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Taking steps in space and time

Ing. Ubo Pakes
GIS consultant
GIS tailor-made

Dr. Leny G. Ocasiones
faculty member of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology
University of San Carlos
Cebu City

Gilbert Busé,Jan Willem Beestman
working at the Archeologisch Diensten Centrum (ADC)

The University of San Carlos (USC) in Cebu City, Philippines has a long track record on archaeological research and education led by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The artifact collection in the University Museum is a vivid proof of this long tradition. Recently, SoAn felt the need to upgrade its curriculum and the expertise of its staff in order to maintain its leading status in the Philippines. One of the needs pointed out is the knowledge and ability to use modern surveying and analysis tools such as GIS and GPS. In order to respond to this need, a training proposal was designed and, thanks to The Netherlands government through NUFFIC funding, a tailor- made training was made possible. The training was designed and delivered by a consortium of Van Hall Larenstein University for Professional Education (VHL), Archeologisch Diensten Centrum (ADC) both in the Netherlands and Geoplan Foundation in Cebu City.

The overall goal of the training was to improve the state of archaeology and cultural heritage in the Philippines by strengthening the skills and knowledge of USC SoAn in GIS and GPS in archaeology. In order to reach this goal, the training focused on enhancing the curriculum with elements of new digital techniques as GIS and GPS; facilitating modern archeological methods in research that will attract more students from the Visayas and Mindanao and establishing a database of archeological sites and artifacts. The integration of new techniques in archeology is also expected to attract more new students since it also enhances the study of Philippine communities of before and during Spanish colonization.

State of the art GIS and Archaeology
In the Netherlands, archaeological excavations very often cover large areas (up to tens of thousands of square metres) with large quantities of archaeological features.

These features mainly consist of discolorations of the subsoil (mainly sand and clay with almost no inclusions like rocks), caused by human activities such as digging. For example, the remains of a wooden house would consist of several rows of dark spots in the subsoil, caused by the digging and subsequent filling up of the postholes, the wooden posts themselves having been decayed or pulled out. Plans of the archaeological features are drawn, traditionally by hand, and recently also by the use of Total Stations. These modern geodetic instruments have the advantage of high accuracy, speed and digital recording and output of data. They can record not only X-, Y-and Z-coordinates, but also attribute information. By the use of these instruments, the step of digitising the field drawings is left out, and a digital plan is directly created from the raw data in a GIS application; the attribute data is automatically stored in the table belonging to the digital plan.

In the course of data processing and analysis, a database is created containing determination lists and dates. The interpretation of features and structures is also stored in the database, and the database is combined with the digital plan.

This combination of spatial and tabular data is used for the analysis of find distributions, phases in settlement history etc. The outcome may be a variety of thematic maps which can be used in the process of interpretation, as a means of cross-checking the data, and as illustrations in publication.

Pilipino situation
In the Philippines, GIS is not yet widely used in archaeology. There are a number of pilots where GIS is used in predictive modeling, but as tool in documenting and analyzing finds and excavations, the tool is virtually unknown. In the Philippines, only 1*1 or 2*2 m excavations are allowed. The location of an excavation is then known by a fixed point, orientation and distance from this point and the size of the excavation. There is little or no digital mapping and the location of the site is measured using traditional geodetic tools. GPS is not used, since the accuracy of many hand held apparatus is not good enough. Within an excavation, the locations of finds drawn by hand using a raster created over the excavation. Creating spatial datasets and digital databases of excavations and finds are yet nonexistent.

Learning principles
It is our vision that a successful implementation of GIS in education is based on the combination of teaching and (applied) research and consultancy, i.e. the use of GIS methodologies in actual field work and research. GIS applications are used in the field of work of various disciplinary experts in order to help find solutions for problems with a spatial component. It is therefore imperative to combine education and the application of GIS techniques in projects. Apart from formal training, exposure to GIS through archaeological projects is necessary in order to acquire the necessary skills and techniques. Without this combination there is a high risk that the GIS modules at and teaching institution will become static subjects when the direct connection with the actual field is no longer present. Our experience also showed that students are more excited about the integration of GIS in their fields of expertise if they go through all phases of data collection, analysis and visualization when they can apply these on actual and relevant case studies.

