Archaeology has long been limited by the technologies available for recording – or documenting – archaeological remains. Two-dimensional plans and maps suited to the work of geographers and urban planners, and the profiles geologists use to record stratigraphic sequences, but not for recording the often complicated and irregular structures found in archaeological excavations. This situation has only begun to change with the advent of electronic surveying equipment and three-dimensional computer graphics.
The next logical step is to link the images produced by these methods to databases in the way Geographic Information Systems (GIS) links maps to databases. Although archaeological analysis has already benefited greatly from GIS applications, those benefits have been limited in large part because “archaeologists operate in a multi-dimensional world in which the addition of a third dimension, in the form of time, or depth, or height, are fundamentally interwoven within the archaeological analysis” (Harris and Lock 1995: 355). Within-site, three-dimensional GIS would enable the sort of spatial analyses which have made GIS applications such powerful tools for geographers, urban planners, ecologists, etc.
Less obvious, perhaps, but potentially more revolutionary would be the possibilities AIS offer for modelling post-depositional transformations: the changes artifact distributions undergo as a result of disturbance by tree roots, rodents, frost, groundwater fluctuations, etc. Lacking suitable tools to examine possible alternatives, archaeology continues to utilise a static model of stratigraphy derived from geology, instead of a dynamic model better suited to a soils environment. AIS has the potential to enable simulation of post-depositional transformations of both the subterranean environment and the artifact assemblage.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL INFORMATION SYSTEMS (AIS)