September 06, 2023 TOPICS

[Ambitious Graduate Students] Using GIS to connect multidimensional information:The key to the next generation of archeology~Archaeological research and reporting:Sharing and utilizing every piece of information in a database~

Mikiharu Takeuchi, Graduate School of Letters

Buried cultural properties refer to cultural assets that have been buried underground. There are approximately 460,000 such sites known to exist in Japan, and about 9,000 excavations are conducted every year. The results of excavations of these buried cultural properties that lie deep underground often rewrite the very facts that were thought to be common knowledge.

Mikiharu Takeuchi (2nd year doctoral student, Graduate School of Letters), is passionate about using geographic information system (GIS) applications to consolidate and visualize vast amounts of information, including excavation reports, in a database. We caught up with him as he attempts to reshape the discipline of archaeology by cooperating extensively with local governments, researchers at research institutions, and private companies.

Centralizing the vast number of buried cultural property reports and visualizing scattered dots in a plane

A Geographic Information System (GIS) is a technology that enables advanced analysis and quick decision making by comprehensively managing, processing, and visually displaying data imbued with location-related information (i.e., spatial data) using geographic location as a clue. One example of this is Google Maps, and GIS is being used extensively all around us.

Leveraging GIS, Takeuchi is working on researching and building a "centralized platform for linking multiple research fields" to consolidate the vast number of excavation reports and distilling them one by one from various perspectives, including historical value, cultural value, and geography.

The road has not been a smooth one, however. In the past, the primary entities that have researched buried cultural properties have been specialized institutions and local government staff, but in recent years, this research has been increasingly outsourced to the private sector, resulting in variations in report content and information disclosure, according to Takeuchi. But this does not stop him.

“People use the simple-sounding term ‘visualizing information,’ but this actually requires many different tasks to be done. One person can never do it alone, for example, by scrutinizing variations in research report content, setting standards, and standardizing the notation. Therefore, I cooperate with many people who possess expertise and field experience, and we exchange ideas and opinions as we move forward one step at a time. What I find appealing about this research is that information and knowledge that were once individual dots can now be connected on a single platform and be visualized on a plane.

A centralized platform not only allows for a multilayered and multifaceted view of the past, it could also serve as a compass to guide future excavations.

What is revealed when “connecting the dots” with a Geographic Information System (GIS)?

According to Takeuchi, the creation of a platform that links various fields such as history and geography and visualizes them in relation to each other will be a valuable resource in managing future excavations.

“Excavation requires a lot of time and human resources, but these resources are by no means plentiful. Therefore, it is very important to determine how to utilize limited resources to conduct excavations. If we can use a centralized platform to ascertain multiple pieces of information about where, when, how much, and how buried cultural properties have been excavated, we will be able to plan excavations more efficiently and reduce the burden on researchers.”

Takeuchi also belongs to the Ritsumeikan University Research Center for Disaster Mitigation of Urban Cultural Heritage, and he is a key member of the Heian-kyo Site Database project (part of the Virtual Kyoto Project), working closely with the Art Research Center (ARC) at Ritsumeikan University and the Kyoto City Center for Lifelong Learning. As a member of this project, he is attempting to utilize GIS to analyze and visualize the sheer number of excavation reports related to Heian-kyo and compile them into a single database. Going forward, he plans to continue enhancing the data, content, and functions for this project.

Takeuchi’s encounter with GIS research

Ever since his undergraduate days at Tokushima University, Takeuchi has always wanted to conduct interdisciplinary research that is not limited to a single field. A turning point in his life occurred when he casually took a GIS class as an undergraduate student.

“While I was interested in humanities fields like history and archaeology, I was also attracted to data science. By utilizing GIS, data can be collected from a variety of angles and superimposed on a single map to provide a bird's-eye view across disciplines. This was a perfect fit with my desire to do interdisciplinary research.”

After completing his undergraduate degree, Takeuchi decided to enter the Graduate School of Letters at Ritsumeikan University, which has a strong track record of GIS-driven research.

“I found the personalities of the faculty supervisors and research team members and the diversity of the research environment to be very attractive. GIS-driven research in the humanities attracts people from a diverse array of fields in both the public and private sectors as well as those who are well-versed in archaeology. Many of these people are very unique and interesting, and they share a wealth of knowledge and information with me, so I am always discovering something new.”

Expanding the future through research

In July 2022, Takeuchi won the 11th Young Scholar Award sponsored by ESRI, a major GIS software company based in the United States. This is a global award that recognizes young researchers who have demonstrated excellence in research using GIS.

“I am extremely pleased to have been recognized for the research I have been working on, including the Heian-kyo Site Database project. I believe I was able to win this award thanks to the cooperation of the many research institutions and researchers involved in the project.”

Takeuchi's research is not limited to the laboratory; he must collaborate with many researchers both at home and abroad, local government officials who deal with cultural properties, and private companies. Takeuchi says these interactions afford him with numerous advantages.

“I found it very stimulating to be able to interact with people outside of academia. I feel that I have expanded my possibilities by talking with people from a wide range of industries about my research as well as other topics. This gave me the opportunity to turn my attention to the wider world, rather than limiting my future to just what I can see from my own perspective.

Aiming to create new value by moving freely between disciplines

The range of activities that can be pursued via research is expanding inexhaustibly. By providing professional management advice to each research organization, improving the efficiency of research incorporating the latest knowledge and technology is no longer a pipe dream. With regard to GIS-powered excavations and the creation of a database of archaeological sites, expectations are high that "open archaeology" can be achieved with citizen participation through crowdsourcing, workshops, and other initiatives.

By using GIS, valuable information that was once disparate can now be consolidated into a single database that is easy for everyone to view and understand. Seemingly unrelated fields can now be connected to each other, and issues and solutions beyond the scope of research can be revealed. For example, in addition to geographic information such as mountains, rivers, and elevation, researchers can now get a bird’s eye view of various information like the location of buildings and ruins as well as data on natural disasters. According to Takeuchi, the best part of this research is that existing information, when viewed from different angles, can generate new questions, as if discovering a whole new world.

“By associating and consolidating multiple research reports and materials into a single database, we can give new meaning to the data. Then, we can analyze this data, and if new issues are identified, we can put them on the table in our next decision-making discussion. This is what makes this project unique. I think this project has the potential to help us pioneer new solutions to unknown challenges.”

By moving back and forth among multiple research fields, Takeuchi has gained new perspectives while overcoming many challenges and obstacles. He is sure to continue making full use of his knowledge and skills to trailblaze new horizons in the field of archaeology.

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