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Geographic Information Systems in Archaeology

G.I.S. (acronym of Geographical Information Systems ) are a specific type of computer applications principally utilized for «spatial data» storage, management and analysis. The term G.I.S. can led the novice to some level to confusion. This because G.I.S. can be used to call or identify a G.I.S. software like GRASS. But also, the same term may be used to call a G.I.S. solution or project. Early, G.I.S. became a essential tool for almost every archaeologist. It’s capability to store mange, visualize and analyze spatial data became one of the key factors that determined it’s spread among archaeologists. In fact, the first application of G.I.S. solutions to the archaeological research were made around the mid eighties.

Although G.I.S. where developed for large geographic areas purposes, like a state, a country or even the globe, a great number of archeologist use this type of software to manage data that came from excavation. In fact archaeologist may take advantage of G.I.S. solutions to store and manage data resulting from survey or excavation. One of the key advantages on the use of G.I.S. solutions for archaeological research process is the possibility to deal with an vast amount of data. All archaeological processes are characterized by the production of an huge amount of graphical and alphanumerical information.

Even if the use of such applications had improved in most cases the quality of the majority of research groups, it has to be say that some problems still remain unsolved. Probably, the most crucial is data standards. G.I.S. is a means of autonomy with limited or no lack of restrictions. The development and testing of custom solution had led the archaeology to loose one of its fundamental and implicit conditions: data standards. The requirement of standards must not to be confused with a common solution good for every one. This is nearly impracticable. Instead, data standards had to be imagined with a set of simple rules and the protocol on which archaeological digital records should be exchanged. Today, at least here in Italy, the archaeological community appears strongly and unnecessarily divided. The only reason for this is the advent of G.I.S.

Another issue is related with the analytical capability of these applications. The question is very simple: G.I.S. isn’t the same as Spatial Analysis. The fact that you own a powerful G.I.S. package, let’s say ESRI ArcINFO, doesn’t mean mechanically that you will be able to perform Spatial Analysis tasks correctly. Unfortunately, G.I.S. didn’t open a better path towards an analytical approach in the archaeological community. In order to perform Spatial Analysis in a proper manner a thoughtful understanding and insight on statistics, geometry, algebra, quantitative geography, among others, will be required. Moreover, the archaeologist had to understand that in most cases development of it’s own analytical software may be required. Why? If the aim of the research process (including the archaeological one) is to understand specific phenomena, why would someone carry out such task with industry prearranged tools? Well, you will agree that that an archaeological analytical approach based on ready to use software packages would be much the same as playing with the “little chemist” or “little magician” boxes. If you will be interested in doing some serious exercises with your archaeological at some point of your career advanced development capabilities would be also required. Anyhow, G.I.S. is the most suitable software solution for the archaeological record data storage, visualization and management.

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