University of Southampton OCS (beta), CAA 2012

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Concepts for Studying the Built Environment: A framework of socio-spatial reasoning for identifying and operationalising comparative analytical units in GIS
Benjamin N. Vis

Last modified: 2011-12-18


The built environment in archaeology could broadly be defined as the physical transformation of the environment by human beings for habitation. Although the built environment includes materiality and texture (architectural traits), its primary properties are location and spatial information. Especially when the archaeological site concerned is settled or urban in character, the spatial information of the built environment is tremendously complex. It is to be expected that computational approaches to spatial analysis (GIS) will include effective tools to help us make sense of the spatial data we acquire from the built environment.


However, before such analysis takes place we need to determine what kind of insights we hope to acquire and which analytical units are capable of conveying that. It is broadly assumed that spatial configurations and shapes express social values. The perspective of this paper originates specifically from the following questions: how does spatial layout play a role in the development of society when a place is intensively developed and how does spatial layout accommodate its residing society? Put concisely: what is the socio-spatial significance of having and developing spatial configurations for habitation? In order to address this on the basis of spatial datasets it needs to be made explicit how they represent actual features, but in order to interpret outcomes of analyses we also need to understand how these actual features come into existence. The series of concepts that result from these considerations will allow the definition of analytical units meaningful to the core questions.


This paper firstly presents a series of concepts that construct a theoretical framework for the built environment as a product of the development of society by continuous human action. It will propose that the boundaries determining the configurative layout of the built environment are meaningful as stages of consolidation in inchoate socio-spatial processes of formation. It will then turn attention to the series of boundary concepts which inform the nature of the representations of our datasets (maps and GIS’d line drawings). Preparation of spatial data on the basis of these concepts will enable analysis. On the basis of these series of concepts an ontology of analytical units, boundary types, will be defined. These boundary types, the smallest meaningful elements, enable comparative built environment research. Upon identifying the boundary types in built environment datasets it will be proposed GIS has the ability to operationalise the boundary types to study various socio-spatial characteristics across single built environment complexes and their development through time (data permitting).


built environment; GIS; theory; methodology; boundaries