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Archaeocartography: The challenges and possibilities of archaeological distribution mapping

Seminar organised by Postdoc Pieterjan Deckers & Professor MSO Søren Michael Sindbæk (both UrbNet, Aarhus University)

Info about event


Wednesday 9 September 2020,  at 13:15 - 16:15


Aarhus University, Campus Moesgaard, Moesgård Allé 15, 8270 Højbjerg, room 4235-133


UrbNet, Centre for Urban Network Evolutions


9 September at 13.15


  • Aarhus University, Campus Moesgaard, room 4235-133
  • Virtual meeting room: contact pdeckers@cas.au.dk




13.15: Welcome and introduction: Why discuss archaeocartography? (Pieterjan Deckers + Søren Sindbæk) 

13.30: Presentations (20 min + 10 min questions each) 

  • Presentation 1: Not just dots on maps: archaeological cartography in theory and practice. Chris Green, Postdoctoral Researcher, Oxford University.

  • Presentation 2: Mapping and analyzing artefact distributions – the example of the PAS. Eljas Oksanen, Helsinki University.

  • Presentation 3: Archaeological distribution maps and network visualisations. Tom Brughmans, Associate Professor, Aarhus University.

15.00: short break 

15.15: General discussion (ca. one hour). Moderator: Søren Sindbæk.


Distribution maps have been part of the archaeological toolbox since the dawn of the discipline. They serve as heuristic and analytical tools in research and as a visual form of data presentation in publication, shedding light on settlement structures, cultural territories and patterns of economic exchange and social interaction in the past. Today, mapping has become easier than ever, thanks to accessible GIS applications, widely available digitized spatial data, and decreasing technical limitations for publication. However, while there is ample scholarly attention for more sophisticated techniques of spatial analysis, there is surprisingly little recent debate about the creation, use and reception of the most common form of archaeological distribution maps - a relatively simple map representation of structured, spatial data concerning a limited set of archaeological phenomena.

The seminar aims to take on three basic but underexplored challenges in the creation of such humble, but ubiquitous distribution maps: classification, normalisation and visualisation.

Classification is a necessary first step in the conception of every archaeological map. Questions may arise whether established typologies and taxonomies should be adopted as they are, or critically revised to take into account new finds and expanded areas of study? How to deal with competing classifications – a problem that is increasingly hampering archaeological synthesis at larger geographic scales? Can we, to an extent, break through the rigidity of archaeological classification to integrate current understandings of artefacts and types as relational and emergent? And – reverting the question – what roles can mapping play in the classification process? 

Normalisation is perhaps the most important challenge of the three. All archaeological data is inherently a sample, subject to diverse forms of bias. Consequently, an understanding of these biases is a crucial precondition to interpreting the spatial patterns and for further, more sophisticated steps in the analysis. The process of normalisation boils down to the selection of appropriate baselines: either universal (e.g. (proxies for) population density, research intensity, transport cost), or particular. The latter concern limited datasets that have a close relationship to the phenomenon studied, under the assumption that both have been subjected to the same bias(es) – for instance comparing the distribution of one type of pottery to another to assess differences in economic or social practices.

Finally, the communicative aspect of a map needs to be considered. This includes very practical elements of map design, but the issue is more fundamental than this. Maps, as media of visual communication, attract the eye, convey a lot of information at a glance, and may come to lead a life on their own. How can one make sure that they can be interpreted correctly by the audience, be they scholars or the wider public? This challenge extends to the integration of maps in broader argumentation. What makes the visualisation of a particular spatial dataset pertinent to a research question? In which ways can spatial datasets be combined to provide arguments in an archaeological line of reasoning? Taking into account the need for normalization, how should spatial patterns be examined? How can approaches that have more recently come to the fore in archaeology, notably networks, add to the interpretation and visualisation of spatial patterns?