Archaeologists rely on computer science to provide the tools needed to efficiently store, manipulate, analyze, display, and interpret large amounts of data. For example, archaeologists routinely use computers to record field and laboratory observations and statistical analyses to discern meaningful data patterns. But that's not all:
Geographic information systems, or GIS, are computer software programs that allow archaeologists to summarize and visually display geographic and locational information—for example, the distribution of sites on the landscape or the distribution of cultural features within an individual site.
Site distributions through time, Mesa Verde region study area, Village Ecodynamics Project.
GIS is an important tool in archaeological computer simulations that attempt to reconstruct and/or predict the behavior of human systems in the past—for example, ancestral Pueblo Indian society in the American Southwest.
In such simulations, researchers create “virtual” groups of people and place them on computer-generated, geographically accurate landscapes. They then introduce and manipulate a number of variables—population size, precipitation levels, soil depletion, availability of wild resources, and so on—to see how the groups respond.
How does changing one or more environmental variables cause people’s behavior to change? How does human behavior modify the environment? What human behaviors lead to group success? To failure? Archaeologists can then compare the results of the computer simulations with actual archaeological evidence observed in the field.
Computer simulation (sometimes called computer modeling) is one of the newest and most innovative tools in archaeological research today.