Reflections on GIS, Archaeology, and the Spatial

Thinking ahead to our meeting and conversation with Dr. Craft, I’d like to consider a theme across the readings and some resulting questions that occurred while I tried to take in and make sense of an immense amount of research on a topic that I admittedly know little about.

The prominent theme woven across most of the texts was the notion that GIS, as traditionally conceived, constrains the options of those representing not only the data, but also the lived realities behind that data. The prominent response seems to be that those in archeology and geography should reconsider the role and means of visualization, whether that be related to virtual reality, geovisual analytics systems, or an approach such as inductive visualization.

In terms of dealing with questions and representations of space, GIS is useful, and Jo Guldi provides a list of concerns common to the “softer” disciplines, including “spatial questions about nations and their boundaries, states and surveillance, private property, and the perception of landscape, all of which fell into contestation during the nineteenth century.” While GIS offers itself for aggregating data and analyzing it, it contains limitations when attempting to address the embodied nature of places.

Gary Lock discusses a shift beyond the phenomenological in VR, noting that there has been a shift “from observational representation toward a representation of inhabitation, a dissolving of the subject/object dichotomy”—yet VR hasn’t been able to fully productively embrace the affordances of phenomenology because the technology still reifies the “detached gaze” of the observer (98). Instead, he argues for theories that continue to push at what it means to represent, theories in which “[t]he focus falls on how life takes shape and gains expression in shared experiences, everyday routines, fleeting encounters, embodied movements, precognitive triggers, practical skills, affective intensities, enduring urges, unexceptional interactions and sensuous dispositions” (Lorimer qtd. 99).

Lock highlights approaches to non-representational mapping using digital technologies that allow for the layering of data and images and improved searchability as well as for increased collaboration among users—these tools allow for inhabitation, for human experience and activity, in maps. Regarding collaboration, too, I found a post on the Antiquity À-la-carte blog noteworthy for its emphasis on the Creative Commons license and commercial uses of content without additional purposes, which seems to illustrate, in part, Lock’s point.

Gupta and Devillers are sensitive to a similar problem. Although GIS has allowed researchers to bring together data, analysis, and representation, its information-centric nature stifles the messiness intrinsic to depicting places where humans have lived and continue to live. The authors note that GIS fails in this regard “because [the] tools are often inadequate in facilitating an understanding of complex real-world processes and events. […] [Consequently,] archeologists too often reduce phenomena is size and complexity to match the capabilities of existing tools.”

To combat this effect, they turn their attention to advanced analytical geovisual, or geographic visualization, approaches that foreground researchers’ own “cognitive abilities (rather than equations and algorithms) to process information and generate new knowledge.” Interestingly, these efforts don’t only help return lived experience to maps—they also return human cognition and experience to research methods. Is this also a benefit of a shift towards more human-oriented methodologies and more embodied methods?

Anne Knowles et al.’s inductive visualization serves a similar purpose to Gupta and Devillers’ advanced geovisual methods. Considering the inherent shortcomings of methodologies supporting technology such as GIS, they find fault with GIS for “the loss of meaning or the invention of meaning” when representational approaches have to contend with qualitative data (236). As such, they offer an approach that they term inductive visualization, in which researchers’ perceptions and intuitions suggest the most productive method for sorting through, analyzing, and representing data: it is a “creative, experimental exploration of the structure, content, and meaning of source material” (244).

Among their visuals in the article, one that seemed especially helpful to me in reflecting what the authors are arguing for is figure five, Erik Steiner’s graphic representation using grouped letters to show “relatively how much the women said in relation to the places and stages of their traumatic journey” (246). Yet I wonder then about the role of such visualizations in research (and I’m thinking here of scholars like Johanna Drucker and N. Katherine Hayles): what kind of weight do we give to more innovative representations when they appear, for instance, in work being reviewed for tenure? In rhet/comp, online publications are often valued less than print publications—is this a comparable phenomenon that we see in light of digital technologies’ effects on research?

Each of these approaches seems, to a degree, to answer Llobera’s assertion that an interpretive methodology makes room for rich, messy relationships and situations more fruitfully than the less flexible GIS-based methodologies, and I think we see the results of more integrative, “expressive” approaches in examples like Pleiades and ORBIS. Pleiades I find interesting for how it distinguishes between “places” and “locations” (even though the links direct to the same page, intentionally or accidentally), which might speak to how those in archeology, geography, etc. differentiate between cultural sites and movement and physical spaces.

Yet, I have to wonder about the interactivity of the site, as it struck me as less user-friendly than I would have liked. When considering the design of humanist GIS efforts, how important is ease or intuitiveness of use? And do we ask that specialists like archeologists also function as programmers and designers? While Pleiades is intriguing, ORBIS seems more capacious in its features, and one feature of ORBIS that surprised me but, the more I worked with it, struck me as exceedingly useful, is the ability to define the month or season of the route. Thinking of layering, searchability, and inhabitation over representation, I think ORBIS most exemplifies an effective humanist map—the consideration for how expensive a route would be, for example, gestures to the humans and culture of the time and place.

A fun post-script: Sunday night, the History Channel aired two one-hour shows back-to-back about the mystery of the lost Roanoke colony. At one point, one of the specialists consulted was a geospatial archeologist who (very briefly) demonstrated how he used satellite topographical data in combination with data about the native tribes and data about copper mines to speculate about possible locations for copper ore—it seemed a useful and relevant example of what a humanist mapping of historical human activity looks like.


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