What Are the Uses of GIS in Archaeology?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) can be extremely valuable in archaeology, where the ability to map items and other data can be critical. Researchers can use a system to enter data as they collect it, store it in an effective and accessible way, and analyze it. They create a library of information for use in activities ranging from determining who may have lived at a site to identifying the likely distribution path of items that may have been suspended in sediment. Some software programs are specifically designed for use in archaeology, while others can be used in a different manner.

Woman with hand on her hip
Woman with hand on her hip

Researchers in this field have a particular interest in the location of items. Historically, before starting work on a site, they photographed and mapped extensively, and excavated with care to record the precise location of each artifact and other finding; things like tree stumps, for example, could be important in analysis. This required painstaking detail work that had critical implications. Using GIS in archaeology can speed the process of documenting sites and creates a much more accessible database.

In site surveys, GIS can allow people to map topography, geology, and other features like plants and trees. They can also overlay weather patterns, existing structures, and things of interest on the site. As people begin to excavate, they can use GIS in archaeology to precisely tag the location of everything they find, along with noting soil transitions and other features. This generates a living record of the site which can be critical in data analysis in the future.

Analyzing data from archaeological sites can be overwhelming. People who use GIS in archaeology can take advantage of some automated processing features; for example, they can highlight similar artifacts to learn more about their distribution, or they can look for traces of rivers or fields that might explain the layout of a site. They can also run simulations for activities like understanding how buildings broke down, or mapping changes in location for riverbeds and other major features.

The use of GIS in archaeology has a wide range of applications, explaining why members of this discipline were among the first to embrace such systems. This among other tools can add perspective to sites and make it easier to process data, which can enable complex logical leaps and hypotheses. For example, someone examining a site might notice similar fragments which appear to come from a large bowl or pot, and could use GIS to generate a predictive map showing where to look for the rest of the object. Another researcher using GIS in archaeology might use site analysis to locate temples and key structures, or to hypothesize about the role of a mysterious structure.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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