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Landscape archaeology

Exploring how landscape archaeology uses remote sensing.

Archaeologists are not only interested in archaeological sites themselves, but also in their position in the landscape. To properly understand a site, we should also explore how it relates to the local environment and other sites in the area.

For example, a map of the distribution of major Roman settlements in Britain makes much more sense if you add elevation data and the Roman road network. This is because you are most likely to find a major Roman settlement in lowland areas, on or near to a Roman road.

Roman Britain settlements Roman Britain settlements with road and topgraphy A map of major Roman settlements in Great Britain (top), with the Roman road network and topography included (bottom). Data courtesy of Natural Earth (land), the Ordnance Survey (topography), the Rural Settlement of Roman Britain (sites), and (roads).

Remote sensing is a valuable tool in landscape archaeology, as it allows us to map and visualise the location of sites within the landscape, and to analyse their relationship with their surroundings using additional tools such as geographic information systems (GIS).

Satellite imagery can be used, for example, to generate maps automatically that show different types of landcover – such as farmland, forest, or open water – or for analytical purposes, such as mapping the density of vegetation coverage. Radar-derived elevation data can be used to provide information on the gradient and aspect of the local topography, and even to map the location and size of water courses in a landscape. These tools are particularly valuable in parts of the world where good quality digital mapping data is not available.

Bekaa Valley terrain and sites Archaeological sites in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Data courtesy of the USGS (topography), ESA (background NDVI plot), and the Fragile Crescent Project (sites).

All this information about a landscape can then be used to explore the relationship between archaeological sites and the environment. You can do this by adding environmental data to a site or sites – for example, extracting the elevation values – or by creating new information – for example, by automatically measuring the distance between each site and the nearest river or stream.

What archaeological landscapes are you interested in? How might remote sensing be useful for better understanding the sites located in their local environment?
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Advanced Archaeological Remote Sensing: Site Prospection, Landscape Archaeology and Heritage Protection in the Middle East and North Africa

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