What has GEO taught us about settlement archaeology?

As I was following along with the #CAAAtlanta hashtag from my desk, I saw this nugget from Philip Verhagen

My initial reaction was a blend of outrage interlaced with skepticism that flowed directly into self-doubt and melancholy, finally landing in reflection and a deeper questioning of the premise. In the end, I feel that this is a bit of a post hock ergo propter hock argument. It has been decades since I had a class on logic, so my categorization of the fallacy may be off.  The point is that I geospatial technologies aren’t capable of fundamentally altering our thinking about settlement archaeology.  However, they are capable of providing us new forms of observations, data, and tests that can contribute to the sorts of analysis and models that can provide new insight into the ways in which people of the past utilized the landscape.

“after this, therefore because of this”

I want to make sure it is stated that I have nothing but respect for Thomas Whitley.  He likely does not recall, but he and I discussed modeling at various conferences, he shared with me his methodology from his Spatial-Decision Making Model paper, and his work with Philip in various publications is exemplary. Further, it is obvious that a short tweet paraphrasing another’s sentiment is an easy target  devoid of its original context. That being said, I am going to use the his notion (communicated via Philip’s tweet), as my own straw man logical fallacy to argue against.


Any description of ‘geospatial technology’ would cover a wide array of methods and instruments for recording data with a spatial component.  Clear examples would include Geographic Positioning Systems (GPS), laser transits, and wireless data collection platforms. Expanding this a little further, we can include instruments for remote sensing including satellites to image the visible and non-visible spectrum, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), electromagnetic and conductivity devices, or the dowsers willow sap for that matter. Slightly beyond this, we can include geospatial software such as ArcGIS, QGIS, PostGIS, Surfer, Idrisi, Grass, or the host of spatially oriented packages for R and Python. These are the tools allow us to apply statistical and analytical methods that consider the spatial component of our data in new and novel ways. An incredibly narrow survey of these methods would include correlation, kriging, Gaussian Processes, spatial random effects, Conditional Autoregressive (CAR) models, K-nearest neighbors, kernel methods, network analysis, cost paths, view sheds, and Agent Based Modeling (ABM) to name but a few.

In light of the tweet, I cannot say what defines a ‘fundamental’ alteration of our understanding entails.  Frankly, I am not even sure what entails ‘settlement’, but my assumption is that is refers to our collective understanding of how people of the past visualized, navigated, and utilized the landscape for economic, cultural, spiritual, personal, or any other reason. Even if Whitley meant something more specific with the term ‘settlement’ or more grand with the term ‘fundamental’, I find it unlikely that many archaeologists would argue that the list of above technologies has not contributed to a significant advancement in our conceptual understanding of how people lived on the landscape.

Perhaps it is that ‘settlement’ is such a vast concept, that it would be difficult to observe any one technology or methods ability to move the needle of our understanding.  Or perhaps it is more an issue of the ability to fundamentally change anyone’s etic perspective of what past people believed when they acted upon the landscape; or to understand past settlement at all through one’s given cultural filters.  If we navigate this towards an epistemological argument, then little is to be gained.  However using a more pragmatic notion of settlement as an archaeological expression of past lives interpreted from the patterns and artifacts observed in the archaeological record, then anyone would be hard pressed to suggest that geospatial technology has had a less than profound part to play. At least in my humble opinion.

As suggested earlier, it is not that geospatial technologies in and of themselves have the ability to provide insight into anything; there is no magic here.  However, as a framework for creating, extracting, organizing, and incorporating the characteristics of spatially explicit data into our studies of the past, they begin to realize their utility.  In short, if GEO has failed to inform us about settlement in archaeology, it is entirely our fault.


LiDAR and Mesoamerica? Yup. Drones in Tanzania? I’d think so. Agent Based Models in the Pleistocene? Ask Premo, Lake or Crema. Madry and the availability of world coverage for hi-res satellite photos is of interest. T. Whitley himself as made quite important contributions using GEO to understand settlement. So how can he argue that GEO has not been a fundamental driver in our current understandings of settlement in any range of geographies and periods when he has contributed himself? Perhaps I am misreading the tweet, perhaps none of these constitute a ‘fundamental’ shift, or perhaps it was just a provocative statement to generate thought and discussion. If it is the latter, then i’ve taken the bait and you should too.


What has GEO taught us about settlement archaeology?

One thought on “What has GEO taught us about settlement archaeology?

  1. Thomas G. Whitley says:

    Hi Matthew.

    Nice commentary on Philip’s tweet. As you suspected in the final two sentences, my intention was to provoke the audience to further thought and discussion. I’m glad you took the bait. Here is a link to the speaking version of my talk, and the powerpoint, for a full accounting of what I intended to say:

    Click to access WhitleyCAA2017.pdf



    – Tom Whitley


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