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GIS Archaeology Survey

Khalid Gourad
Khalid Gourad is a GIS consultant in US.
Email: [email protected]

Archaeology, as a spatial discipline, has used GIS in a variety of ways. At the simplest level, GIS has found applications as database management for archaeological records, with the added benefit of being able to create instant maps. It has been implemented in cultural resource management contexts, where archaeological site locations are predicted using statistical models based on previously identified site locations. It has also been used to simulate diachronic changes in past landscapes, and as a tool in intra-site analysis; although this last application has not enjoyed the same popularity as the others.

An online survey was conducted seeking to establish a quantitative approach to the use of GIS in archaeology, its capabilities and limits.

The survey consisted of six parts: The first part gave instructions as how to and who should complete the survey, and an approximation of how long doing so should take. The second part asked for information about the participant; his or her name, which was optional; geographic location; title; and degree held. The third part attempted to establish the participants’ familiarity with GIS.

The fourth part of the survey determined how the participant used his or her GIS software The fifth part of the survey asked for the impact of GIS on the participant’s research. Finally, the sixth part of the survey sought to establish the participant’s familiarity with GIS issues that potentially skew the results. This part is beyond the scope of this article. For details, visit

About the Participants
The project ultimately accepted 140 entries. The list of the geographic location of the participants is given in Table 1.

Table 1: Number of entries from various countries

Country Entries Country  Entries
U. S. A 78 France 1
U. K. 12 Lebanon 1
Spain 11 Canada 1
Australia 10 Austria 1
Sweden 3 Denmark 1
Germany 2 Romania 1
Japan 2 Greece 1
Finland 2 Hungary 1
Netherland 2 Slovenia 1
Belgium 2 Norway 1
Italy 2 Chile 1
Portugal 1 South Africa 1
Ireland 1

Fig 1: GIS Software used by Archeologists (n=115)

Seventy seven per cent had higher degrees. 91% were involved in GIS projects when they completed the survey. More than 72% had more than two years of experience using the tool, which is a reasonable amount of time to familiarise oneself with the technology. It was interesting that 33% of the participants had not attended any formal GIS classes, workshops, or seminars. It is important to note that the length of the classes and their level were not emphasized. The question was intended to establish who had taught themselves GIS and who had not. Frequency of GIS use was high, with 41% of the participants using the tool everyday.

Support groups are a way of sharing news, suggestions and problems with people that share a common interest. Being part of an online support group is now one of the best ways to find out about common applications of GIS use as well as common mistakes. Thirty two per cent of the participants were members of GIS support groups. Only 6% of the participants attended GIS related conferences on a frequent basis. Going to a conference about a topic is a good indicator of the level of involvement of the participant in that topic.

Sixty three per cent of the participants were involved in choosing their system, which makes sense in a discipline like archaeology, where projects usually involve an intimate number of decision-makers, and a substantial number of projects are one-person operations. Figure 1 shows the type of software used by archaeologists and the platforms they run on. ESRI’s Arcview and ArcInfo were the leaders in software used by archaeologists. PCs used more than any platforms, indicating, again, the small nature of GIS operations in archaeology.

Types of Applications
Answers to the first question in this category emphasized the fact that site-based analyses using GIS are in their infancy. Region-based analyses have dominated the use of GIS. Determining the type of applications used was rather important because it showed whether the participants were making the most of the tool. While GIS is undoubtedly a powerful tool and has functions that cater to very complex modelling needs, it is still a tool that is driven by market demands , often of a non-archaeological nature. GIS is fundamentally a set of incomplete modules that can only be expanded upon and effectively utilised by adding one’s own algorithms through programming languages. Without this functionality, the user is left with the default capabilities of the software, which leaves the software makers in control of the shape of future research. Only 22 of the 140 participants used their own algorithms, and, of these 22, only 14 listed them as one of their most successful applications.

The scope of the software analyses used was wide, and showed that the participants made use of most of the features available in their GIS packages. Problematic operations were by far data collection, data conversion, and data compatibility. Data sources showed a high frequency of manual digitizing and database sources. This could be a result of directly imputing data in a computer database in the field, or exporting an existing database into a GIS readable format. Internet downloads were among the least frequent source of data.

Impact on Research
Four per cent of the participants thought that the simplicity of GIS software limited their ability to apply their models. Seven per cent stated that GIS complexity reduced their ability to apply their models. Fifty per cent believed that GIS opened their mind to more expressive models, while 15% expressed that GIS did not change the way their models were designed. Twenty three per cent decided that none of the above answers applied to them and finally 1% did not answer the question. The results reinforced the idea that GIS is more than a tool. It is certainly not a simple tool because it is not limiting anyone’s imagination in terms of analysis. If it is restrictive in a way, it is the software’s complexity that keeps people from implementing what they have in mind. Nonetheless, it is clear that GIS has significantly impacted users spatial thinking as half of the participants thought GIS opened their mind to more ideas.