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J Archaeol Method Theory (2012) 19:495–509

DOI 10.1007/s10816-012-9139-2

Life on a Pixel: Challenges in the Development of Digital

Methods Within an “Interpretive” Landscape
Archaeology Framework

Marcos Llobera

Published online: 10 July 2012

# Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Abstract This paper provides a personal account of the challenges of developing

digital methods within an interpretive landscape archaeology framework. It reviews
current criticisms leveled against the use of model-based tools, e.g., GIS-based,
within this framework. Currently, the absence of, or distance between, methods and
theory is considered to be an important limitation when adopting such orientation.
This gap is largely due to the particular nature of the theoretical sources informing
this framework. This paper suggests the need for middle ground/bridging concepts,
i.e., concepts that enable the instantiation within concrete archaeological contexts of
various aspects discussed within an interpretative framework, as a way to shorten this
gap. It also highlights the importance of the nature of representations when applying
digital methods and their key role when producing new archaeological information.
Finally, it attempts to elevate the role that model-based methods and simulations can
play within an interpretive landscape framework, and to insist on the development of
new middle ground solutions (methods and concepts) when existing tools do not meet
our theoretical challenges.

Keywords Landscape archaeology . Interpretive archaeology . GIS . Models

Simulations . Methodology

This paper provides a brief commentary on the some of the challenges we face when
trying to reconcile experiential/interpretive landscape archaeology approaches with
the use of digital methods, particularly those based on the use of geographic infor-
mation systems (GIS). In doing so, I review the nature of some of the main criticisms
that have been leveled against the use of GIS and attempt to provide some useful
reflections on the difficulties of developing more formal methods within this frame-
work. It is important to recognize that the discussion offered here refers to a relative
narrow range of landscape archaeology studies, and GIS applications within. For the

M. Llobera (*)
Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195-3100, USA
496 Llobera

most part, these studies have focused on particular types of archaeological land-
scapes, mainly prehistoric and monumental, characterized by moderately to high-
relief topographies. The themes these studies have engaged in have been equally
narrow, predominantly concerned with the ritual and symbolic nature of the land-
scape. It is within the scope of these studies where the development and application of
many GIS tools can be found. Extending the experiential/interpretive framework and
the application of GIS within to a wider range of landscapes remains an ongoing
challenge. It is clear that philosophies such as phenomenology have wider and far
more reaching implications than those currently found under self-labeled phenome-
nological approaches to landscape. Equally, the usefulness of GIS within other
theoretical paradigms and scales is not questioned either. Indeed, GIS are undoubt-
edly well-suited to analyze and represent properties concerning settlement patterns
and other large scale processes. What perhaps is less clear is the role that GIS and
similar tools can play within approaches that seek to explore the agential capacity of
landscapes and people. The discussion offered here stems from the use of GIS within
these approaches but may be easily extended to other studies that attempt to bridge
between quantitative and/or representational approaches and interpretive ones.

Some Background

In 1996, I published “the topography of mind: GIS, social space and archaeology”.
One of its prime objectives was to break free from what at the time was the main
discussion surrounding the use of GIS in landscape studies, i.e., whether GIS were
condemned to generate environmentally deterministic interpretations. This discussion
framed the potential of GIS in a rather limited way, and hinged on a series of more or
less implicit premises. First of all, GIS were exclusively referred to as tools for
locational modeling. While discussions made broad statements about the applicability
of GIS to archaeological investigations in general, the essence of the controversy was
much more narrowly focused on the merits of site prediction. Secondly, the terms
“environment” and “determinism” were wrongly fused together. Some archaeologists
considered that the use of environmental information (e.g., topography) automatically
rendered the results of a study/model as “deterministic”. By that logic, the visibility of
monuments was to be understood purely as a response to the topography and
vegetation of a landscape rather than to human choice. As a result, in order to
overcome allegations of environmental determinism, some archaeologists proposed
either the possibility of incorporating additional “cultural/cognitive” layers or
claimed that GIS could be used to derive these (e.g., Gaffney et al. 1996). There
are important shortcomings with both proposals.
The idea that we might be able to neatly separate “cultural” or “cognitive”
information from environmental by adding a “cultural” variable is reminiscent of
long-criticized functionalist ideals that at the very least stand at odds with the
interpretive perspective these studies are trying to resolve. In addition, the possibility
of representing and/or deriving cognitive information presupposes a certain (older)
version of cognition wherein individuals operate in the world primarily by manipu-
lating mental representations of it (Renfrew 1994, pp. 3–12; D'Andrade 1984, pp. 88–
89). This view stands in contrast to other versions of cognition that emphasize the
Challenges of Digital Methods Within Interpretive Landscape Archaeology 497