Another important factor is that the training does not aim at creating GIS specialists, but to enhance the technical capabilities of the archaeology teachers. The training therefore is founded on a sound foundation of topical content and data, whereas the use of GIS can be demonstrated with the following scheme:

Figure 1: schema of applied GIS

The management in the top of the triangle represents the (virtual or actual) management where questions are asked and for whom answers or management information need to be produced. These answers can be generated when both the field of expertise and technical skills are combined. The foundation of spatial and attribute data guarantees that spatial context is fully integrated in the process. This same scheme has been successfully applied by VHL in helping students and trainees find their ambitions and training needs when it comes to the use of GIS in their career. The aim of the trainees in this project was mainly to move their skills on the horizontal axis by enhancing their technical skills and knowledge of GIS.

The program
The training started with an introduction on GIS and familiarization with concepts of GIS and archaeology organized by the GEOPLAN foundation, Cebu City, the Philippines. This was followed by a six-week training on GIS and archaeology in the Netherlands which included a number of field visits. This ensured that the trainees also had hands-on experience in actual excavations conducted in The Netherlands. Back in the Philippines, the next element was a case study where a database of archaeological finds was built. These data will be used in education as well as for the extension work of USC to the needs of local governments and non-government organizations (NGOs) in the Philippines.

Since GIS is best learned through a combination of theory and hands-on, both elements were present in the training. All the elements of GIS, GPS and geodesy learned at VHL were put to the test in an actual excavation in Wijk bij Duurstede. The whole process of data collection to the actual mapping and entering into the database were practiced here. The mobile exhibition that was present at the site is also something that will be used in Cebu to help raising interest and understanding of the (pre-Spanish) heritage of the Philippines.

Figure 2: Field classes in an excavation in Wijk bij Duurstede (The Netherlands).

Before and during the training, all trainees participated in an excavation near one of the oldest churches in the Philippines in Boljoon, Cebu, the Philippines. These excavations show the differences in archeological approach in the Netherlands and the Philippines. Although in both countries a registered archaeologist has to supervise an excavation, in the Netherlands an excavation can contain a huge area where several sub sites can be found, so digital and effective mapping is not only convenient, but also necessary. In the Philippines, only 1*1 or 2*2 m excavations are allowed. These are not digitally mapped but geographically positioned to a known point in the area and measured through traditional means such as alidade.

The locations of finds are only drawn by hand and digital databases of excavations and finds are yet nonexistent. In the second excavation though, over 1500 artifacts have already been accessioned and catalogued into MS Access, following the data structure designed in the training. Geo-referencing of the site using the topographic map using GPS will now proceed once the data has been encoded. This newly-created GIS database is unique in the Philippines and USC is using this now as basis for its GIS and Archaeology education. Efforts are being made to make this a standard in the country.

Figure 3: Fieldwork in an excavation site in Boljoon, Cebu, Philippines.

The differences in “archeological culture” between the two countries resulted into last minute preparations sometimes, but also in interesting discussions. USC adheres to the American tradition where archaeology is taught as part of anthropology whereas in the Netherlands, archaeology is treated as a separate study. In excavations, standards were set by the National Museum in the Philippines including the presence of National Museum personnel during actual excavations; the archaeologist need also follow the standards set by the municipality where the excavation is conducted while in the Netherlands the archaeologist needs to comply with the standards set by the “KNA” (“Kwaliteitsnorm Nederlandse Archeologie”), the national Dutch quality standard for archaeology. These differences were especially shown in the excavations in Boljoon and Wijk bij Duurstede.

