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GIS application in Archaeology

GIS application in Archaeology

Archaeology, the anthropology of extinct cultures, provides some means of learning about the way of human life before the earliest written records. The subject is historical as it deals with human behaviour viewed through time and supplements written sources with the documentation provided by artifactual evidence from the past. It is regarded as a set of specialised techniques for obtaining cultural data from ancient times; the data thus obtained are usable by all who have an interest in spatio-temporal variations of man and his activities.

The greatest significance of archaeology lies in the time depth with which it supplements anthropology’s synchronic studies of societies in all parts of the world. Thus, archaeology consists of both temporal and spatial dimension, established on the discoveries of the past. The procedures of archaeology include observation, description and explanation in the context of space and time.

Archaeology, which by character itself is history, has a bright historical background of evolution through ages. Its roots go back to the Renaissance interest in the antiquities of Greece and Rome. In the early 1800s, interest in the European past was expanded and supplemented by a rapid growth of interest in the Middle East stimulated by some efforts made during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt (1798-1801). From 1820 onwards, human skeletal remains, the bones of extinct animals and stone objects that were eventually recognised as man-made tools, were found associated with each other. In 1836, Thomsen, the first curator of the National Museum of Denmark, published in definitive form the scheme of three successive ‘ages’ – Stone, Bronze and Iron. By the 1880s, in England, General Lane-Fax Pitt-Rivers developed techniques of careful excavating and recording that remain models to the present. At about the same time, Sir Flinders Petric, in Egypt, developed the technique of ceramic seriation of common household vessels to reveal subtle chronological changes. George Reisner, in Egypt and Palestine, gave added emphasis to the analysis and interpretation of natural stratification.

The use of remote sensing and GIS in the field of archaeology has accelerated the advancement of the subject all over the world. The first attempt of the old prospection technique, ‘aerial archaeology’, to use distant views for archaeological purposes, was made during the last century. The recordings of Stonehenge (from 1906) and the Forum Romanum (1906-1908) were most remarkable. At the same time, in Egypt, Leonard Wooley located Egyptian tombs from the top of a hill and Earl Morris, a pioneer from the southwest, took aerial pictures by climbing on telegraph poles besides his excavations.

Today most of the archaeologists are turning to GIS, Remote Sensing and GPS for creation of large-scale databases for organising, analysing and sharing the products of their field research and general patterns to the process of increasing the use of technology involving the scale and timing of database construction. Archaeological data is collected at two basic scales: survey and excavation. Construction of archaeological GIS datasets has taken place almost entirely at the scale of survey data. However, a principal advantage of GIS technology is that it is a scaleless spatial infrastructure. Given this technological fact, there is no theoretical reason why GIS datasets of excavation data could not be just as common as survey scale datasets have become. On the other hand, Satellite Imageries and GPS have been one of the effective tools in archaeological investigations. With the help of prototype software programmes, the computer technology has enabled us to determine its locational site and georeference the data as they are gathered.

The recordings of Stonehenge during the early 20th century using aerial photography, has been one of the very good examples of the English Heritage site, where GIS has played a major role in landscape management. Today Stonehenge is looked after by the English Heritage Trust and is technically managed with information data acquired from satellite imagery, colour aerial photography and very high-resolution height data. SPOT imagery was used to generate improved Digital Terrain Models to research invisibility and spatial relationships within the Stonehenge environs. With the help of GIS, the existing graphic and textual data have been integrated, creating a more effective tool for data management, analysis and presentation.

Archaeology in India has also achieved a higher profile with support from modern techniques like remote sensing and GIS. NRSA and SAC have taken a major initiative in this area. Successive works can be seen within this magazine. Already efforts have been successfully made to record information regarding archaeological sites of India. For this purpose, IRS satellites are mainly used and mapping is done on the basis of the remotely sensed data. The present evidences, which are quite related to palaeo conditions, are explained in terms of valuable discoveries where archaeology possesses a remarkable position.