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Regional Ways of Seeing: A Big-Data
Approach for Measuring Ancient Visualscapes
Natalie M. Susmann
Archaeologists have long acknowledged the signiﬁcance of mountains in siting Greek cult. Mountains were where the gods preferred to
make contact and there people constructed sanctuaries to inspire intervention. Greece is a land full of mountains, but we lack insight on the
ancient Greeks’view—what visible and topographic characteristics made particular mountains ideal places for worship over others, and
whether worshiper preferences ever changed. This article describes a data collection and analysis methodology for landscapes where
visualscape was a signiﬁcant factor in situating culturally signiﬁcant activities. Using a big-data approach, four geospatial analyses are
applied to every cultic place in the Peloponnesian regions of the Argolid and Messenia, spanning 2800–146 BC. The fully described
methodology combines a number of experiences—looking out, looking toward, and climbing up—and measures how these change
through time. The result is an active historic model of Greek religious landscape, describing how individuals moved, saw, and integrated the
built and natural world in different ways. Applied elsewhere, and even on nonreligious locales, this is a replicable mode for treating the
natural landscape as an artifact of human decision: as a space impacting the siting of meaningful locales through history.
Keywords: visualscape, viewshed, prominence, phenomenology, big data, Greece, mountain, vision, open access
Alrededor del mundo, las montañas provocan la creación de lugares religiosos en el paisaje como resultado de sus efectos visuales; los
adoradores se inspiran en las cuencas de las montañas y su prominencia física. Los arqueólogos debaten cómo mejor modelar este pro-
ceso: si a través de enfoques geoespaciales o fenomenológicos, o la integración de los dos. Las metodologías detalladas que involucran
múltiples enfoques y grandes conjuntos de datos son raras. Este documento proporciona un marco detallado para integrar análisis
geoespaciales precisos con la recopilación de datos fenomenológicos, con el ﬁn de determinar qué características topográﬁcas y visuales
conﬁguraron los paisajes religiosos. Presenta un estudio de caso sobre las regiones del Peloponeso de Argólida y Mesenia, y explora
lugares de culto (es decir, religiosos) utilizados por los griegos entre el 2,800 y 146 aC. Esta metodología, completamente descrita en esta
ponencia, combina varias experiencias (observación general, observación hacia el objeto, y la escalada en sí) y compara las preferencias
cambiantes a lo largo del tiempo. El resultado es un modelo dinámico del paisaje religioso griego, que articula la movilidad de los antiguos
griegos, y de cómo estos vieron e integraron de manera diferente el mundo construido y natural a lo largo del tiempo. Aplicado en otros
lugares, e incluso en lugares no religiosos, este es un modo replicable para tratar el paisaje natural como un artefacto de la decisión
humana: como un espacio que impacta la ubicación de lugares signiﬁcativos a lo largo de la historia.
Palabras clave: paisaje visual, cuenca visual, prominencia, fenomenología, grande datos, Grecia, montaña, vision, accesso abierto
Humans are affected by the physical landscape: the physical
experience of travel and the sights they encounter along the
way (Ashmore and Knapp 1999). These encounters provoke the
process of placemaking—where individuals choose to pause
and derive meaning (Ashmore 2014; Tuan 1977:179). Challenging
terrain, prominence, panoramic views, lines of sight, and even
invisibility can therefore provoke the founding of culturally signif-
icant places of various functions: power, reverence, defense,
and religious signiﬁcance (Bradley 2000; Eliade 1961;
Llobera 2007:51–53; Scully 1962,1991; Turner 1979; Van Dyke et al.
This article explores how to best measure the impact of moun-
tainous landscapes on the siting of religious places. The spatial
relationship will differ depending on the mountain’s religious
function (Bernardini et al. 2013; Boivin 2004;Grove1999; Reinhard
and Ceruti 2010; Williams and Nash 2006). Humans can sacralize
mountains, as happens with Hopi and Navajo tribes in the
southwestern United States (Bernardini et al. 2013:3951; Jett
1995:41). In the case of the Hopi, their low-lying villages main-
tained direct lines of sight with whichever mountains were sacred
at that time (Bernardini et al. 2013). In the Andes, complexes were
Advances in Archaeological Practice, 2020, pp. 1–18
Copyright 2020 © Society for American Archaeology
constructed on mountain summits, as well as oriented toward
higher peaks, and subsequently considered symbols of religious
and political power (Williams and Nash 2006). Reverence for
mountains could manifest even where these landforms were
unavailable. In Mesopotamia, for example, monumental ziggurats
acted as artiﬁcial barriers; their height reinforced a division
between common people on earth and their physically elevated,
deiﬁed king (Eliade 1961:42; Leick 2002; Scully 1991:23–24).
