Anthropology, Department of


Date of this Version



Heather Richards-Rissetto; An iterative 3D GIS analysis of the role of visibility in ancient Maya landscapes: A case study from Copan, Honduras. Digital Scholarship Humanities 2017 fqx014. doi: 10.1093/llc/fqx014


Copyright (c) 2017 Heather Richards-Rissetto. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of EADH.


For several decades, Geographic Information Systems (GISs) have held center stage in archaeological studies of ancient landscapes. Recently, three-dimensional (3D) technologies such as airborne LiDAR and aerial photogrammetry are allowing us to acquire inordinate amounts of georeferenced 3D data to locate, map, and visualize archaeological sites within their surrounding landscapes. GIS offers locational precision, data overlay, and complex spatial analysis. Three-dimensionality adds a ground-based perspective lacking in two-dimensional GIS maps to provide archaeologists a sense of mass and space more closely attuned with human perception. This article uses comparative and iterative approaches ‘tacking back and forth’ between GIS and 3D visualization to explore the role of visibility in conveying sociopolitical and ideological messages at ancient Copan—today a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Honduras. A two-prong approach comprising computational and experiential components explores the potential role of visibility in sending messages that participate in the shaping of social interaction on a daily basis. The organization of built forms within the natural landscape created spatial configurations that sent visual messages targeting specific different groups, subsequently influencing how people negotiated their physical surroundings and the frequency and intensity of social interactions. The ancient Maya belief that sight played a key role in structuring everyday experiences because it triggered perception in the other senses thus serves to bridge the computational and experiential results in this case study.