active participation of the human body, and the material presence of the world, in
problem solving and knowledge building tasks (Clark 1997, 2008). Moreover, this
latter version of cognition closely aligns with studies based on practice theory and
phenomenology as they refer to practical/embodied knowledge (Bourdieu 1977;
Giddens 1984). While neither the incorporation of “cultural” variables nor the
derivation of cognitive layers has gained much traction over the years, they still
remain a viable pursuit for several authors (e.g., Lock and Harris 2006, pp.46–7;
Verhagen and Whitley 2011; Lock 2010, pp. 91). It is worth noting that these initial
criticisms, and their proposed solutions, still maintain a rather restricted view of GIS
as tools for locational analysis.
Rather than restricting GIS to a sole purpose, my 1996 paper proposed a more
generic use of GIS, i.e., as a heuristic within an interpretive framework. This called
for GIS to be used as a means to explore, support, and extend claims defined within
this type of framework. This proposal was built on an understanding of GIS as
providing an analytical and/or modeling framework rather than as a concrete piece
of software. Through GIS, archaeologists would engage with existing, and alterna-
tive, forms of spatial representations, and explore their potential for analysis. The
application of GIS, and modeling in general, was meant to complement and extend
interpretive approaches rather than to stand opposed to them. This understanding still
underlies most of the arguments presented here. It requires, somewhat naïvely
according to some authors (e.g., Gillings 2009), a strong commitment to exploration
and ongoing development, particularly when it comes to developing new forms of
representation and analysis, rather than the passive acceptance of the status quo
surrounding these tools and their application. Through the years attempts to meet
this call have been few (e.g., Chapman 2003, 2005; Chapman and Geary 2000)
despite technical advances (i.e., easier customization) which would, in principle,
facilitate this endeavor. Reviewing the causes for such a limited growth may suggest
some reasons why the development of a middle ground remains elusive.