During the several differences were noted in field practice and recording of data between the Dutch and the Philippine archaeologists. The Philippine archaeologists work in the American tradition, which means that they use small excavation trenches and detailed recording of finds and contexts and their relation in their exact location. Because of the consistence of the subsoil and the fact that the terrain in the Netherlands is almost flat we have the possibility to excavate in large trenches. We uncover lots of square meters at once with a power shovel and create a single level or surface (vlak). We record the archaeological features we recognize on this surface with Total Stations This makes it possible and relevant to plot the features on maps since often big parts of the site have been excavated. In this way the relationship between groups of features (together forming a house plan for example) can be discovered and analyzed. The features are excavated next and archeological finds are collected. The finds are recorded and a relationship is made between the find and the feature it was found in. This way of working is specified in the quality-norms, to which the archeological excavators in the Netherlands must comply. Data are usually assembled in a relational database, because a lot of phenomena have a one-to-many relationship (excavation trench versus surface, surface versus feature, feature versus finds). During the training the trainees setup a relational database tailored to their needs inspired by the database used at ADC.


As part of the output of tailor-made training in the Netherlands, a course syllabus to be offered to Sociology and Anthropology students was made which aims, among others, to:

  • review the concepts underlying the operation of geographic information systems and its uses in archaeology.
  • provide an environment to apply the knowledge in collecting, digitizing, visualizing, modeling and analyzing archaeological data.
  • To develop the capacity of students to summarize, compile and report archaeological data, in both narrative and visual matrix and other graphic or tabular display formats.

This is an advanced course designed for students to better appreciate geographic information systems as a tool for collecting, digitizing, visualizing, modeling and analyzing real-world spatial archaeological data. It is divided into three sections:

  1. spatial technologies and archaeology — applications description, definitions and concepts;
  2. archaeological approaches to GIS;
  3. hands-on-experience with GIS applications in archaeology through laboratory and field exercises.

For students to be able to take this course, they are required however to have taken already courses on Introduction to Archaeology, Quantitative and Qualitative Research Methods and Introduction to GIS. With these requirements it is also assured that there is a good learning curve for students and that GIS is not just a single subject, but is also structurally embedded in the curriculum.

Course Content
The first part of the course tackles the basics of spatial technologies and its relevance to archaeology. This includes topics such as spatial information, uses of GIS in archaeology, spatial database versus traditional database, thematic mapping and georeferencing. Part two dwells on documenting and organizing archeological data and reviews data gathered during the archaeological excavation (from forms, GPS/total station, etc.), design a spatial database, and encode data to MS Access Database. This serves as hands-on exercise to students to familiarize themselves with spatial technologies available to process and systematize archaeological data.

Part three of the course is the analysis of archaeological data. Here students will be asked to define the problem to be analyzed, define criteria and identify data to be used, plan and prepare the analysis and finally execute the analysis. Next part will be equipping students with the necessary skills in presenting their data as it teaches them to digitize archaeological maps. Inputs here include importance of visibility in archaeology, building spatial queries and thematic maps of the archaeological excavation (e.g., site, excavation units, per unit, finds, features, etc.) and creating presentation maps.

The final part of the course teaches students how to use the skills and knowledge they acquire on spatial technologies and archaeology in serving their communities through cultural resource management. Here students will be taught the importance of spatial technology for heritage management, archaeological resource as a continuous variation and finally, in building a research community.


The combination of technical GIS trainings in combination with hands-on cases, specialist input and applied fieldwork were very good ways to make the training effective. Also the integration of different fields of expertise in one training proved to be a new and valuable approach for the trainees. They also noted though that the tropical climate favors excavating in the Philippines more.

A word of reservation was also in place: in the Netherlands labor is expensive so there are many innovative and high technology elements in the commercial excavation process that focus on maximizing the effect of manual labor. In the Philippines however, labor is cheap and technical elements are expensive, so the use of high tech and high cost techniques is not as obvious. Therefore the country has to find a way on how to include some of the technical aspects in their education and research.

The authors would like to express their gratitude to all the staff from ADC, Geoplan, Van Hall Larenstein and USC for their support and enthusiastic cooperation in this project.