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GIS in Archaeology

Prof. Mark Aldenderfer
Department of Anthropology, Director
Office of Information Technology
University of California
Santa Barbara, CA 93106
[email protected]

This is a wonderful time to be working with GIS and remote sensing technologies in the field of archaeology. Although our field has been deeply involved with both for some time, it has only been over the past decade that they have risen to prominence as analytical tools that every archaeologist should understand, if not use, in their own research. In great part, this explosion of interest has been stimulated by advances in technology, including the widespread availability of GPS, the development of imaging systems with extraordinarily high spatial resolution, the continued improvement of GIS software, and the appearance of workstations and desktop computers capable of performing sophisticated analyses of GIS and remotely sensed data. Changes in policy, however, have also been important. The United States government in 2000 turned off selective availability for the civilian sector GPS users, making it possible to locate sites and make maps with ordinary receivers at a high level of accuracy. Governments have made accessible once classified satellite images, such as those from the US CORONA project and a number of Russian sources. Together, these advances have provided archaeologists with a set of important tools useful in the spatial analysis of archaeological phenomena.

Archaeologist have been quick to take advantage of these improvements in technology, and have been keenly interested in how these technologies can be effectively integrated. For example, many regional-scale projects now use satellite imagery to generate data about landforms and vegetation cover of a survey area, and these are used to create data layers directly in a GIS. They are also used routinely to built DEMs of project areas that in combination with data derived from archaeological survey can be used to evaluate ancient trade routes, patterns in locational preference, and political boundaries. Even more exciting is the use of GIS in combination with near-surface sensed data (such as that derived from a ground-penetrating radar) to look below the surface of the ground at an archaeological site before excavation ever takes place. Not only can archaeologists visualize their sites in new ways, they also have the powerful analytical capabilities of GIS at their disposal which can be used to fine tune and explore these data.

Although archaeologists will continue to excavate their sites in traditional ways, the integration of GIS and RS data at both high and low scales of spatial resolution will lead to the discovery of new empirical information about the history of our species, and will help us to understand better the hows and whys of human social and cultural evolution in ways heretofore impossible.

About the author
Aldenderfer received his Ph.D. in 1977 from the Pennsylvania State University, and has focused much of his research on the application of quantitative methods to archaeological problems. He began using GIS in his research in the early 1990s at a regional scale during archaeological survey in the Lake Titicaca basin of southern Peru. Recently, he has begun investigating the ways in which GIS can be used at the intrasite level, and has a special interest in the use of digital technologies of all kinds as primary field recording methods. You can know more about his research as well as that of some of his students with similar interests at . Among his GIS-related publications are . Anthropology , Space, and Geographic Information Systems (1996, with H. Maschner), and “Interactive data exploration on the WWW for classroom activities in archaeology using ArcView Internet Map Server,” with A. Clifford and N. Craig (1999, ESRI User Conference Proceedings). He is also preparing a book on Archaeology and GIS for Leicester University Press. His research in GIS has been recently recognized with a Special Achievement in GIS Award from ESRI (2001).