These examples model the attachment formed between humans
and what they see—the “visualscape”(Llobera 2003; Richards-
Rissetto 2017:4)—and archaeologists have long sought precise,
analytical methodologies for its characterization.
There is much
to consider: the physical and visual effects that observers become
culturally attuned to noticing and with which they associate
meaning, where observers stand during that process, and how
shifting cultural practices might alter visual experience.
Archaeologists studying visualscapes largely rely on one of two
approaches: digital analyses using geospatial and 3D modeling
software or phenomenology. Used separately, either avenue will
pose methodological challenges. Some scholars criticize digital
landscape models for presenting a Cartesian or God’s-eye per-
spective (Brück 2005:54; Thomas 1993:25, 2004:198–201;
Wickstead 2009:250). Other scholars contend that phenomen-
ology will inaccurately substitute an archaeologist’s experiences
for the ancient worshiper’s (De Reu et al. 2011:3435). Many studies
have proposed offsetting the objectivity of digital landscape
models with the subjectivity afforded by phenomenology (Eve
2012; Fábrega-Álvarez and Parcero-Oubiña 2019; Fitzjohn 2007;
Given 2004; Rennell 2012; Seamon 2014; Thomas 1993,2008;Van
Dyke et al. 2016), but full methodological disclosure is rare.
We need a precise, methodical approach for determining how
visualscapes affected the siting of meaningful places and whether
these preferences ebbed and ﬂowed over time. By combining
archaeological and historical data and phenomenological obser-
vation, as well as precise geospatial analyses, this article provides
exactly that: a clearly articulated framework for gauging the
cultural salience of natural landscapes.
I designed this methodology with four goals in mind:
(1) Data collection and analyses should rely on phenomeno-
logical observations as well as geospatial technology in order
to offset weaknesses in either approach.
(2) Data collection and analyses should gauge characteristics and
perspectives that are culturally relevant to the study area.
(3) Data collection and analyses should account for contrasting
observer experiences: looking toward as well as from signiﬁ-
(4) A signiﬁcant span of time should be covered to compare
worshiper trends against major cultural and political shifts.
The methodology is applied toward a dataset of cultic (i.e., reli-
gious) places in the Peloponnesian regions of the Argolid and
Messenia circa 2800–146 BC. The resultant model identiﬁes spe-
ciﬁc periods when topographical and visual preferences change. It
articulates how the ancient Greeks saw and utilized their religious
landscape differently through their history. More broadly, this
article provides an open-access framework for gauging how
visualscapes impact placemaking processes. It can be applied to
any period, region, or place type—religious or otherwise.
CASE STUDY: ANCIENT GREEKS AND
There is no question that natural features inﬂuenced the siting of
cult in the ancient Greek world. Modern scholarship largely draws
connections between certain deities and natural settings (e.g.,
Poseidon and the sea), but every Greek deity was, in fact, con-
nected in some way to natural phenomena (Cole 2000:472–474).
The natural world was a space for divine intervention and godly
beneﬁts: rest, regeneration and healing, or divine intervention
(Håland 2009:119–120; Larson 2010:10; Williams 1991:109).
Mountains were considered spaces of transition between the
immortal and mortal worlds. They were not gateways or entrances,
as with cultures such as the Maya (Lucero and Kinkella 2014:13–14),
but intervening places, providing deities with easy access to the
mortal world (Langdon 2000:461). As a result, mortal Greeks were
somewhat fearful of mountains. The mountains were frequently
visited by the gods, which meant that a mortal’s everyday
activities—traveling, hunting, or herding—could potentially go
awry (Buxton 1992:7–9, 1994:85–86).
