Archaeology is a Science with a Little s

A saying of one of my professors at the University of Oklahoma was that archaeology was a science with a little s. What he meant with this statement was that archaeologists can never know for certain what happened in the past. We do not have a time machine. Instead archaeologists use science to better interpret the past.

Scientific methods in archaeology such as radiocarbon dating, sourcing materials, dendrochronology, etc. give archaeologist more accurate data to interpret the past. Science in archaeology also holds archaeologists accountable in their story telling by making sure the story is told from a perspective so that other researchers can judge the value of the story. This is the theoretical framework of archaeology.

There are many different theories used in archaeology such as cultural transmission, evolutionary ecology, agency theory, optimal foraging theory, etc. Each theory has its advantages and weaknesses in interpreting the archaeological record. However, in the development and use of theory – the manner in which the archaeological record is interpreted and used to tell a story – other researchers can examine the data to see if the information fits with the perspective of the theory or story teller.

A recent problem within the field of archaeology is the extreme use of post-modern theory. This has been labelled as post-processual theory to signify a change from the more scientific approach of processual archaeology. In post-processual theory, the individual perspective is the center and there are many different possible interpretations of the archaeological record. The problem with this perspective is that there is no accountability, and it does not progress our understanding of the past.

Many researchers now label themselves as processual+. This simply means archaeology should also study intangible aspects of the archaeological record such as identity while also holding onto a scientific perspective. In these types of studies often a science perspective is used as a yard stick to more objectively document intangible aspects of past culture. For example, I am using GIS to objectively measure prominent locations on the landscape, defined as differences in elevations over a given distance, to ascertain if rock art localities and campsites are more frequently associated with prominent places than would be expected. This allows me to get at an intangible aspect of past culture within a scientific framework.

Archaeology is best situated within a scientific framework, but also allowing for more subjective interpretations that can be actively debated due to well-defined perspectives. This is the essence of archaeology as a science with a little s.

GIS in Archaeology

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) is a necessary tool for all researchers in the field of archaeology regardless of area of expertise. Archaeology above all things is a science of material culture and a critical facet of understanding material culture is interpreting the relationship between material culture across the landscape and also how material culture is related to different components of the landscape. Archaeology is like a great detective story, it is an attempt to understand pieces of an unknown puzzle.

A key principle in the geographical sciences is that the closer things are to each other the more related they will be.

Archaeologists use this principle to understand past human behavior by mapping in the location of sites, their features and artifacts. By examining the spatial distribution of artifacts and sites – archaeologists can then interpret past spatial behaviors at a site, and the different types of activities that took place across a region and within their territories.

There are 4 key benefits of using GIS in archaeology:

1). Examining spatial patterns across a site or region for interpreting past behavior. Included within GIS packages are powerful spatial statistics.
2). Correlating the relationship between sites, or individual artifacts within sites to the landscape. The landscape in GIS can be modeled with such things as elevation, distribution of water, location of lithic resources, most prominent landmarks, etc.
3). Making pretty maps. A lot of archaeologists stop at this level of expertise, and this is an important aspect. Archaeology is a visual science and making great maps are important for displaying the location of artifacts and sites on the landscape.
4). Managing data. The story of archaeology is told across space and time. GIS offers a great database function to manage information that is tied to a place on earth. Artifacts collected in the field occur from a particular place with an x,y,z coordinate, however, intangible information can also be tied to space, such as an oral history told by an elder about a particular site or place.


ArcGIS: is the most popular commercial software coded by ESRI out of Redlands, California. It is very expensive, but most universities do have an academic license for this software. The main benefit of ArcGIS is that it is easy to use, and this is the main type of software taught at universities.

Grass GIS and QGIS: Grass GIS was developed by the U.S. Army with the help of several universities and other federal agencies. This software is free! It has been around a long time and is now a lot more user friendly to start up and use. There is more of a learning curve in getting started, but for coders I feels this software offers many more benefits to developing add-on specific applications than for ArcGIS.

Caveat: I am not a coder, but have learned to work through the specific commands of the software.

I have been using Grass GIS for several years now and prefer it over ArcGIS for some functions, but I use both in combination. I was attracted to Grass GIS early on due it’s availability on Macs – ArcGIS only works on PCs. Another big difference between ArcGIS and Grass GIS is how it handles files. In ArcGIS different types of files can be scattered all across the hard drive of a computer. I have spent countless hours for an important source of data that I have put in a subfolder and can not relocate. If you are working on a map with a data source and move that file in an organization attempt to clean up your hard drive, then ArcGIS will not be able to display the information on the map. Although in recent versions of ArcGIS, ArcGIS will automatically load other data sources within the same map if you can locate one of the files and if the data sets are within the same folder. In contrast, Grass GIS stores your datasets within its specific folder structure system associated with a particular map and projection. Therefore, you are less likely to lose data on the computer, but it is a more rigid system and requires that all of the data is in the correct projection and set geographic boundary. I spent a lot of time figuring this out about Grass GIS.

QGIS (Quantum GIS) is a more user friendly shell for GIS and works with Grass. It is also open sourced it works on most platforms including a mobile Android version. If you are interested in Grass GIS then you will also use QGIS.