High-Tech Mapping of Ancient Sites
By Barbara Spector
James C. Wright, professor and chair of classical and Near Eastern archaeology, has spent his career examining the relationship between space and culture. Recently, he has been focusing on the concept of landscapes.
“I have been thinking about how the transformation of the landscape by early agriculturalists and then again by the earliest ‘state-level’ societies have created landforms, paths, waterways, mounds of occupation, walls of defense and places of burial that have forever changed the way everyone else who has come to that landscape views and uses it,” Wright explains.
For the fall 2003 semester, Wright received a Mellon New Directions Fellowship for Teacher-Scholars. The fellowship, awarded on a competitive basis to tenured faculty members at participating colleges, offers financial support and a one-semester leave that affords them the opportunity to pursue new areas of research and teaching.
During his leave, Wright says, “I have been reading about historical ecology; the construction of landscapes by humans and their cultures; how space is experienced by humans and, through that sensory and cognitive process, is turned into places; how the speaking, writing and representation of spaces transforms them into places of inhabitation that permanently alter the ‘natural’ landscape and have an echoing impact on later generations and later occupations — even by different peoples with different cultures.”
In the past, Wright says, his ability to analyze his findings has been limited by the constraints of traditional graphing programs, which can plot data in two dimensions only, offer few options for differentiating among variables and can produce only one map at a time. Wright spent a portion of his leave learning Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a technology that enables users to overlay different maps and plot spatially referenced data in three dimensions. With GIS, data can be represented as “floating numbers” that do not have to be configured in lines. “Each one of these points can be linked to a database of information,” Wright notes.
He explains that while GIS is an important innovation, “it is not an elixir that will solve the problems that researchers have been working at for a long time. GIS is only as good as the questions that one brings to it.”
Asking the Right Questions
While on leave, Wright began to develop an undergraduate course on the cultural geography of landscapes that will pose some of these questions and use GIS as a tool to explore the answers. “Such a course will introduce basic concepts of geography, human ecology and historical ecology; consider the relationship between humans and nature; look at the spatial configuration of culture through the experiences of individual humans and groups or communities of humans; and then look at how humans and landscapes interact in a dynamic way,” he says.
“This will mean examining the nature-nurture controversy, looking at cognitive processes in spatial terms, examining the role of monuments and movement in spatial settings, exploring the urban-rural dichotomy and looking at the relationship of space and place, which will mean looking at cosmology and myth and the enactment of ritual in physical, spatial terms. The course will be of general interest to the undergraduate community — to students studying anthropology, ecology, environmental studies, growth and structure of cities, and other areas.”
Wright will develop data-representation problems for students to tackle, involving overlapping layers that plot out a region’s rainfall, geological strata and elevation. Students might use GIS to examine the distribution of seeds in an area in relationship to the number of grinding stones (used to process the seeds) that have been excavated there. GIS, Wright says, “is one of the coming tools of archaeology. Students need to be aware of it, and we need to begin to make it available to them.”
Wright is collaborating on curriculum development with Bryn Mawr colleagues Peter Magee, assistant professor of classical and Near Eastern archaeology; Maria Luisa Crawford, professor and chair of geology; Donald Barber, assistant professor of geology; and Richard Davis, professor and chair of anthropology. “We are all involved in spatial analysis and representation,” he explains.
Reconstructing a Viewpoint
Wright and his Greek colleagues are excavating Mycenaean cemeteries in the Nemea Valley. Reconstructing the different communities that lived in that valley often literally involves looking at it from their point of view, he says. GIS will enable Wright to develop a map that distinguishes between the parts of the valley that are and are not visible from atop a settlement his group has excavated.
“I am going to give a paper in the spring in the Center for Visual Culture Colloquium series that looks at how the Mycenaens, in the Late Bronze Age, built fortifications on high rocky eminences we call citadels or acropoleis, drained swampy land, diverted streams as much as 1 kilometer apart and thereby wrote into the landscape perspectives of viewing it and economic ways of using it that set the stage for the subsequent Greek city-states or poleis,” Wright says. “At the same time, I am going to show how, in the formation of a modern Greek national identity, both Europeans and modern Greeks have conspired to elevate the Acropolis of Athens as an icon of identity and how archaeologists have become co-conspirators in the creation of that identity.”
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.