Signiﬁcant agency was imparted to ancient Greek gods; appearing
on a mountain was always their choice. That said, mortals who
sought divine intervention would try to entice them. Consequently,
the ancient Greeks have left us with a series of archaeologically
detectable actions for understanding the mountain–worshiper
relationship. Worshipers selected a mountain, deﬁned a temenos
(i.e., a sacred boundary), kept that space clean, and there regularly
deposited votives and made sacriﬁces (Cole 2004:35–36).
Greek archaeologists have long focused on situating ancient
accounts on the tangible landscape. A signiﬁcant body of schol-
arship focuses on pinpointing where on the natural landscape
Greek worshipers preferred to practice (Barnett 2007; de Boer and
Hale 2008; Driessen 2003; Faro 2008; Goodison 2004; Hannah
2013; Hitchcock 2007; Retallack 2008; Scully 1962; Van de Moortel
2006,2011; Williamson 1993). Much of this work focuses on
mountain top worship. Geospatial analyses measure the wor-
shiper’s viewshed while standing inside the temenos (Briault 2007;
Hannah 2013; Nixon 2009; Peatﬁeld 1983; Soetens 2009; Soetens
et al. 2001; Soetens, Sarris, Topouzi et al. 2002; Soetens, Sarris,
Vansteenhuyse et al. 2002; Topouzi et al. 2000; Williamson 1993).
These studies often measure whether from there, observers could
see another culturally signiﬁcant place (e.g., a sanctuary; Doxtater
2009; Nixon 2009).
In order to effectively model an ancient visualscape, archaeolo-
gists need to scrutinize whether their chosen analytical
approaches have modern and discipline-speciﬁc biases.
Archaeologists exploring sacred landscapes in Greece have his-
torically favored sanctuaries located on the highest, steepest
peaks. Such studies are arguably impacted by modern topo-
graphical deﬁnitions, which, although largely lacking standard-
ization, do tend to emphasize elevation and slope as deﬁning
factors (Blyth et al. 2002:12). The ancient Greeks were certainly
attuned to elevation and slope, but they also cared about prom-
inence—that is, noticeability (Belis 2015:41; Buxton 1992:2;
Natalie M. Susmann
2Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology | 2020
Langdon 2000:462). A landform does not need either a high ele-
vation or a steep slope in order to be noticeable, and this might
explain why some landforms in Greece—being well below the
300 m mark—are described as mountains in ancient texts (Belis
2015:40; Buxton 1992:2; Langdon 2000:462).
Previous archaeological studies suggest that views afforded from
mountains and hills could have impacted the founding of cultic
places on the ancient Greek landscape—but so too could the views
toward them. By comparing these contrasting observer perspec-
tives within a single dataset, we can determine the physical char-
acteristics that inspired the cultic placemaking process on the
ancient Greek landscape. My study asks: Were Greek cultic places
chosen according to landscape prominence (i.e., noticeability) or
visible extent? Did these preferences vary regionally and over time?
Deﬁning the Study Area
This study is devoted to two Peloponnesian regions: the Argolid
) and Messenia (4,060.21 km
;Figure 1). The Argolid
is in the northeast Peloponnese, bound on the eastern side by the
Arcadian mountain range. Messenia encompasses the modern
towns of Triphylia, Pylia, Messini, and Kalamata, with the Taygetos
Mountains on the east, and Mounts Nomia and Elaeum to the
north. Adhering to strict boundary lines such as these does pre-
sent a conundrum for landscape archaeologists (Cherry 1983:385–
386). On the one hand, it provides a manageable space within
which to collect data; on the other hand, these lines inaccurately
presume that people adhere to a singular notion of boundary.
Questions about vision can further complicate archaeological
boundaries. In the observer’s mind, the physical space of their
political or social territory can be different based on their visible
extent, impacting their sense of spatial ownership and belonging
(Bernardini et al. 2013:3948). For research on visualscape, this
means considering expanding a study area beyond sociopolitical
boundaries. In this study, for example, the boundaries of the
Argolid and Messenia were extended because observers could
have easily seen—and, in turn, utilized—sanctuaries beyond those
lines (e.g., at Bassae and Olympia, as well Skilloundia [Cooper
1996:42, 45; Larson 2007:27; Morgan 1990:89–90]). The boundaries
of either region—and the cultural identities contained within
them—also change through history. The case study applies the
largest known ancient boundaries for either region in order to
understand whether and how historic locales were integrated into
the lives of contemporary people.