Current Criticisms

As a preamble to later discussions, I would like to consider some of the recent and
more significant criticisms leveled against the use of GIS by proponents of the
phenomenological approach. In doing so, I shall make reference to the work of some
authors who have already addressed, to various degrees and depths, some of these
criticisms (Brück 2005; Wickstead 2007, 2009; Gillings 2009). My intention is to go
beyond acknowledging the existence of these criticisms and to examine some of the
merits, or lack of, behind them in order to provide more context for later discussion.
The nature and depth of these criticisms vary considerably, from extreme unbridge-
able positions that deny the possibility of analysis altogether, passing by those that
question the lack of correspondence between the results obtained through GIS and
ground experience (e.g., Cummings 2008), to others that on close examination are not
as contrary as they first appear.
I start by leveling the playing field a bit. For quite some years now, the application
of GIS has been considered from the vantage point of existing phenomenological
narratives either as a way to dismiss it or embrace it. Measured against the wider
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theoretical aims informing these studies, GIS applications have, not surprisingly,
fallen well below the mark. From a methodological point of view, this inferiority is
rather a matter of opinion especially when compared against “methods” (if any) put
forward within mainstream narratives. While recently there has been some progress
towards the provision of concrete guidelines to conduct studies within a phenome-
nological framework (e.g., Tilley 2008a, b, 2010; particularly notable is Hamilton et
al. 2006), there are still many outstanding challenges that are not addressed by these
studies and that constitute the focus of some GIS applications (e.g., Gillings 2009;
Llobera 2007).
By far, the most adamant critic of the use of tools such as GIS and virtual reality
modeling (VRM) has been Julian Thomas, particularly in his book “Archeology and
Modernity” (2004)—see also Thomas (2008). In this work, Thomas associates both
of these technologies with the reproduction of modernist thinking about the world,
and their role in reproducing a Cartesian dualism that prevents us from understanding
more experiential aspects of the world. Insofar as Thomas considers that any analyt-
ical method or tool, any epistemology including archaeology, incorporates this
duality, there is no room for debate. While some of his criticisms against GIS and
VRM refer to their specific nature, we can see that in reality, these apply to all forms
of representation when used for analytical purposes, and ultimately, to the process of
analysis itself. For Thomas the source of criticism is the mismatch between our
knowledge of the world as experienced (which makes little use of representations)
and our knowledge about the world (as it might be apprehended through some form
of representation). For archaeologists interested in what a phenomenological under-
standing of the world can provide, it is hard to disagree with Thomas' overall insights.
Yet after reading these, one cannot help but question whether (a) the understanding of
the past he professes is truly possible (see Brück 2005, pp. 54–65)? And if so, (b) how
might this be attained? What valid methods, if any, are at our disposal for that task?
Unfortunately, Thomas never attempts to answer these questions beyond some
general remarks.
In a recent rebuttal to comments about his views, Thomas appears to have softened
slightly his criticism against the use of digital technologies (and GIS?) by acknowl-
edging their inevitability, and the possibility of being put to better use in archaeology.
He reaffirms that so far, the application of GIS has promoted a particular modernist
view of the world (Thomas 2006, pp. 63) which is probably true. Yet it is hard to
ascertain from his comments how the application might become more acceptable for,
again, he does not provide us with any clues. As Wickstead (2007; 2009, pp.11) has
lucidly pointed out, there is no single normalized approach when applying this, or any
technology, and thinking otherwise enunciates a kind of technological determinism
that I suspect Thomas would not subscribe to if we were to apply it when interpreting
past societies. Instead, GIS, as any other technology, can be reworked, hybridized, put
into new uses, and even play a “subversive” role other than the one for which it may
have been originally formulated (Pickles 1995; Graig and Elwood 1998; Duncan
2006; Sui 2008). While Thomas's comments have been instrumental in highlighting
the modernist legacy of archaeology, he provides us with little guidance on how we
may avoid a modernist result when conducting any analysis. Can our analyses help us
better understand how certain experiences of a landscape were constructed, and the
role these may have played in society?
Challenges of Digital Methods Within Interpretive Landscape Archaeology 499

Although less radical than Thomas when it comes to the possibilities of analysis,
Tilley has recently voiced his distaste for the use of GIS when exploring landscapes,
Ancient stones in Landscapes, the subject matter of this book, cannot be known
or understood simply from publications, from maps, diagrams, photographs and
descriptions, because these are only representations. As representations they
necessarily fail in conveying a bodily understanding of prehistoric remains.
Statistical analysis, Geographical Information Systems and simulations are, if
anything, far worse (Tilley 2004, pp.218).
Why would Tilley think that the use statistical analysis or GIS is far worse than
maps, photographs or diagrams? He provides no reasons though we may speculate
that it is because of the relatively complex nature of these sorts of representations
(e.g., photos montages, diaries, etc.), Tilley's familiarity with them, and the fact that
they are considered as passive records. Still, his remarks stand more as a rhetorical
statement than a well-argued objection. For Tilley, the source of knowledge
about prehistoric (?) landscapes can only be obtained through the body of the
archaeologist (Tilley 2004, pp. 1–32; Tilley 2008a, pp. 38–44; Tilley 2008b, pp.
271). It is hard though to distinguish how some of his field observations would differ
from those obtained through other means. Would Tilley object to the study of
monument inter-visibility calculated using GIS (see Figs. 4.8 and 4.9 in Tilley
2010)? If so, on what basis? Are observations based on the “bones of the land”
(Tilley 1994, pp. 73) as he claims with his own studies qualitatively different from
those obtained through the use of a digital terrain model? Wouldn't they be capturing
similar information? In what way is the use of GIS as a tool for thinking about, say
the topographic setting of monuments, less well-suited than the creation of written
and visual texts?
To summarize, the main criticisms raised by the authors above are for the most part
too generic or inconsistent (particularly when situated within the author's wider
bodies of work) to be constructive. However, putting these aside, it is still possible
to distil some genuine objections within these criticisms that point towards deficien-
cies when applying GIS. While Gillings has rightly pointed out (Gillings 2009, pp.
339) that the lack of convergence between “model-based” (e.g., GIS) and “experien-
tial-based” approaches is a two-sided problem, he maintains that the complicated
nature of GIS applications, and the lack of well-defined purposes when these are
applied (or developed) are largely to blame. In my opinion, this evaluation is
misplaced and does not really address the reasons that make such convergence
difficult. Chief among these are the inherent difficulties of devising methods inspired
on theoretical sources, the limited role currently associated with representations in the
production of new knowledge, and the lack of recognition that models may be used as
a valid tools within interpretive approaches.

