Exploring the Topography of Mind: GIS, Social Space and Archaeology

Article excerpt

The later-prehistoric linear ditches that divide the chalk landscape of Wessex, south England, are markers in an area. It is a topographic space. The ditches seem to be placed with a view to their visibility in the landscape. It is a human topographic space. A GIS study of the ditches' place, in terms of what a human sees in moving acros undulating ground, goes beyond that environmental determinism which underlies many GIS studies.


The study of human space in past archaeological research rested on strong empirical methodologies. However, the theoretical premises underlying these models were often very weak including a strong reductionism and normative elements. Current landscape (regional) archaeology works incorporate sophisticated accounts of how spaces/places are created and their impact on the individual but lack formal methodology. Some preliminary thoughts are included here on the way GIS may be used (in a more humanistic way) in order to close the gap between method and theory. Some of these ideas are explored using an example from the Wessex linear ditches study (Bradley et al. 1994).

This paper aims to show the potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in the light of current anthropological approaches to landscape. It follows from an attempt to break free from the environmental determinism dominating GIS applications in archaeology. Emphasis is placed here on GIS as a heuristic tool. The difference between this work, illustrative of the author's present research, and previous ones undertaken in GIS is the focus on forms of practice (Bourdieu 1991), which has not yet been explored via an information system. These are explored by reference to the nature and spatial location of activities and the possible use of topographical features as perceived on the landscape.

In working towards this aim, it was necessary first to investigate the source of determinism found in GIS studies. So far, this effort has resulted in the description of the first steps towards a methodology for landscape archaeology that combines an interpretative (hermeneutic) approach with a more empirical study.

Determinism in past GIS applications

In the past few years, discussion about the limitations of GIS in archaeology has centred around the deterministic nature, mainly environmental, present in all GIS applications. Often this determinism has been implicit rather than explicit. In one view this characteristic is a simple consequence of the type of data fed into an information system, of which GIS is a special type, and the limitations of data representation and manipulation; as a consequence this limitation cannot be surpassed or avoided. There are others who resist accepting this handicap (see discussion by Gaffney & van Leusen 1995). Unfortunately, no one has yet produced any solid alternative, and their suggestions favour a highly problematic area in anthropology: cognition (Zubrow 1994). I believe that GIS can be employed to look at human practices and meanings via a new approach inspired by notions from sociology, geography, anthropology and of course archaeology.

According to Gaffney & van Leusen (1995), determinism in GIS applications is due to the emphasis put on environmental data as directly obtained from existing maps; however this information has no inherent deterministic property. This misapprehension, commonly found among critics of GIS, follows when confusing the terms environmental and determinism. An archaeological study which incorporates environmental information is not condemned to determinism (or vice versa). Determinism is the product of our interpretation as reflected though the way we use our information.

Thus, the determinism present in GIS applications has a more subtle origin. It is in this sense that it is worth learning about the assumptions surrounding the definition and implementation of those techniques from which many of the GIS procedures employed in archaeology have derived. …