FIGURE 1. The survey recorded all cultic places used between 2800–146 BC in the Argolid (2,819.38 km
) and Messenia
Regional Ways of Seeing
2020 |Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology 3
FIGURE 2. A cascading typology was applied to all constructed and natural places, allowing for each place to be both broadly and
Natalie M. Susmann
4Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology | 2020
A cultic place is deﬁned as any individual built or natural space to
which material remains for repeated religious activity can be attrib-
uted. These activities can be unique to a particular time or region
For each of the study areas, I located all
places where previous researchers had discovered material evidence
for cultic activity (e.g., burning ﬁres, intentional deposits of objects,
sacriﬁce, or construction of related buildings). Because the study
focuses on placemaking as it pertained to group worship, house-
hold cultic contexts were excluded. Restrictions set by the Greek
Ministry of Culture and Sports meant only published cases could be
used. In sum, 401 places were identiﬁed.
The data-recording strategy captures every individual act of cult.
Instead of representing an entire sanctuary as one cultic place
(one database record), every locale inside its boundary dedicated
to cultic acts (altar, temple, pit, etc.) is treated as a discrete place
as well. Recording data in this way makes it easier to identify
changing temenos sizes and functions over time and to measure
how these alterations impacted the worshiper’s visualscape.
Cultic places located in other environments (e.g., coasts, valleys,
plains) are not excluded from the study. The reasons for doing
so are threefold. First, as previously described, there are sig-
niﬁcant differences between the ancient and modern Greek
deﬁnition of “mountain.”Analyzing all cultic places—regardless
of topographical situation—accounts for the archaeologist
potentially seeing the landscape differently. Second, analyzing
all cultic places encourages inquiries about how the ancient
Greeks saw and used their landscape differently across space
and through time. Despite the clear importance of mountains in
ancient Greek worship, there were still many sanctuaries
founded on low-lying, seemingly unnoticeable locations. Many
potential inﬂuencers could have come into play: social compe-
tition and settlement proximity (de Polignac 1994,1995)and
certain cults requiring specialized natural environments (e.g.,
Poseidon worship occurring near water), as well as changing
With all these factors in mind, there is a substantial body of evi-
dence pointing to the importance of mountainous terrain, and by
exploring all cases of worship—regardless of their natural envir-
onment—we can cross-examine many inﬂuencers and determine
whether the cultic placemaking process focused on meeting
multiple needs. Finally, recording all cultic places responsibly
produces a more expansive dataset, leaving room for future ana-
lytical improvements and research enquiries.
FIGURE 3. Visual data were collected both within cultic place boundaries and around them. For example, data collection (pink
points) occurred at various distances around the Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus and the Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas in
order to understand the surrounding visualscape.
Regional Ways of Seeing
2020 |Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology 5
I assigned a unique “Place ID”to each cultic place (every built
altar, open space altar, megaron, temple, tomb, terrace, etc.) and
stored them in an Access database (Supplemental Database;
Supplemental Text). Because this study treats the natural envir-
onment as an artifact, I recorded each cultic place’s associated
natural feature as a separate entry in the database as well. Each
natural and constructed place’s type was categorized via a cas-
cading typology: every place was deﬁned broadly (e.g., “con-
structed”) as well as speciﬁcally (e.g., “open-air altar”), thereby
ensuring that the data is ﬂexible and functional, even for analyses
beyond the scope of this work (Figure 2).
The database is designed to link places to one another. Linking
relationships are functional (e.g., a temple is located inside of a
sanctuary) or spatial (e.g., the Sanctuary of Apollo at Bassae is
visible from the Sanctuary of Nomian Pan).
cultic place is linked to its natural feature through a spatial rela-
tionship (e.g., the Sanctuary of Apollo at Bassae is located on
I recorded additional attributes for every constructed place,
such as ancient and modern bibliography, summary of
excavation and survey data, and previous theories regarding
motives for its placement. The database includes a timeline
table that records the following phases (if any) for every place:
(1) cultic use prior to construction of a permanent structure, (2)
construction of the cultic place, and (3) cultic reuse following
abandonment, thereby indicating a change in practice (e.g., a
Mycenaean tholos tomb being converted into an altar during
the Geometric period).