From Theory to Methods

Mainstream phenomenological narratives include a very rich set of references to

processes and valuations whose complex nature tends to be played down. At a
“higher” level, these include references to various processes such as cognition,
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perception, enskilment, socialization, and so on. At a lower level, these involve

resolving a large set of practical and methodological challenges. For instance, in
order to generate a narrative similar to those described by Tilley, we would need to:
identify how movement sequences are created across a landscape; assess their
significance; describe the dynamics of how monuments shift from foreground to
background and vice versa; determine and rank a range of candidate focal points,
landmarks and orientation lines; describe the nature of appearances of monuments
and other features; investigate the ways in which these appearances change and
whether this change is meaningful; identify textures and their significance; explore
the acoustical and haptic potentials of locales, etc.
From this partial shortlist, it ought to be clear that producing this type of study is
not a trivial task. If investigations were conducted thoroughly, i.e., by including some
level of uncertainty surrounding each set of observations, they would most definitely
include a longer chain of checks and enquiries which are now routinely dismissed.
Although the challenges of conducting such a large (and diverse!) number of field
observations have already been noted (e.g., Bender et al. 2007), the possibility that
these may be carried out exclusively in the field in an adequate and consistent
manner has already been questioned by seasoned landscape archaeologists, e.g.,
Fleming (1999, 2005, 2006), on the basis of their arbitrariness, and lack of accuracy
and robustness. What appears as a simple innocuous statement within a larger
overarching narrative hides a remarkable wealth of difficulty when subject to close
scrutiny. All of these expose a serious gap between claimed theoretical goals and
orientations, and the ways these may be rigorously investigated. Currently, the
absence of any robust (and reproducible) methodology has allowed the proliferation
of interpretations that are not well- sustained by concise arguments and solid empir-
ical information (Fleming 2006, pp. 273). Indeed, except for the few guidelines
provided by Tilley (2008a, b, 2010), Cummings et al.'s (2002) use of specialized
graphics depicting monument–topography relationships (though criticized by
Fleming 2005, pp. 922) and the experimental work carried out by Hamilton and
Whitehouse (2006), there is little in the way on how to proceed. Furthermore, if we
concede that a phenomenological understanding of the past can only be attained
through the self-reflective bodily experience of the archaeologist (Tilley 2004, pp. 1–
32) the results are at best opaque and unclear, and at worst, capricious and self-
centered (see Brück 2005, pp. 51–54).
This gap between theoretical goals and their investigation is ever more accute
when subject to the demands of specificity necessary when using tools such as GIS.
These tools and models in general are built upon entities that require some level of
definition. Here, the absence of constructs that can bridge between “higher” theoret-
ical concepts and their concrete expressions is most noticeable. It is precisely at this
junction that work needs to take place, i.e., where theoretical insight, skill, and
creative thinking need to come together in order to provide concrete expressions to
various aspects within the themes that make up interpretive narratives. The develop-
ment of middle ground solutions as suggested here should not be confused with an
appeal to middle-range theory. Instead, they refer to something more vaguely and
loosely defined, essentially the different measures, techniques, constructs, and strat-
egies archaeologists may mobilize when constructing and exploring possible argu-
ments. It is through the introduction of these in-between links that we can start to
Challenges of Digital Methods Within Interpretive Landscape Archaeology 501

operationalize some of the concepts and ideas found in these narratives. This was
precisely the purpose that drove the creation of the visualscape (Llobera 2003) as a
concept. Visualscapes refer to the visual structuring of space. This structuring may be
generated by the visibility patterns (i.e., visual relationships) associated with the
presence of monuments in a landscape which at times becomes socially appropriated
by people. Visualscapes constitute the source of many of the observations carried out
by archaeologists in the field. Acknowledging the existence of such a structure, the
possibility of describing it in different ways, and exploring its characteristics, allows
us to refer to something concrete, something we can include when generating a
narrative. It also opens up the possibility for new research and questions (e.g., What
was the nature of the visual impact of the features? When did it happen?). These
possibilities come with other commitments such as the requirement to assess the
adequacy of the representations as a means to explore various aspects of the

