Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Analysis in Archaeology

Geographic Information Analysis (GIS) is a useful tool for scientific research and data management. It provides a wider perspective to analyze landscapes, human settlements, natural resources and topographical features. All of these elements contain enormous amounts of data and can be correlated in different ways. GIS allows managing, modifying and displaying these pieces of information in several forms; creating a great amount of possibilities for the researcher and making data processing more efficient.

Figure 1. Different types of information about the natural and cultural landscapes can be combined to examine spatial patterns in past human societies.

In archaeology, GIS provides a window into past human behavior by looking at the spatial relationships between people and landscapes. Social organizations, as well as accessibility to natural resources, were key elements for ancient societies.

While some of these aspects can be found in archaeological contexts during excavations or surveys, having a bigger picture of the landscape can provide a deeper understanding of how those societies lived. Some of the main aspects that can be analyzed using GIS for archaeological research are:

· Human mobility.

· Identify locations and their relationship with landscape.

· Group interaction.

· Social integration.

· Spatial organization.

· Political hierarchy.

· Settlement patterns.

· Cultural material density.

· Access to natural resources.

· Spatial distribution.

The different relationships between these elements can be further analyzed by archaeologists looking for evidence of social patterns. For example, Richards-Rissetto and Landau (2014) explain the relationship between accessibility, interaction and social integration. In this case, it is necessary to understand how accessibility plays a key role for human interaction. Having comfortable access to natural resources (water, food, etc.), and to specific locations (other settlements) creates a higher level of interaction between people from the same group and from different groups as well. Since humans tend to use pre-established and proven ways of doing something, paths and routes are then developed to link settlements, locations and resources in order to enhance the appropriation of the landscape.

Once a network of paths and routes has been created, it will lead to a more constant and fluent interaction between people (Llobera et al., 2011). Exchanging and commercializing products and goods was a common practice associated with higher levels of social interaction, hence these practices can be identified as part of social behavior patterns.

Ultimately, once higher levels of interaction are constant, more complex and integrated societies can be found. Therefore, spatial organization, landscape modification and cultural material density will be reflected in the archaeological evidence.

GIS analysis can display and interpret this type of data. The results constitute archaeological evidence to support hypothesis and research, as well as an improved approach to landscape interpretation.

GIS analysis along with material evidence recovered from excavations and surveying on regular basis, can lead to a considerable improvement in archaeological methodology. In addition, it allows a more accessible way to look at geographical relationships between archaeological sites.

All these aspects mentioned before are key to understand social behavior, and interaction between people and their environment. Integrating GIS analysis with evidence obtained in the field enhances archaeological research, and provides a wider perspective of archaeological context.


Llobera, M., Fábrega-Álvarez, P., Parcero-Oubiña, C., 2011. “Order in movement: a GIS approach to accessibility.” Journal of Archaeological Science 38, pp. 843–851.

Richards-Rissetto, H., Landau, K., 2014. “Movement as a means of social (re)production: Using GIS to measure social integration across urban landscapes.” Journal of Archaeological Science 41, pp. 365–375.

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