The goals of the ﬁeld survey were twofold. First, substantial visual
data were needed to ground-truth the visualscape analyses.
Second, I wanted to enact a phenomenological investigation of
these cultic places and experience the environment ﬁrsthand
(Susmann 2019b:1–11, 121–139).
Observing ourselves and
others in the modern landscape opens our minds to the potential
pathways, views, and perceptions of past users (Barrett and Ko
2009:276; Given 2004:168; Tilley 1994:73–75; Van Dyke et al.
2016). Phenomenology therefore helps us “build a place-based
narrative of the [worshiper’s] journey and to explore (through
the analogue of our own bodies) the kind of perceptions—and
emotions—attendant on moving through such spaces”
FIGURE 4. Visual data were collected inside the cultic place’s boundaries (i.e., here, at the Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas).
Locations of data collection (pink points) were determined by place type (e.g., temple, open-air altar, pit, etc.), and they model
where ancient observers would feasibly stand. Adjustments were occasionally made because of permit restrictions.
Natalie M. Susmann
6Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology | 2020
The survey was accomplished in two phases. For each study area, I
spent approximately two months locating these places remotely in
Google Earth; survey and excavation publications often exclude or
generalize geographic coordinates. Next, I traveled to Greece,
located each cultic place in person, and recorded data for each.
Visual data captured what could be seen, based on multiple
vantage points. I photographed panoramas at varying distances
and directions, capturing views looking toward the cultic place,
and at the cultic place, looking at the surrounding landscape. I
recorded videos to convey the experience of walking through and
around each place’s boundaries. Then, I marked every video and
photograph with a GPS point (Figures 3 and 4). Video narratives
and journals recorded my experience of the place: difﬁculty of
access, extent and contents of the viewshed, level of isolation
(e.g., if other visitors were present), and my impression of how
others utilized the place.
The Greeks regarded mountains as sources for godly contact, and
I hypothesize that this association inﬂuenced where cultic activity
was located on the landscape. Historical and archaeological data
suggest that the Greeks identiﬁed mountains based on notice-
ability and/or vast viewsheds. I decided to test how frequently the
survey data reﬂected these preferences: whether most places were
situated to be noticeable or afford worshipers panoramic views of
their landscape. By ordering the quantitative results in chrono-
logical order—when cultic activity occurred at each place—I
modeled how worshiper preferences changed over time.
The selected analyses fall into three categories (Table 1):
(1) Viewshed, or what can be seen from the cultic place. This was
measured via CVSL (Cumulative Viewshed of Location).
(2) Visual prominence, or whether the place was noticeable to
passers by based on characteristics like elevation, slope, and
shape against the horizon. This was measured via Cumulative
Viewshed of Observer (CVSO and CVSO 5K) and Visual
Prominence of Observer (VPO).
(3) Topographic prominence, or whether the place was notice-
able as a result of rugged terrain. This was measured via
Topographic Prominence of Location (TPL).
This section brieﬂy describes the factors that informed the design
of these analyses: representing place targets via polygons and not
centroids, number, and placement of observer points, as well as
maximum visible distance radii.
Boundaries and Observers. For the sake of easy database
recording, I represented each cultic place’s location as a single set
of GPS coordinates (Places.shp). I created a second shapeﬁle
(PlaceBounds.shp) to represent cultic places’use areas. This shape-
ﬁle was utilized in the visualscape analyses. If a single cultic
place had multiple extents over time, I recorded each phase as a
separate polygon and linked it to respective records in the Access
database’s timeline (Figure 5).
The analyses measure a range of visual effects, the majority of
which are founded on viewshed principles: measuring what an
observer can see, based on the individual’s stature, the elevation,
and the elevations of the surrounding landscape. Each analysis
necessitated a customized set of observer points, and
PlaceBounds.shp dictated how these were placed (Tables 1 and 2).
For CVSL, which measured a place’s viewshed, I situated observer
TABLE 1. Visualscape Analyses Summary.