Representations and the Production of Archaeological Knowledge

An important factor affecting the viability of a digital approach within an interpretive

framework revolves around the perception and role of representations in the produc-
tion of archaeological knowledge. Both Thomas and Tilley refer to this aspect
throughout their studies.
For Thomas, the problem with representations is that they are “divorced from any
context of human involvement” (Thomas 2004, pp.200), and are used in the con-
struction of models that hide their conditions of creation creating an illusion of
authenticity (Thomas pp. 201 citing Bateman 2000). For Tilley, the emphasis is on
direct field experience as the principal source of knowledge over any other “mediat-
ed” knowledge derived from secondary means, i.e., “technologies of representation”
(Tilley 2004, pp. 118–119). He also stresses the need for documenting and arriving at
conclusions in situ. And while he accepts the adoption of certain forms of represen-
tation (e.g., video, notebooks, photographs, sketches), he does so only after providing
certain caveats with their use. On the one hand, he admits that their inclusion is
flawed, and that they represent a futile attempt to communicate “the significance of
what we are trying to understand” (Tilley 2004). Furthermore, for Tilley, representa-
tions do not have an intrinsic value in and of themselves, what is truly valuable is the
process of generating them for it is this process that aids and stimulates perception
(Tilley 2004, pp. 218). It is interesting to note that the same type of benefit has been
attributed to the process of modeling (see below).
No archaeologist would deny the importance of gaining familiarity, i.e., gathering
knowledge, with the landscapes they are investigating, even without reference to any
specific goals in mind. It is through this engagement that we are able to “ground” our
ideas, identify the range of possibilities, develop a sense of scale, and so on.
However, several authors (e.g., Barrett and Ko 2009; Fleming 2005) have rightly
objected to the hegemony of such observations as the sole source of knowledge about
past landscapes as Tilley contends, not least because of their inconsistencies but also
because they often downplay, even disregard, the historical situatedness of people
when interpreting past landscapes, the palimpsest nature of landscapes, or any of the
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uncertainties that surround it. Neither Thomas nor Tilley acknowledges the possibil-
ity that representations can be marshaled to investigate past contexts (see comments
on modeling below), and that in some circumstances, they may provide the only
means to do so.
Several consequences follow from limiting the role and life-span of representa-
tions. Without recourse to these it is difficult to rein in other sources of knowledge not
generated at the same space and time as our observations (Latour 1987). This is
important when trying to make sense of observations against a wider historical
context pieced together from multiple studies. Representations are necessary if
consensus, and ultimately the sanctioning of findings, is to be shared amongst a
collective (i.e., archaeologists, local community, see Cummings et al. 2002). Fur-
thermore, by downplaying their role, there is little incentive to improve and develop
new forms of representation which may lead to new analytical breakthroughs
(Llobera 2010).
However, it is fair to acknowledge that some of the criticisms raised by these
authors expose deficiencies, at least with the application of GIS, that have gone
mostly unchecked by many archaeologists. A prime example is the inadequacy of
commonly used spatial representations to explore the type of questions often formu-
lated within interpretive approaches. It is not uncommon in many of these accounts to
find ample reference to how the appearance of features and monuments changes
across the landscape. The fact that a monument is routinely represented as a single
point (or at best by a flat polygon) within GIS renders such investigation out of reach.
In many instances, our results will simply be erroneous when calculating patterns of
intervisibility because of the impossibility of visual occlusion among monuments.
These limitations remind us that GIS are currently ill-equipped to deal with space as
it surrounds an individual. With ingenuity, some of these shortcomings may be
somewhat overcome within the capabilities currently offered by GIS but clearly
point towards deeper representational issues, and in turn, analytical challenges to
which many archaeologists are often oblivious. The importance of adequately
matching our representations (scale and precision) with the questions in which we
are interested cannot be stressed enough. In this sense, Thomas is absolutely right
when he claims that the great majority of current examples using GIS reproduce a
modern map-like view of the world. Within archaeology, GIS are still predominant-
ly employed for map production, two-dimensional spatial queries and point pattern
analysis. Few readily available operations within GIS, notably viewsheds and
accumulated cost surfaces, escape from the detached bird's eye perspective of the
One clear message that emerges from Thomas's and Tilley's comments is that
representations are to be viewed as a “necessary evil”. For them, these are useful as
process but not as an end product. Their own cursory (though still mediated!) use of
photographs, sketches, and other forms of representation, is meant to be a byproduct
of the process of reflection. Representations can only be valued negatively or have no
value in and of themselves. At best, they are ancillary, a form of commentary.
Interestingly, the creation and use of representations for Tilley and Thomas does
not and cannot play any “active” and useful role towards understanding within their
experiential framework. It is here where the main bone of contention against the use
of GIS, and modeling in general seems to lie. The possibility of deriving new
Challenges of Digital Methods Within Interpretive Landscape Archaeology 503

