Saturday, 26 January 2013

Learning GIS for archaeology online (for free!)

Hello friends,

During Wednesday's class we spoke briefly about the communities that are built through the shared use of open-source software. This reminded me of some experiences I've had using ESRI software in the past. ESRI, of course, is not open-source. Not even a little bit. But there are still some cool examples of community support that have sprung up along with it. In addition, I have spoken with several colleagues over the last couple of years, including some contributors to the blog, who wish to learn how to use GIS software though they don't have the time or the abilities to take university classes during their degrees. So I thought I would share a few of my own experiences of learning to use GIS software using online community resources. I am by no means an expert, but I have learned a thing or two.

During the last rung of my undergrad studying geography and archaeology, I volunteered on an archaeological project in Chihuahua, Mexico. At the time, I was an optimistic young student, fresh out of my classes in GIS and spatial analysis in geography. As such, I had volunteered to do a GIS analysis of the site as an independent study.

To my surprise, the data I was given to do this analysis included a dusty field binder full of half-completed level records and pen-and-paper spreadsheets with artefact counts. I truly had no idea where to start with that. Now, I had plenty of experience with using and manipulating spatial data, but only when it was already neatly digitized and formatted to be compatible with ArcMap. But I was still optimistic. I tried my hand at making grids, shapefiles, and rasters, and I crashed and burned. The things that I had learned in geography classes had in no way prepared me for real world applications of GIS in archaeology. And I'm willing to bet that I wasn't alone in those experiences.

Eventually (later than I should really admit), I decided to go outside of my university to look for help. I came across some really interesting resources that were very helpful for my project.

The first of these is a site put together by Edward Tennant as part of his master's thesis in Industrial History and Archaeology from Michigan Technology University. He created a website with resources and tutorials about ESRI software applications in archaeology. These tutorials are really helpful for a variety of tasks.

This tutorial, for example, was really helpful in learning how to create a digital grid in ArcMap from coordinates from hand-drawn maps and field journals.

There are also a number of more advanced tutorials, such as the creation of archaeological viewsheds.

He also includes a tutorial for creating 'living documents' in ArcMap. This is a really great tutorial in light of what we've been talking about over the last few weeks. This type of documentation makes research methods in GIS and archaeology openly accessible and transparent.

Another good resource for archaeologists is available online through the University of Leicester.They offer a kind of mini-course tutorial on an Introduction to ArcGIS for Archaeologists. They even have video demos and they offer mock datasets for you to play around with. Best of all, it's all open, accessible, and free!

Both of these resources are a great start, whether you're interested in learning the basics of GIS or applying some your knowledge of spatial analysis specifically to archaeological problems. They're especially helpful if you're starting out, as they include step-by-step instructions in fairly plain language. Through these tutorials, I was able to make some nice layouts, and compare artefact and ecofact distributions to learn about domestic space and social change. Nothing too advanced, and certainly not revolutionary, but it was a good learning experience.

For more advanced research and tutorials in GIS for archaeology, there are a plethora of FAQs, tutorials, and demos available through ESRI's industry page for archaeology. They also have some neat ideas for incorporating technologies into many stages of an archaeological project, with case studies from survey and excavation stages all the way though to long-term data management and public education.

As a final note, I mentioned earlier that ESRI is not open-source, and nor is it readily available if you aren't affiliated with a university or company that has a license. Free software programs such as GRASS GIS have many community forums and wikis dedicated to supporting and educating their users. I've left a few links, but I'm not as familiar with this program.

I hope that this post is helpful for anyone who is curious. I think that one of the greatest things about modern technology, or Web 2.0, is the ability to share our knowledge and learn openly and freely online.

Cheers, and happy mapping.


dougsarchaeology said...

I would highly recommend QGIS

You can use GRASS as a plugin in QGIS which allows you to benefit from 20 years of GRASS development. However, QGIS tends to be more user friendly, especially if you have used ArcGIS before. I started my PhD with ArcGIS but switched to Q and have not looked back.

Colleen Haukaas said...

That's fantastic, thank you for sharing!