Size (pixels) Required Dataset
Cumulative visible extent
from the cultic place
prominence of each cultic
place, based on # of times
prominence of each cultic
place, based on # of times
seen within a 5 km radius
1.65 5,000 DEM,
Visual prominence of each
cultic place based on its
landform’s shape against
Topographic ruggedness of
each cultic place, based on
ruggedness and steepness
3 × 3 DEM,
Regional Ways of Seeing
2020 |Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology 7
points (Observer_CVSL.shp) with respect to these spatial bound-
aries. For the three visual prominence analyses (CVSO, CVSO 5K,
and VPO), I placed random observers across the study area
(Observer_CVSO.shp and Observer_VPO.shp). In these cases,
PlaceBounds.shp demarcated ineligible placement areas: obser-
vers were not permitted to “stand”on top of structures.
Maximum Visible Distance. Vision-focused geospatial tools
include an optional outer visible radius setting. If the radius is
applied, the observer’s ability to see is limited by that distance.
Archaeologists tend to favor this setting, and they apply radii
somewhere between 3,440 and 5,000 m in order to represent the
limitations of 20/20 human vision (Gillings 2015:4). Applying this
radius does not guarantee output accuracy. Many potential
impediments exist—such as vegetation, light, weather, and poor
vision—but archaeologists cannot easily account for them. This is
where visual ﬁeld data comes in handy.
My methodology does not apply maximum visible distance radii
(Table 1) for two reasons. First, increased elevation extends an
individual’s vision well past the commonly applied 5,000 m
threshold, and this was observed with most places recorded in this
study. Second, 3,440–5,000 m distance thresholds are based on an
individual’s ability to see a 1 m wide object (Ogburn 2006:409–
410). Recognition of a signiﬁcant locale is based on not only the
sight of the structure but also the landform. Landforms measured
in this study are certainly wider than 1 m.
Visual Prominence. Visual prominence, or a place’s noticeability,
was measured in two different ways (Table 1). Cumulative
Viewshed of Observer (CVSO) assesses how often an individual
would see a cultic place. This was calculated via the summation of
several thousand viewsheds across the study area. Visual
Prominence of Observer (VPO) focuses on horizon lines—which
landforms were the most distinctive based on shape.
Cumulative Viewshed of Observer (CVSO). Cumulative Viewshed
of the Observer (CVSO and CVSO 5K) gauges noticeability based
FIGURE 5. Spatial extent affected how analytical outputs were measured. If a place’s extent changed over time (green polygons),
I made sets of observers per phase (black points) and then ran analyses per each observer point set. Note that the observer points
shown here are only for the Argive Heraion sanctuary’s temenos. I recorded cultic structures located inside the temenos (i.e., the
altar, Old Temple Terrace, Old Temple of Hera, and New Temple of Hera) as individual cultic places, which means they have
separate observer point ﬁles (not shown) and analyses outputs.
Natalie M. Susmann
8Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology | 2020
on how easily observers across the study area could see a certain
location (Table 1). These analyses use a reverse viewshed: obser-
vers are represented as vector points, spread across the entire
study area, and viewsheds are calculated for each. The cumulative
output represents the number of times every location on the
landscape was seen. Reverse viewshed accuracy depends on the
number of applied observer points. Ideally, a total viewshed
approach should be used: observers are placed on every pixel of
the Digital Elevation Model (DEM). Accuracy aside, total view-
sheds are unrealistic for large study areas. The high number of
observers means decreased processing speeds and virtually
unmanageable output data sizes (Llobera 2003:33). Cumulative
viewsheds are the next-best approach. Observers are regularly
spaced across the DEM, but in much smaller numbers, thereby
making the calculation computationally feasible.