information through the manipulation of representations is antithetical to their frame-

work. This is precisely the trait that defines an archaeology that relies on digital
information (see reference to archaeological information science in Llobera 2010),
and models, of which the application of GIS is a prime example.

Interpretive Modeling and Methods?

Within the history of archaeological practice, it is rather unfortunate, though not

surprising, that modeling has been almost exclusively associated with particular
theoretical trends. Most archaeological modeling efforts aim at providing insights
that are systemic in nature (e.g., van der Leeuw and Kohler 2007) or that deal with
“society” in general. With some exceptions (e.g., Brantingham 2006), their scope and
claims tend to be relatively wide, often all-encompassing. Many of these models
originate elsewhere (e.g., ecology) and have been adapted (or maladapted) to archae-
ological aims and metrics.
It is probably fair to say that modeling within an interpretive framework is
conceptually more complicated than, for example, within an evolutionary one. This
does not mean that modeling within the latter does not pose formidable difficulties.
Yet, it is clear that certain theoretical frameworks, such as the evolutionary one, (a)
consider the use of models and other quantitative methods as viable means to explore
their implications (b) are described in terms (e.g., optimal behavior) that lend
themselves more easily to being modeled. This is hardly the case of the diverse body
of theories that make up what we may loosely refer to as interpretive archaeology
(Hodder 1991; Thomas 2000). A clear example of these challenges emerges when we
try to use the human body as the origin of spatial reference in the world. At a
very basic level, investigations such as those proposed by Tilley and others
(e.g., Barrett 1994) require that we describe properties of a landscape as encountered
by a body. Let us refer to the geometrical properties of a landscape from that
perspective as the situated perspective. Currently, the identification and description
of spatial properties that would derive from this stripped- down version of a landscape
remains problematic. Simply put, we have not inherited a corpus or tradition of
enquiry that allows us to formally describe and analyze landscapes the way an
individual encounters them, as he or she moves through them or becomes surrounded
by them. Our analytical understanding of space from the situated perspective cannot
be found in any concise work. Unlike the analysis of space viewed in two-dimensions
for which plenty of syntheses exist, a formal understanding of the dynamic properties
of space when moving in three-dimensions is spread throughout multiple disciplines
(e.g., architecture, urbanism, ecological psychology, landscape architecture, etc.).
Many of these disciplines offer little more than a hint of what some of these properties
might be.
Interpretive approaches do not tend to be based on bodies of theory that seek
normative views of society but that instead embrace its complexity through detailed
context-rich narratives. It is within this framework that we need to situate the use of
models and other formal methods. One way to do this is through the development of
what we may refer to as scaffolding models and/or methods. These are models used to
investigate concrete components or specific aspects of theory. The key trait of these
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models is their limited scope, i.e., their aim is not to model some systemic property or
produce a final insight about society. Instead, they are constructed to explore how
particular processes or concepts may play out within the specifics of a certain context.
While no comprehensive interpretation is meant to emerge from their application,
their construction can be seen as an attempt to shorten the gap that often exists
between empirical information and narratives. They are not meant to compete with or
substitute current practices (e.g., field recording, diaries) but to complement and
reinforce them. In this regard, the use of scaffolding models and methods is not at
odds with the sentiment expressed by Tilley in the following quote:
There is no substitute for the human experience of place - of being there - and it
is only after this that the various technologies of representation come into play
(Tilley 2004, pp. 118–9)
These models are not meant to be alternatives to going out into the field and
directly collecting information. Field experiences are a rich source of insight which
may be further explored and supported by these types of models and methods. Their
role might be particularly important in cases where there are serious doubts about the
validity of conclusions arrived in the field. Within landscape archaeology, scaffolding
models and methods may be employed for a multitude of non-exclusive, non-
exhaustive purposes such as:
Creating Comparative Information. Properties and/or characteristics observed at
particular locations or associated with particular features may be compared
against those found at all other locations, at a subset of locations fulfilling a
particular criterion or at a set of random locations, as a way to assess their
relevance and significance (e.g., De Reu et al. 2011; Lake et al. 1998; Llobera
2001; Woodman 2000).
Determining a Property or Pattern Robustness. The instantiation of specific
landscape experiences is often predicated on the co-presence of features (i.e., monu-
ments, other material traces) on the landscape. Indeed the interpretation of certain
sequences, of certain spatial orderings, depends on this co-existence. Through
simulations we can assess how robust such experiences would have been given
the presence or absence of features (e.g., Fisher et al. 1997; Llobera 2007).
Incorporating Absent Data. The possibility of going out into the field and
making observations may be impossible when all that remains of the landscape
features of interest are ploughmarks or a geophysical signature. In those cases,
there is no better alternative than to simulate their impact through digital
Investigating Processes. The structuring of landscapes is a temporal process, and
understanding how it unfolds through time is as important as the final patterns
we observe at the end. Recreating the emergence of certain landscape patterns
can provide us with precious insight on the range of possibilities that were
available throughout the process of pattern formation. Through modeling, we
can enrich our narratives by adding a dimension that otherwise would be out of
reach if we restrict ourselves only to field observations (Llobera 2007). Unfor-
tunately, to this day most GIS models produced by archaeologists are linear, or
prescriptive, in nature rather than exploratory. The ability to generate multiple
Challenges of Digital Methods Within Interpretive Landscape Archaeology 505

