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GIS at 50: the many uses of a mature research tool

Eric Poehler

University of Massachusetts-Amherst

As a tool for research, Geographical Information Systems (GIS) have developed into a mature and even standard means to examine the ancient world from a spatial perspective. Indeed, the accessibility of geographical means to examine evidence and the pervasiveness desire to do so has been described as “the spatial turn” (Guldi). In undergraduate teaching, the results of GIS-based research are ubiquitous and now a marketplace of textbooks dedicated to GIS exists to teach students to deploy these methods and technologies (e.g., Conolly and Lake). The maturity of GIS as a digital tool means that researchers now can go far beyond the basic work of placing dots on a map.

In this paper I will describe three examples of GIS being used at three different archaeological sites at three levels of intensity. The first example comes from Pompeii (Italy), an ancient city rich in archaeological detail, a fraction of which has been added to an online GIS map in order to serve the basic cartographic, toponymic, bibliographic needs of anyone interested in exploring Pompeii (Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project). This GIS is an information tool.

A second example is from the North African city of Timgad (Algeria). Well known, but not well mapped digitally, the GIS we built for Timgad served as the basis for an archaeological urban survey and generated not only a shared nomenclature, but also a shared spatial representation for a team unfamiliar with Timgad’s landscape. This GIS is an in-field tool.

Finally, at the Panhellenic sanctuary site of Isthmia near Corinth (Greece), GIS is intimately integrated into research methodology (Ellis and Poehler 2015). Using the spatial relationships amongst the architecture that the map describes, GIS serves both as an in-field tool and as a space to apply observations in an iterative manner within a hierarchically ordered interpretation. More plainly, the GIS allowed 1. the discovery of potential locations of stratigraphic relationships (e.g., junctures between walls), 2. the storage of observations (e.g., whether those walls bonded or abutted), and 3. the combination of those observations to reveal larger interpretive objects (i.e., bigger sections of architecture). In this way, the iterative use of GIS mirrored the project’s hierarchical methodology and lead, step-by-step to a series of maps ending with the first complete phase plan of the East Field at Isthmia. This GIS is a research platform.

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Geospatial Classics: Teaching and Research Applications of GIS Technology

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