheatley & Gillings, 2002).

This process came along with the elaboration of the new concept of “cultural heritage”, which gained popularity among specialists as well as among the general public. Since then, artifacts and monuments are no longer considered the only objects to preserve, and they are not extrapolated from their geographical context anymore, but every trace that the past has left in our environment is seen as a unique testimony of our history.

To understand cultural landscapes in their diachronic evolution it is essential to find an efficient system to store all archaeological and ecological information in a suitable way, so as to examine vertical and horizontal relations between different archaeological sites and other landscape features, like geomorphologic setting, hydrological assets, soil types, raw materials availability, and so forth, in time and space. This instrument has been found in geographic information systems (GIS), defined as a set of computer-based applications aimed at storing, transforming, manipulating and analyzing spatially distributed data. The development of these systems began around 1980. They were used in many fields concerned with mapping, analysis and modeling of spatial data, including geology, geography, and environmental sciences (Douglas & Boyle, 1982; Evans & Daly, 2006).

The introduction of GIS technologies in historical sciences and in cultural heritage management (known as well as cultural resources management “CRM”) has supplied the society of knowledge with a formidable instrument to fully understand the evolution of its habitat and to preserve its environmental and historical patrimony.

The impact of these ITs in our discipline has been so powerful that an animated debate is still going on about whether GIS should be considered as just a tool or whether it is a science in its own right (Conolly & Lake, 2006; Wright et al., 1997). Periodical as well as occasional meetings, congresses, workshops, and conferences take place regularly all over the world, and more and more specialized series of volumes and periodicals are being published in traditional or electronic form, about the relationship between archaeology and computers, or more specifically about GIS in archaeology (e.g., the Proceedings of the Annual Conferences on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology, edited in the BAR International Series; the Journal of GIS in Archaeology on the ESRI Website: www.esri.com/library/journals/archaeology). Still, in spite of the fact that new GIS products are available on the market almost every day, and that the existing software is continuously implemented and updated, notwithstanding that new and more complete manuals on digital archaeology are regularly edited, we could state that the basic deontology of the discipline has been defined and the correctness of basic procedures fixed. This also means that the most updated or recent achievements or studies are not always to be considered as a substantial contribution to the literature and a progress of the discipline.

The goal of this article is therefore to review a series of GIS-based archaeological projects, presenting different approaches and results, mostly taken from the geographical context of southern Europe, and to try to evaluate, in an objective way, which are the pros and cons, and the problems involved. Instead of presenting just one case study, we prefer to refer to a selection of good examples and some personal experience.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Spatial Data Analysis: A set of techniques, ranging from those of the statistics to those of locational modeling, that allows statistical tests of spatial data and analyzes their patterns of distribution.

Landscape Archaeology: Branch of archaeology that aims at the historical reconstruction of settlement dynamics and settlement patterns, resources exploitation modalities and ecological transformation in the course of time, and traces sequences of interactions between human occupation and environmental phenomena.

DEM/DTM: Digital elevation and digital terrain models of the earth surface, that take into account not only the topographic height of the terrain (normally expressed in meters above sea level) but also any variation over the land surface. Most of DEM and DTM are produced extracting and processing the contour and height information in topographical maps and aerial photography, but any measurable landform and any physical characteristic of a landscape can be elaborated in a DTM (e.g., pottery distributions or land-division elements).

Cultural Resource Management (CRM): The entire set of operations involved in investigating, recording, handling and protecting the Cultural Heritage by a series of institutions, agencies, associations, administrators and individuals. CRM is nowadays intended in a wider meaning, as it includes not only artifacts and monumental structures but also all the traces that the past has left in and around the human habitat.

GIS: A geographic information system or geographical information system (GIS) is, in the strictest sense, a computer-based technology for acquisition, storage, integration, manipulation and analysis of spatial data and associated attributes. In a more generic sense, GIS is not only a system that presents information about geographic space, but mostly a tool that allows users to create interactive queries (user created searches), analyze the spatial information, and edit data.

GPS: The global positioning system (GPS) is a worldwide radio-navigation system formed from a constellation of 24 orbiting satellites (US Department of Defense) and their ground stations. GPS receivers, nowadays sufficiently reliable, easily transportable and reasonably priced, exchange radio signals with the satellites that are orbiting above the area concerned, and estimate the coordinates position whose accuracy varies of the orders of meters or even centimeters.

Survey and Sampling: archaeological practice aiming at systematically recording archaeological sites and elements that are still perceptible on the terrain, under the form of still visible structural remains, earthworks or scattered artifacts. Survey is a fundamental investigative method of Landscape Archaeology, aiming to collect data about ancient settlement distribution and to locate unknown archaeological sites and features without recourse to excavation. Given the usual extension of the area to cover, only few sectors of it could be sampled or selected by means of random choice or a complex statistical analysis.

CAD (Computer Aided/Assisted Design/Drawing): Vector-based software that assembles data consisting in points, lines, volumes and instructions. Images (plans, maps, drawings, axonometric views, etc.) are built within a referencing coordinates system and data are usually displayed in layers. That permits rotation, inversion, panning, zooming and navigation thought the structures. As since the late 1980’s CAD has developed three-dimension functionalities, the mark-line between Computer Design and other three-dimensional modeling programs has started to blur.

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