Within each study area, I placed observers on a grid, each sepa-
rated by 200 m (Table 2). I calculated viewsheds for every observer
using Boston University’s Shared Computing Cluster and
r.Viewshed (in GRASS GIS). Per study area, I merged the viewsheds
into a single raster output. Each pixel quantiﬁes the number of
times that 30 m
area was seen by the regional observers. In other
words, the raster output quantiﬁes an observer’s concatenated
view, as that person moves through space (Llobera 2003:33;
Although regional differences are apparent from the raster, I decided
to translate the data into comparable scores representing the num-
ber of times each cultic place was seen. To do so, I vectorized the
output and intersected it with a shapeﬁle recording each place’s
boundary. Two scores were calculated (Figure 6b). The ﬁrst is CVSO,
or the numberof times that placewas seen, with no maximum visible
radius set. The second is CVSO 5K. CVSO 5K normalizes the CVSO
based on the number of observers within a 5 km radius of the cultic
place. It measures prominence on a localized level, and when
compared against CVSO, it determines whether a place’s promin-
ence was dependent upon observer proximity.
Visual Prominence of Observer (VPO). VPO measures visible
prominence using an alternative perspective. Prominence is based
on shape: whether a landform is steep, isolated, and pointed
(Bernardini et al. 2013:3948; Figure 7). My approach is based on
the methodology pioneered by Bernardini and colleagues
(2013:3947), which measures local prominence, or noticeability
from ﬁxed locations of interest.
I adjusted their methodology to instead measure global visual
prominence—that is, to compare noticeability across the land-
scape, with no ﬁxed observer location in mind. To do so, I placed
gridded observers across the study area, each separated by
2,000 m (Tables 1 and 2)
, and I measured the extent and shape of
each observer’s 360-degree horizon line. This was done using
ArcGIS’s Skyline tool. Bernardini and colleagues’(2013) custo-
mized Python scripts simpliﬁed the horizon line to its steepest,
pointiest, and most isolated peaks, and gave each a comparative
score (Barnash 2011; Bernardini et al. 2013:3948–3951). I merged
results from every observer, producing a vector shapeﬁle record-
ing prominent areas in each study area—that is, prominent areas
based on Bernardini and colleagues (2013): characteristics of
slope, shape, and location (Figure 8). Any score greater than 0 is
considered visually prominent. In order to relate these prominent
landforms to cultic activity, I intersected the polygonal boundaries
with cultic place boundaries (i.e., PlaceBounds.shp). Cultic places
were, in turn, assigned that score.
Cumulative Viewshed of Location (CVSL). CVSL represents the
extent of view from a cultic place. Most archaeological studies
measure binary viewsheds—that is, the visible extent available to
one or a few observers. This approach can be useful in identifying
TABLE 2. GIS Files Used for the Visualscape Analyses.
File Name Description
Type Placement Rules
Places Locations of each surveyed
Survey, data management,
and all analyses
Point Centroid of cultic place
Waypoints Locations of surveyed visual
data; links to Places via
Ground-truthing Point GPS locations where data was recorded
DEM 30 m SRTM Digital Elevation
Observer_CVSL Observers standing in and
around each cultic place’s
CVSL (Cumulative Viewshed
Point Location and # standardized per place type.
Placement ensures peripheral and foveal vision
within and around cultic places. PlaceBounds and
site plans used to avoid overlapping
contemporary structures. If extent changed over
time, multiple sets of observers are made.
Observer_CVSO Observers across
Viewshed of Observer)
Point One set of observers is created per study area.
Placed 200 m apart on all areas >49° in slope.
Cannot overlap with PlaceBounds.
Observer_VPO Observers across
VPO (Visual Prominence of
Point One set of observers is created per study area.
Placed 200 m apart on all areas >49° in slope.
Cannot overlap with PlaceBounds.
Regional Ways of Seeing
2020 |Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology 9
lines of sight (Danahy 2001)—whether, for example, Minoan peak
sanctuaries were visible from one another—but the results are also
quite static. A binary viewshed models an unrealistic situation:
what a motionless, forward-facing observer sees (Llobera 2003:33).
CVSL addresses these limitations, recalling the logical principles
of the CVSO approach: increasing the number of observers will
produce a more accurate model of view (Table 2). By situating
observers throughout the space of the cultic place, CVSL accounts
for both peripheral and foveal vision—it conveys the topographic
changes encountered as one moved around and looked about. It
models “a sense of the complete scene”(Danahy 2001:126),
better than a traditional binary approach does.