scenarios through iterations and/or feedbacks is precisely one of the most

important benefits of using models.
Contextualizing Concepts. Narratives are often built around key terms that if left
unchecked, unevaluated, convey particular meanings. GIS can be employed to
qualify such concepts within the specifics of particular landscape settings. For
instance, the concept of territoriality or territory immediately suggests the exis-
tence of physical and visual control (Ingold 1987). Such expectations can be
easily evaluated through the use of GIS.
Exploring Potentials. Models provide an ideal means to determine the range of
possibilities associated with certain processes or actions. There are many exam-
ples in archaeological narratives that make reference to the occurrence of specific
past actions that are difficult, if not impossible, to assess with any certainty. Yet it
is possible, even desirable, to discuss and provide estimates for the likelihood of
certain actions (or some aspect associated with them). This shift is subtle but
important. By making reference to the possibilities for certain action rather than
to its actual instantiation, it is possible to conduct an investigation that centers
around the significance of changes in the likelihood. This type of narrative that
derives from this approach can still be centered on topics of interest while at the
same time remain truthful to the level of resolution and uncertainty surrounding our
data. This archaeology of potentials becomes one way of investigating the
material conditions within which past (social) actions took place (Barrett 1994,
2006). As a way to exemplify what I mean, let us consider the use of a viewshed
to explore patterns of visibility in the past. Putting aside any accuracy issues due
to the resolution of the terrain model (i.e., let us assume that our terrain model is
of very high resolution), we can argue that what the viewshed describes best is,
(a) what is definitely blocked by the existing topography (b) what may be
potentially visible. In fact, while viewsheds only provide a necessary but not
sufficient condition for visibility they can still be used to investigate the potential
role/implications associated with the visibility of a certain landscape feature, its
similarity, or no, with the potential of other types of features, or how this potential
may have changed through time as the landscape was being transformed.

