Using GIS in Landscape Archaeology

Mark Altaweel


Archaeologists were enthusiastic adopters of GIS starting as early as the 1980s, when tools were still relatively difficult to use. Not surprisingly, a discipline where space is critical to understanding ancient settlements and human use of ancient space, GIS has become popular in the field. Perhaps this interest is the greatest in landscape archaeology, a sub-discipline concerned with understanding past landscapes and landforms in shaping and being shaped by human actions.[1]

GIS Software Use in Landscape Archaeology

Proprietary GIS software such as ArcGIS has primarily been used by many field projects as their project database to manage archaeological sites, areas being investigated, and keeping track of nearby archaeological features such as ancient roads, canals, and other features. Archaeological surveys, where field walking is an important aspect, utilizes both GPS, including differential GPS (DGPS) and satellite data, or increasingly drone data, to provide an overview of the landscape.[2]

Spatial modeling and spatial statistics are used in tools such as ArcGIS, QGIS, and the R statistical package to accomplish analyses such as point pattern analysis, spatial autocorrelation of key features, and even predictive modeling, which attempts to forecast the location of archaeological sites based on known patterns in data.[3] In fact, the use of R has increased as a form of spatial analysis for understanding landscapes in general.[4] One popular form of analysis has proven to be viewshed analysis, where the positioning of archaeological sites and features are assessed relative to the landscape, demonstrating where strategic points (e.g., possible location of fortresses) would have been for given periods.[5]

LiDAR reveals the underlying history of a landscape. Image from Kate Johnson.
LiDAR reveals the underlying history of a landscape. Image from Kate Johnson. More: LiDAR and the Archaeology Revolution.

Understanding erosion processes utilizing hydrologic modeling is another analysis also applied to understand how taphonomy (the study of decaying organisms over time and how they may become fossilized) has affect past landscapes.[6] What these examples show is that GIS will continue to be a mainstay of archaeology, given its wide range of applicability from acting as project databases to analytical platform.

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!


[1] For more information on using GIS in landscape archaeology, see:  Chapman, Henry. 2006. Landscape Archaeology and GIS. Stroud, Gloucestershire: Tempus.

[2] For more on archaeology and imagery, see:  Garrison, Ervan G. 2003. Techniques in Archaeological Geology. Natural Science in Archaeology. Berlin ; New York: Springer.

[3] For more information on these methods,  see: Conolly, James, and Mark Lake. 2006. Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology. Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.

[4] For more information on using R for spatial analysis, see: Zabihi, Mohsen, Hamid Reza Pourghasemi, Zohre Sadat Pourtaghi, and Morteza Behzadfar. 2016. “GIS-Based Multivariate Adaptive Regression Spline and Random Forest Models for Groundwater Potential Mapping in Iran.” Environmental Earth Sciences 75 (8). doi:10.1007/s12665-016-5424-9.

[5] For more information on viewshed analysis in landscape archaeology, see:  Wheatley, David, and Mark Gillings. 2002. Spatial Technology and Archaeology: The Archaeological Applications of GIS. New York: Taylor & Francis, pg. 186.

[6] For more on using erosional models, see: Conolly and Lake 2006:  204.


Photo of author
About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.