By Aleck Tan, ACUA Associate Member

According to ESRI, a Geographic Information System (GIS) is a system that creates, manages, analyzes, and displays data using maps.

Upon reflection, oddly, I don’t remember who introduced me to GIS or why I got into it. I took introductory classes at my undergraduate school and then helped a professor with a mapping task for her research project in Belize. She invited me to my first terrestrial field school there. When I used a Total Mapping Station for the first time during that field school, I was hooked. In the past 6 years, GIS has been one of my primary responsibilities in past and present research and job opportunities.

In terrestrial and maritime archaeology, GIS is a specialized and highly sought-after skill that employers look for. Knowing GIS opens more research and job opportunities and helps you get paid more –just check out job postings that ask for GIS experience!

Using a Total Mapping Station in my first field school in Belize. Photo courtesy Aleck Tan.

With every student I come across, I strongly encourage them to learn GIS. Unfortunately, I have noticed many don’t follow this advice or take classes. If they do, they don’t go further than their coursework afterwards.

If you want to learn but don’t know where to begin, here are some notes:

How do I get started with GIS?

If you are in college, take an introductory class. Usually, GIS classes are housed under the Geography Department. After you take the introductory concepts course, take at least 2 more courses. I recommend Introduction to GIS and Introduction to Remote Sensing.

Are there other options aside from taking college courses?

Being a college student probably means you have free access to ESRI but if you don’t, there are other options. Get ESRI’s ArcGIS Personal Use license or download QGIS, an open source application. If you are only looking to create simple maps with a basic program, start with Google Earth Pro.

Once you have access to ESRI, take ESRI Training Courses. ESRI provides modules that take you step-by-step through sample projects. Here’s a training plan I put together, which contains 6 foundational courses I recommend. ­

Do I need a certificate?

In my experience, no. GIS courses normally have lab sections, where you learn how to use a GIS program and are introduced to general, foundational workflows and tools. Since labs follow set instructions and use model training data, they don’t teach you creative thinking and problem-solving to address real-world data issues. Just because one takes GIS courses does not mean they know GIS.

Because of this, I argue that it is not necessary to get a certificate. To me, half of knowing GIS is knowing which buttons to press and what tools to use (this comes from experience), and the other half is knowing which keywords to Google (this comes from being solid in the foundational concepts). If you have these two skills, you will be successful.

After taking classes, what should I do next?

Make your own maps. These can be fun maps displaying sasquatch sightings or independent research projects to help professors. Create your own workflows and get familiar with the GIS program without a guidance document providing step-by-step instructions.

GIS is not like riding a bike. If you don’t keep up with the skills, you will lose them.

What GIS program should I use?

ArcGIS Pro is becoming the most common GIS program. Its predecessor, ArcMap, will no longer be supported in 2026 and therefore, the industry has been slowly shifting to ArcGIS Pro. Some organizations might still run ArcMap, however, because they have not made the transition.

Colleges have been training students on ArcGIS Pro. In my opinion, ArcGIS Pro has more capabilities, and is more efficient and easier to use. Unlike ArcMap, it also tends to crash less!

There are support webpages like this, to help people transition from ArcMap to ArcGIS Pro. My main learning obstacle while transitioning was finding where ArcMap buttons were in ArcGIS Pro.

How will I remember which buttons to press?

This advice applies to not only GIS but also in any technology in archaeology. Write out your workflows in detailed documentation, fill out the metadata for your files, and create an outline of your folders and files. Items to note may include data sources, tools used, steps, description of output data, naming conventions, and organization of files in a folder. The more detailed, the better. You will undoubtedly use these as references in the future.

Do I need to learn programming?

Yes and no. Automating GIS tasks is next level fun. Learn Python and ArcGIS’s ArcPy and ModelBuilder to build your own tools. Building your own tools requires you to plan the whole workflow and be able to identify and address issues as they inevitably emerge. With your own tools, you can complete tasks more efficiently. This will improve your chances of getting jobs because you can save time and money. It is one of the most satisfying feelings when your tools work!

While GIS programming is useful, you do not need to know how to code because ModelBuilder can do it for you. ModelBuilder is an easy visual way to build your tools without any coding. It is like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Coding skills, however, provide the ability to customize tools further.  

What’s the difference between making maps in terrestrial versus maritime archaeology?

Aside from data being on water, there is not much of a difference. The required skills are the same.

Will I be stuck doing GIS or IT tasks if I specialize in GIS?

No. Strong GIS data management and organization skills is applicable to collecting and organizing any data. You become very detail-oriented and are thorough with all data because having one detail off can make a big impact. You learn what type of data is necessary to collect, how to best organize data, and how to manipulate and analyze data to get what you need.

GIS will test your patience for numerous reasons: the program crashes, data is missing or collected incorrectly, you don’t know the keywords to search your problem, the list goes in. You learn how to think creatively and come up with various ways to get to the same solution, which is an invaluable skill in and out of the field.

Teaching a student how to build a map using ArcMap. Photo courtesy Aleck Tan.

What are the basic concepts and skills I should learn?

GIS concepts can be technical and confusing. Here are basic key concepts you should know if you want to do GIS in archaeology:

  • Folder organization and naming convention – organize and name files appropriately so you and most importantly, someone 5 years from now (a.k.a. future you) can understand the data
  • Digitize, analyze and extract data from features – create/trace features, read and edit attribute tables, use spatial analyst and data management tools
  • Projections – When a 3D globe (e.g. Earth, orange) gets flattened into a 2D shape (e.g. paper map), it results in a variety of distortions. Learn what those distortions mean.
  • Excel – Learn to populate cells quickly, edit efficiently, use filters, sort, concatenate, and split text to columns. Use txt/csv file format for input data.
  • Display XY data – Use the same projection that the data was collected in to display XY coordinates successfully.
  • Georeferencing historical maps and imagery, aerial imagery – Overlay imagery without spatial reference into GIS. Check out this Georeferencer website.
  • Learn to find data sources – common ones include USGS, NOAA
  • Download GPS tracks and points – After fieldwork, download, convert, display GPS tracks and waypoints. Convert GPS tracks to display survey coverage.
  • ArcGIS Online apps – Use Collector, Survey123, Field Maps to collect field data and complete digital forms. Many CRM companies use these.
  • Display data in a map using a visual hierarchy– The primary priority is to make the data the star of the show. The secondary priority is items that will help people interpret data. Everything else goes last.

Any last words of advice?

A terrible mentality to have in GIS is thinking you know everything. There will always be more to learn. With every GIS person you meet, you will learn a new trick.

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