Can I teach myself GIS

A lot of folks ask me if they should learn to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software. They usually have a vague idea that GIS is something that they should know but not how they would use it for their research. I decided that it’d be a good idea to put my advice on here so I can direct people to it instead of repeating myself ad infinitum.

DISCLAIMER: Stop here if you just want to make a nice-looking map! There are so many easier ways! Mainly, web mapping apps and AutoCAD. ArcGIS does not get along well with arbitrary coordinate systems like the ones most archaeologists use in the field so it may not be worth your time to dive into GIS just for its cartography tools.

So, here’s my advice.

1. Ideally you would learn in an environment where you could bounce ideas off of others, like an office or a classroom. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to start talking to other people who use GIS. Every single person runs into perplexing errors and needs a new perspective to solve them. You should start talking to people about GIS, and join the ArcGIS forums and StackExchange.

2. Start reading books that describe the application of GIS to archaeology (or your field). You should look for information on the logic people have used to apply this tool to specific research questions and the underlying calculations. For example, you want to know how people have used GIS to study viewsheds (what is visible from a given point on a landscape) AND how a viewshed is calculated in the computer.

The books I recommend on GIS in archaeology are:

For geophysical remote sensing and satellite imagery (including ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, electrical resistivity, LiDAR, etc.) also look for these:

If using statistics, you should know how they work really well first, try:

  • Boots and Getis “Point Pattern Analysis
  • Canning “Statistics for the Humanities” (Open source PDF book! useful, and describes OS statistical analysis package “R”)
  • My notes from Dr. Todd Koetje’s spatial analysis classes (sorry, not currently digital but perhaps they should be!)

3. Take advantage of online training from ESRI Virtual Classroom. When schools buy site licenses they get codes for these courses, so you should be able to access them free if you are a student, or have your school’s GIS professional/coordinator request them. If you aren’t a student, there are a number of shorter-term courses you could take for free (check the “free training” box in the search).

  • Start with “Getting Started with ArcGIS
  • Learn to work with images (raster data) such as maps and elevation models, try
    • “Basics of Raster Data”
    • “Processing Raster Data using ArcGIS”
    • “Displaying Raster Data using ArcGIS”
  • Learn to design usable maps with proper documentation in “Getting Started with Cartographic Representations” ***Please note this is an older course so there may be a new version, take the one that matches your version of ArcGIS!
  • Learn to create a viewshed model (free lesson)
  • Learn how to conduct statistical analyses check out the “Fundamentals of Spatial Analysis” Learning Plan
  • Search the entire online course catalog! (They just changed the course formats and links so look for the above courses too! I’m tired of them continuing to break so I’m not linking all of them.)
  • Student installation discs also include tutorial data and documents

4. Look online for courses and tutorials made by other professionals, shared online for free.

  • Start at StackExchange
  • Explore some of the tutorials posted (and rated!) at
  • Oh, and if you’re interested in viewsheds, feel free to look at my Master’s thesis, which you can download by clicking here: M.A. Thesis PDF (3MB).

5. Consider using Open Source tools so you can continue your professional development past your association with your organization and take advantage of the extras built by other professionals like you.

Finally, I’ve found some cool tutorials you might be interested in: