GIS – Through the Archaeological Lens

Spatial analysis in archaeology today encompasses a wide range of experiential, fieldwork-based, and deterministic approaches that vary considerably in their intended purpose and theoretical underpinnings.  The rapid uptake of computational methods such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and related methods in archaeology from the late 1980s and early 1990s marks a disciplinary change, for enthusiasts and critics alike, increasing by an order of magnitude the quantity of spatial data that could be managed and analyzed, especially for those working at the scale of entire archaeological landscapes.

Over the past few decades there has been a large debate between two strands of archaeological theory.  A very brief summary of the argument follows.  Proponents of post-processual, qualitative, experientialist, or phenomenological landscape theory in archaeology have argued that quantitative or empirical techniques, which include GIS-based mapping methods and predictive techniques, effectively dehumanize and distort the past through an ethnocentric gaze.  In response, strong criticisms have been raised about the validity of evidence presented in the qualitative, experiential, or phenomenological frameworks, especially research methods that are characterized as highly subjective attempts to empathize with the lives of long-dead human beings.

Several of these readings illustrate the gap in theories.  As I reflect upon this divergence of theories, GIS becomes collateral damage.  The underlying argument is not about GIS, it is about the interpretation of the data that is evaluated.  GIS, by definition, is a system that keeps track of where events happen or exist and when.  It is a platform for creating and maintaining maps and a tool for querying, editing, and analyzing spatial data.  I sense in the arguments and in the preliminary articles leading up to discussion, that the keyword “analyze” is the culprit for GIS to bear the responsibility of interpretation.  While analysis is the groundwork for interpretation, data collection is the groundwork for analysis.  Any visualization of data is always dependent on the underlying data collected.

Virtually every attempt to economize process—with GIS or not—presents certain challenges to interpretation and knowledge production, and thus all attempts should be analyzed critically in terms of their methodological or interpretive efficacy.  As scholars we must ask: are we getting the right data; are we asking the right questions?  As archaeologists, we must not only consider our immediate questions, but we must be mindful of the entirety of the data collection process.  Are we limiting our data collection to the immediate research or are we collecting enough data so that future scholars can ask new questions?  This is especially true of excavation sites.  Once excavated we have changed the site and cannot restore it to its undisturbed state.

I look forward to the chance to learn about Dr. Craft’s project.

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One thought on “GIS – Through the Archaeological Lens

  1. Pingback: Knowing, Being, Mapping: Dr. Craft and GIS | FSU Digital Scholars

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