Figure 2

Distances in landscape archaeology

Distance is one of the easiest geographical attributes archaeologists can measure these days. The availability of digital data and the existence of free data providers such as Google Earth mean that the location of virtually every place on the Earth can be measured in relation with another. Computerized tools such as AutoCad or Geographical Information System allows measuring distances with precision; in addition, the latter allows manipulating distance measurements in different ways and creating visualisations of different kinds of distances. However, not all distances are archaeologically significant.

Distances have to be substantiated in archaeology. They have to relate to something tangible, something material. Distance is a corporeal quality in a physical world. We have to find dating evidence to measure distance between two ancient towns, different archaeological sites or two find spots. In addition, there is a cost to be measured and this can be measured in distance, energy or speed. Now matter how the measurement is made it has to connect two points that had significance in the past.

Distances do not exist only on the paper maps or digital coverages but in our minds. We evaluate distances and attach values to them. We consider affordances (Gibson 1979) and take journeys on that basis. We use our subjective mental maps (cf. Ekman and Bratfisch 1965; Gold 1965; Gold and White 1974; Downs and Stea 1973; 1977) and behave accordingly (cf. Guttenplan 2000, 17-26).

People have through time had different preferences. These preferences guided travel and potentially made daily lives different from one period to another. One can map these taskscapes (cf. Ingold 1993) through distributions of chronologically distinct finds (Rajala in press). Potentially significant distances can be measured between entities. In my own research I have measured the distances between a central place in a territory and datable finds. This approach has shown that the relationship between the ancient town of Nepi and taskscapes changed through time.

View Nepi in a larger map

Naturally, the distance from Nepi, settled from the 9th century BC onwards, did not correlate with the amount of prehistoric flints in any way. On the other hand, prehistoric pottery (Neolithic – Late Bronze Age/ Early Iron Age) was found farther away from Nepi than any other material group. A respectful distance was left between proper sites; this is confirmed by the existence of the bronze age Il Pizzo at Nepi. There was no correlation between distance from Nepi and the amount of Orientalising and Archaic pottery. However, the distribution was slightly skewed towards longer distances and variance was higher than with any other category. This suggests that the distribution originated from both settlement and funerary sites and was influenced by many varied processes. Dissimilarly, distance from Nepi was almost significantly different between the units with and without Roman pottery; Roman pottery was found nearer the centre. This shows how intensive the Roman land use was and how rural settlement started from the outskirts of the town unlike during the previous periods. The town had pulling power.

On the other hand, the distances affect archaeologists intellectually. We have our own mental maps moulded by our interests, attitudes and values. The archaeological attitudes towards meaningful change and this can be measured in distance. I showed some time ago (Rajala et al. 1999) how road networks defined landscape in archaeological survey in central Italy during the 20th century. Roman archaeological remains as a dominant feature guided archaeological research in the area (cf. Ashby 1927; Fredriksen and Ward Perkins 1957). Archaeologists followed the Roman roads and looked for visible remains in their vicinity.

This classical emphasis became weaker towards the end of the 20th century when blanket surface survey became a standard method. For example, Potter’s (n.d.) survey in the southern Faliscan area as part of the groundbreaking South Etruria Survey (cf. Potter 1977; Patterson 1998; Coarelli and Patterson 2008) on the western side of the Tiber aimed at exploring sites in all accessible fields with surface visibility. This can be measured by defining the distances between the known Roman roads and the surveyed sites and comparing them to those by Fredriksen and Ward Perkins (1957). The difference between two surveys and their mental landscapes can be visualised through GIS maps (see Figs. 1 and 2). The visualised distances are Carthesian; if the cost of movement, i.e. the roughness and steepness of landscape, would have taken into account, the difference may have been even clearer.

Figure 1
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 2

The proof of the bias came through a simple statistical analysis. Nearly all sites visited by Fredriksen and Ward Perkins (1957) located less than 500 metres from a Roman road. A one-sample chi-squared test confirmed that the H0 hypothesis could be rejected with complete confidence. This showed that Roman roads affected the discovery pattern and that this survey method resulted in a distorted picture of the real settlement pattern. In contrast, the sites Potter surveyed (listed in Potter n.d.) located in average at 550 m from the Roman roads. The chi-squared test showed that the chi-squared was clearly lower than the µ-value at the 95 % level of significance. The distance from Roman roads did not affect the finding of sites.


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Downs, R. M., and Stea, D., 1977. Maps in minds: Reflections on cognitive mapping. New York: Harper & Row.

Ekman, G., and Bratfisch, O., 1965. ‘Subjective Distance and Emotional Involvement: A Psychological Mechanism’, Acta Psychologica, 24, 446-53.

Frederiksen, M. W., and Ward Perkins, J.B., 1957. ‘The ancient road systems of the central and northern Ager Faliscus (notes on southern Etruria, 2)’, Papers of the British School at Rome 25, 67-203.

Gibson, J. J., 1979. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Gould, P.R., 1965. On mental maps. Discussion paper no. 9. Ann Arbor: Michigan Inter-University Community of Mathematical Geographers.

Gould, P.R. and White, R., 1974. Mental maps. London: Penguin.

Guttenplan, S., 2000. Mind’s Landscape. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Mind. Oxford: Blackwell.

Patterson, H. and Millett, M., 1998 ‘The Tiber Valley Project’, Papers of the British School at Rome 66, 1–20.

Potter, T. W., n.d. An archaeological field survey of the central and southern Ager Faliscus. Unpublished manuscript.

Potter, T. W., 1979. The changing landscape of south Etruria. London: Elek.

Rajala, U., in press. ‘Political landscapes and local identities in Archaic central Italy – Interpreting the material from Nepi (VT, Lazio) and Cisterna Grande (Crustumerium, RM, Lazio)’, in S. Stoddart and G. Cifani (eds.). Landscape, ethnicity and identity in the archaic Mediterranean area. Oxford: Oxbow.

Rajala, U., Harrison, A., and Stoddart, S., 1999. ’The enhancement of the south Etruria survey. GIS in the study of the research history of the southern Faliscan area’, in Archaeology in the age of Internet. CAA97. British Archaeological Reports, International Series (CD).

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Ulla Rajala

Ulla Rajala gained her PhD from Cambridge in 2003 with a thesis that examined human settlement, urbanisation and land use in Etruria. Her research interests follow both Italian archaeology and the use of GIS in Landscape archaeology.