GIS and Experience

The recent volume of the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19 (2012) addressed the complex issue of integrating Geographic Information Systems and methods grounded in embodied experiences or phenomenological approaches to archaeological space. In the literature, these two approaches to archaeological space and landscapes have been at odds with each other. Recently, however, a group of scholars have begun to consider a tentative rapprochement between the two techniques of producing knowledge of archaeological space.

While the articles in this volume propose a wide range of potential compromises between these two approaches to archaeological space, generally they acknowledge epistemological barriers between the two methods of generating archaeological knowledge. GIS methods tend to ascribe to a kind of abstract determinism that runs counter to forms of archaeological knowledge generated from the human senses. Several scholars, however, proposed ways to reconcile these two approaches by understanding that GIS based analyses provide a point of departure and comparison for more experiential approaches.

The issue for experiential and embodied archaeological practices is how far or even whether they can divorce from our cartographic view of the world. Our society (and that includes the part of the world outside of archaeological knowledge) demands that we conceptualize the world through two dimension maps, although not exclusively. Daily weather reports, roads and routes, and even archaeological publications rely in part on a cartographic sensibility that is deeply embedded in our modern world view. Experiential archaeology can almost certainly challenge this perspective, but it remains unclear whether these practices and forms of documentation can ever put the modern genie back in the bottle. A discipline that developed alongside a “god’s eye view” of the world does not easily forget this perspective.

That being said, the emergence of arguments for the landscape and archaeological space as embodied, lived, and experienced have problematized the sterile character of maps and the modern assumptions that emerge from them. As several articles in this collection suggest, even the most sophisticated maps of viewshed or resource distribution can fall short of capturing in a consistent way the actual experience of humans in the landscape. Rennel’s treatment of Iron Age sites in the Hebrides, for example, demonstrated how viewshed maps could not properly capture the experience of sites built on islands in freshwater lochs. According to Rennel, the banks of the lochs provided a sense of security by hiding part of the local landscape from view in ways that that viewshed analysis overlooked. McEwan tested a complex probability model against a known ancient landscape and found it similarly lacking and identified subtle features in the landscape that shaped ancient activities, but were overlooked in probability models. The issues identified by Rennel and McEwan generally centered on notions of scale. GIS and other tools allow researchers to generalize experience across the landscape, but as a result struggle to adapt to highly localized or small scale variations.

At times, however, generalized models provide the only access that scholars have to past landscapes. As  Millican used aerial photography to document sites preserved as little more than cropmarks.  The absence of standing features or even the remains of the ancient topography makes it difficult to argue for an embodied experience in this landscape. Aerial photographs, plans, geological prospecting, and maps brought together in GIS to form the basis for understanding a now vanished landscape. The reconstructed landscape in conjunction with time in the field and on site provides a hybridized opportunity to experience an ancient place. On a larger scale projects such as this which seek to reconstruct ancient places are necessary to contextualize even better preserved ancient landscapes and to understand them in their past human environments. Pillatt’s article on early modern weather likewise introduced the tension between our generalized knowledge of English climate and the experience of weather. Pillatt used diaries checked against climate data to show how both long term and  short term changes in the weather disrupted the daily work of early modern farmers on marginal lands. If generalized climate trends provided the basis for the understanding the margins of risk of crop failure endured by farmers in any particular year, the daily, diary records of weather show how changes in weather on a highly local and individual scale make actualize those risks. Far from a strict cartographic reading of the landscape, many of these articles articulated clearly how our generalized view of the world already informs our understanding and expectations of experience (modern or ancient). 

As GIS applications make their way from cartographic tools to those informing actual human experiences in the landscape the tension between our generalized expectations and our actual experiences will become more problematic. As S. Eve points out augmented and virtual reality takes the cartographic sensibilities of GIS and allows scholars to make it increasingly visible in the landscape that it purports to describe.  

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