Lessons from geographic literature

I have recently been reading quite a bit of geography publication after randomly picking up a copy of The Professional Geographer – a journal that at first glance looked quite dull, but after reading a couple of abstracts I realized three things: 1) how little I know about geography, 2) that there are some very interesting arguments going on within this field, and that 3) perhaps archaeology can learn from these discussions. Granted, I may be predisposed to being interested in geography as I am an absolute GIS geek, so take my interest in the subject with a grain of salt.

Archaeology and geography were once quite close with one another (academically speaking). The New Archaeology explicitly and implicitly drew upon a similar positivist/scientific move within geography as both attempted to think about ways to quantify, correlate, and eventually predict human/environment interactions across a broad scale. This wide-ranging collaboration was threatened by internal disputes within both disciplines as post-processualism in archaeology and critical theory in geography provided blistering critiques of the prevailing scientific epistemologies. This is not to say that geography and archaeology do not retain close connections – but that these connections appear to have become balkanized within each discipline based on where one falls along the scientific/humanistic belief continuum. In other words, science-minded archaeologists often draw upon similarly leaning geographers while more humanistic aspects of each group also speak to one another. Within archaeology we have two groups that are closely aligned with geography, one (largely American) produces amazing spatio-temporal models of human/environmental interactions using sophisticated software applications while another group of landscape archaeologists (largely British) utilize a variety of “qualitative” techniques, such as phenomenology, to better understand the relationship between people and place. Both groups rely on geographers – the first primarily through methodological applications, such as spatial statistics, the second through an understanding of spatiality as a human-made construct laden with culturally created meaning. The important aspect of this relationship is that archaeologists, along the entire humanistic-scientific continuum, rarely work with geographic publications more recent than the 1980s. This is unfortunate as geography is beginning to make important in-roads in bridging its own chasm between its qualitative and critical aspects.

There are a variety of ways in which geographers are making these in-roads, and I suggest that anyone interested look at a recent special issue of The Professional Geographer (2011 (63)3) in order to get a feel for the diversity of approaches, but the direction that I find most interesting is that taken by two writers, Daniel Sui and Mei-Po Kwan. Of particular interest is Sui’s (2004) “GIS, Cartography, and the “Third Culture”: Geographical Imaginations in the Computer Age” and Kwan’s (2008) “Geo-Narrative: Extending Geographic Information Systems for Narrative Analysis in Qualitative and Mixed-Method Research”. Both attempt to bridge the gap between scientific and humanistic camps within geography by suggesting a middle ground in which cutting edge technology can be applied to “humanistic” questions. Sui makes a convincing argument when he suggests that the most effective bridge between these different groups is not by attempting to bring the two back together through a shared epistemology or ontology – but instead through fostering a “third culture” of researchers who bounce between the two sides to create hybrid projects and interpretations.

Something akin to this “third culture” already exists within archaeology, particularly within the Southeast. I am thinking of projects like the ones pursued by Neill Wallis at UF and Chris Rodning at Tulane whose programs are designed to produce rich empirical datasets to address “humanistic” questions. I don’t want to criticize these projects in any way, but I think we need to go one step further towards hybridization, and this step is suggested by the geographic literature. This is not the application of scientific data to humanistic questions (which Wallis, Rodning, and others do so well) – but the humanization of scientific data.

This post has already become too long, so let me leave you with one example of how this humanization of scientific data might be enacted. Sticking with my interest in GIS, while many of us use this platform for the organization, analysis, and presentation of data with little thought as to the epistemological biases of mapping space using Euclidean geometry, geographers have begun to argue that the uncritical application of GIS is deeply flawed. Instead they suggest that all techniques of interacting with data, including spatial data, are epistemologically charged. In order to address this perceived bias geographers have been attempting to construct non-Euclidean models of space within GIS (see Thill (2011) Is Spatial Really that Special?, and Sui (2005) Beethoven, Picasso and GIS). These models are derived from qualitative understandings of space as place, something that archaeologists have recognized for some time (see work by Chris Tilley). While archaeologists would certainly be wise to pay attention to these new applications within GIS, I suggest that we might also be able to offer our own addition to the discussion – and that is the humanization of time within GIS.

I hope to unpack this a bit more in a later post, but as a quick introduction, ArcGIS has recently included temporal data within its platform. This has not gone unnoticed within archaeological circles and is already being applied with interesting results. But this new form of data is strictly directional and deeply imbued with a Western understanding of time. Certainly, geographers, sociologists, cultural anthropologists and others are questioning this construct and are hopefully developing their own models of non-western temporality. But as is often said, only archaeologists work with the full gamut of time – from that of individual events, to the longue duree, and at times, even geologic levels. We occupy a unique position to add to this discussion of temporality, and perhaps to develop new ways of incorporating it into GIS. As such, we too can contribute to the humanization of scientific data, and the creation of a hybrid third culture. I have some thoughts on how we might go about creating new models of time within GIS, but this will have to be the subject of a later post. Let me instead end this long ramble with a suggestion that many of the technologies archaeologists use, from remote sensing to chemical sourcing, are fertile fields upon which we can grow a vibrant hybrid culture of scholars to bridge the otherwise divergent aspects of our discipline.

Younger Dryas Impact (or lack thereof) Paper in Science…

A new article regarding a proposed comet impact at the beginning of the Younger Dryas is out. One of the key pieces of evidence is the presence of impact markers in a number of Clovis sites, including Topper in South Carolina.

However, Pigati et al. found the same markers in “black mat” deposits of varying ages – not just the well-known Clovis ones. This seems to be pretty problematic for the Impact Hypothesis.



Here’s Vance (aka Doc) Holliday’s take on it all…