Archaeological GIS in Central Asia

Mariner Padwa

Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., USA

Sebastian Stride

Barcelona University, Spain

he following short articles describe the current state of several projects developing archaeological applications of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang). Taken together, it is hoped that they point to some of the potential applications of GIS in Central Asia.

Of course, these projects are just a few among many currently applying digital technologies to Silk Road studies, some of which set an outstanding standard, such as the International Dunhuang Project ( The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative (ECAI — has even developed a pilot project to link a number of projects within a Silk Road Digital Atlas.

The use of GIS in projects such as these is sometimes viewed as simply a development of “digital cartography,” but GIS is in fact much more. GIS not only allows data to be stored and represented in spatially referenced databases, along with layers of geographic information at any scale, but it enables new analytical and interpretive approaches. It is therefore hardly surprising that GIS should have become omnipresent in all fields that involve spatial information, from farming to the management of large cities and the running of armies. In the field of archaeology, where the study of spatial phenomena and geography are a fundamental part of understanding patterns in the past, GIS is rapidly becoming a standard part of the archaeologist’s toolkit, whether at the scale of a single trench or across regions.

In each of the regions dealt with in the essays in this section, one of the first functions of GIS has been to bring existing material into a single place, in order to grapple with the disparate and sometimes chaotic nature of archaeological data from Central Asia. Whether research is focused on a single region, oasis, or site, the experience of delimiting data sets and treating them comprehensively requires a “bottom up” approach. Of course, GIS can be extremely useful even in this nonanalytical role, compiling an “encyclopedia” of data which may not even have a specific research goal. For example, the comparisons between historical cartography and modern field observation in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan demonstrate the massive destruction of archaeological sites which resulted from agricultural projects in the last fifty years. GIS can help to measure this destruction and to track the preservation of existing sites and assess the risks they may face from future development.

However, equally if not ultimately more powerful is the use of GIS as an analytical and interpretive tool, a role considered by many to be an intellectual watershed in applications to archaeology. Of course, the applications illustrated here are modest in comparision with work underway in other parts of the world. Nonetheless we hope that these articles will illustrate some examples of this type of application of GIS, or at least its potential. Finally, we hope that, taken together, these articles point to some directions for how GIS can bring archaeological resources together in a common platform across Central Asia.

About the Authors

Mariner Padwa(padwa@fas. is a Ph.D. candidate in the Committee on Inner Asian and Altaic Studies at Harvard University. He has participated in archaeological fieldwork in Pakistan, Mongolia, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, and is currently completing a dissertation dealing with the history, archaeology, and geography of the ancient Krorainic oases in Chinese Turkestan (Xinjiang).

Sebastian Stride (sebstride@ spent four years living in Uzbekistan and has been working in Central Asia since 1995. He is a member of the MAFOuz de Bactriane and the Observatori del Tíbet i de l’Àsia Central and currently teaches Central Asian History and Archaeology at Barcelona University.


  1. Lewis R. Lancaster and Ruth Mostern, “A View from Cyberspace: The Silk Road Atlas of the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative,” Central Eurasian Studies Review, 2/3 (2003): 2-7.

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