To Conclude

The above paragraphs have sought to provide some very personal commentaries
regarding the challenges underlying current efforts to develop digital methods within
an interpretive landscape archaeology framework. In doing so I have briefly focused
on some of the main criticisms made against existing GIS examples. I have purpose-
fully omitted reference to other modeling initiatives within archaeology (e.g., agent-
based models) simply because the main point of contact between current interpretive
approaches and model-based ones has been GIS.
As I have commented previously (Llobera 2007), developing or applying existing
methodologies (e.g., GIS) as part of an interpretive framework remains a daunting
task. It requires that we internalize many of the concepts and ideas found in larger
theoretical bodies (e.g., phenomenology) and apply them creatively. In the case of
506 Llobera

model-based methods like GIS, this needs to be paired up with knowledge about
different kinds of representations, and an understanding of their potential and limitations
when investigating certain types of questions. We need to be prepared to develop new
forms of representation when current ones are inadequate though not necessarily with the
intention of mimicking “reality” and/or other complex notions frequently found in
interpretive narratives, such as place (contra Lock 2010, p. 94), experience, and so
forth. Concepts such as these refer to complex processes that uniquely developed
across space and time rather than to any fix notion or object. Nevertheless, represen-
tations may be used to shed some light on these processes, or investigate some
aspects of them.
Most of the comments made in this paper have been theoretical or conceptual in
nature, leaving out any discussion about the practicalities of achieving this middle
ground. We can already identify divergent opinions on how to proceed with its
development. For instance, Gillings attributes part of the lack of convergence to the
fact that GIS studies are not “accessible to all and routinely applicable today, rather
than some poorly defined tomorrow (Gillings 2009, pp. 335).” He further hints at the
development of some GIS examples as being self-serving and somewhat disconnect-
ed from the theory. While I sympathize and align myself with some of these views, I
think that they may lead us down a path that so far has not proven to be very
successful in archaeology. There is great virtue in the use of simple tools/methods
but only when these match the level of our questions and not vice versa. When these
can no longer deliver, the need for new tools becomes a necessity to secure progress.
We have to recognize that in order to address certain questions we might need new
methods, as well as new concepts, that are not part of any ready-made toolset. This
may not always require the development of new tools but rather the innovative use of
existing tools in light of new theoretical needs. As I have mentioned above, many of
the processes found in interpretive narratives are not trivial and investigating them
with ready-at-hand tools, to use Heidegger's terms, downplays their complexity [for
an analogous point of view see Ingold's discussion of mapping and mapmaking
(Ingold 2000, pp. 219–242)]. While it is highly advantageous, and ultimately neces-
sary, that whatever methods we develop become widely available, we also need to
keep in mind the difference between “simple methods” and “methods made simple”.
The former are desirable provided we do not fall into the routine of adjusting our
questions to them, the latter require skill, time and effort to develop which often goes
unrewarded or dismissed as not being part of archaeology.
In my view the development of middle ground solutions that successfully marry
interpretive sensibilities with solid methodology represents a very fertile ground for
creativity and rigor in archaeology. This requires that we acknowledge the complex
nature of the themes raised within this theoretical framework. When using “model-
based” methods, we need to be aware of the implications of using any sort of
representations, their adequacy in light of certain questions, and their benefits as well
as limitations. Furthermore, we need to fill in the gaps that exist between the themes
and topics contained within interpretive approaches and the instantiation of these
within specific contexts.
The acceptance of tools such as GIS, and modeling in general, within an interpre-
tive landscape archaeology framework requires that we acknowledge the difference
between studying past landscapes, which is always done “at a distance”, and our
Challenges of Digital Methods Within Interpretive Landscape Archaeology 507

theories about how these become part of human existence. This difference between
how and what landscapes might have been and how these may be studied has
routinely been confused and inter-exchanged, and has provided the source of many
of criticisms leveled against the use of GIS. Ultimately, our belief in the possibility of
a middle ground depends on our conviction that in spite of our modernist (distant and
analytical) position, we can access some aspect of people's experience in the past.

Acknowledgments I would like to thank Prof. Don Grayson for providing comments on an earlier draft
and making me reflect a bit harder about my own ideas and beliefs. I would also like to thank the
anonymous referees who provided useful comments on how to improve this article. Any remaining
mistakes or errors are most definitely mine.


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