Understanding, designing and creating maps: a workshop on new software in archaeology

Earlier this year, Research Fellow Maria del Carmen Moreno, who joins us at the BSR this year from the University of Southampton to carry out research on the port system of imperial Rome, generously offered to share her expertise on new software being used in archaeology. Here she reflects on the workshop which she organised and conducted, and on the role this software has to play in this field of study.

My name is Maria del Carmen Moreno, and I am a postdoctoral researcher working at the British School at Rome. I am a specialist in Roman Archaeology and Landscape Archaeology, and as such, I am very familiar with the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). I believe the introduction of this tool in Archaeology has generated a bit of a “revolution” that is just starting to be acknowledged and incorporated into the discipline of Roman Archaeology, since it allows the user to manage and analyse vast amounts of data based on their distribution over the landscape. But every journey begins with a single step, and regarding GIS, that step consists of understanding what GIS is and its possibilities, and (then) getting hands-on with a computer to create a first map.

After several conversations with some residents at the British School at Rome, it became clear that tools of this kind generate interest and curiosity amongst scholars and artists alike, and so I thought of ways to showcase not only the possibilities of GIS, but also to demonstrate that, despite its complexity, GIS shouldn’t be considered a scary piece of software only understood by some, but as a very useful tool accessible to any person with an interest in this topic. I therefore decided to organise a workshop, entitled “Introduction to Geographic Information Systems in Humanities” at the British School at Rome for those interested in the topic.

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The day came, and an audience of residents (both scholars and artists) and some colleagues from other institutions and international academies in Rome were introduced to many different topics. To name just a few, we explored the definition of GIS and advantages of its use not only in Humanities but in many other disciplines and areas of research, and the diverse ways into which the curved surface of the Earth has been organised and represented through coordinate systems, as well as the numerous possibilities of commercial and open-source software available nowadays. Lively exchanges of opinions developed throughout the morning and early afternoon, especially when we discussed the process of map design and the consequences of choosing one geographic projection over another (which may introduce diverse degrees of distortion on the length and area of regions, countries, and continents alike, as some assistants discovered then).

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The site of Portus. Photo by Maria del Carmen Moreno.

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The site of Isola Sacra. Photo by Maria del Carmen Moreno.

We also went into the computing side of GIS, where we could think of ways in which real phenomena are represented and stored as geographic digital data, thus establishing the differences between vector and raster formats and the possibilities they offer for GIS users. Most importantly, I introduced some ideas about metadata and strategies for digital archiving, a fundamental concern when dealing with digital data in order to allow its description and reuse by researchers in the future. Finally, a tutorial on the creation of maps in ArcGIS (developed specifically for this workshop) was distributed amongst the assistants, in order to enable them to create their own maps. And thus, the session finished.

As a little reflection, I believe it was a very interesting workshop where the diversity of approaches and perceptions of the geographic space held and discussed by the assistants become the very central point of the session, allowing all of us to think and reflect on space, territories and landscapes in more diverse and creative ways.

As a final note, I would like to thank the assistance and the collaboration of the British School at Rome in the organisation and celebration of this workshop. Without them, this initiative wouldn’t have been possible.


Maria del Carmen Moreno (Research Fellow, BSR)

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