The methodology was easily implemented. I created a set of
observer points for each cultic place, paying mind to changing
boundaries over time, as well as adjacent contemporary structures
—cultic or otherwise (Table 2;Figure 5). Using a viewshed tool
(e.g., Visibility in ArcGIS or one similar), I calculated the total vis-
ible area from each observer point. The resultant raster represents
what a worshiper could see while moving through and around
the cultic place.
Topographic Prominence of Location (TPL). TPL is the measurable
difference between the height of an observerand the surroundings.
It gauges noticeability based on a place’s physical ruggedness
(Llobera 2010:1007). TPL is measured by (1) identifying a pixel of
interest, (2) demarcating a neighborhood around that place, and (3)
measuring the height differences between the pixel of interest and
the pixels in its neighborhood. Although the resultant measure-
ment—differences in altitude—contributes to our understanding of
landform noticeability, there are challenges associated with related
parameters. The researcher chooses the neighborhood size,
thereby impacting whether a locale is determined to be more
rugged than its surroundings. In other words, a locale can be
exceedingly prominent on a local scale but not regionally.
Due to these methodological challenges, topographic promi-
nence results were described in context with visual prominence:
whether slope contributed to visual prominence, and whether any
cultic places were situated on rugged but also unnoticeable areas.
In the case of the latter, topographic prominence could highlight
an alternative—and largely understudied—perspective: whether
Greek worshipers ever preferred difﬁcult-to-access locales that
were largely invisible to passersby.
FIGURE 6. (a) CVSO (Cumulative Viewshed of Observer) measurement is performed by creating a grid of observers within the
regional study area. For each of these observers, a separate viewshed is calculated. The ﬁnal merged raster is a continuous dataset
comparing regional noticeability. (b) Each place’s polygonal boundary or boundaries are intersected with the raster, and the
following is calculated: (sum of # times seen/# pixels intersecting the boundary) = prominence.
Natalie M. Susmann
10 Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology | 2020
There are several methods for measuring topographic promi-
nence (Christopherson 2003; De Reu et al. 2011,2013; Llobera
2003). I chose Focal Statistics in ArcGIS (Tables 1 and 2). As was the
case with previous analyses, I intersected the results with the cultic
place boundaries shapeﬁle in order to ascertain the average,
minimum, and maximum scores within the use area. This article
presents average scores.
Data Presentation. I performed each analysis—CVSO, CVSO 5K,
VPO, CVSL, and TPL—per cultic place, and if that place’s
boundary changed over time, I ran the analyses per each time
phase. I normalized the values between 0 and 1, and I graphed
them per century using JMP software. The resultant model
represents the average visualscape values per century, based on
changes on the landscape: new constructions or newly recycled
locales (Figure 9). It conveys the sorts of natural environments
preferred for worship, and the way these preferences changed
The results identify distinctive moments of time when ancient
Greeks in Messenia and the Argolid preferred speciﬁc types of
natural environments for worship—speciﬁcally, when they
developed cultic places at locales that were steep, that were
noticeable, or that provided a vast viewshed (Figure 9). Their
preferences can be contextualized against other historical and
archaeological data; we can surmise the motives for preferring
speciﬁc environs over others throughout their culture history.
That discussion is beyond the methodological scope of this
article and can be found in Susmann (2019b). Instead, I will
engage with both phases of the methodology—ﬁeldwork
and geospatial analyses—and discuss the beneﬁts of my conﬂuent
Geospatial Approaches Produce Objective,
This article utilizes Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to
measure visual prominence, ruggedness, and visible extent.
Although archaeologists highlight phenomenology as an alter-
native (e.g. Rennell 2012), these approaches produce qualitative
data, making site-to-site comparisons extremely difﬁcult. Also
problematic is their subjectivity. Cultural context and observer
identity will impact how a landscape is seen, experienced, and
perceived. Archaeologists’hypotheses and historical knowledge
inevitably impact their descriptions.
My geospatial methodology produces objective, comparable
data. It facilitates exploration about whether viewshed or
FIGURE 7. VPO (Visual Prominence of the Observer) measures visual prominence based on landforms’comparable elevation,
slope, and visual isolation: (a) these landforms yield VPO scores of 0 because they are not distinctive from one another; (b) these
landforms yield scores greater than 0 because they are isolated from one another and form distinctive shapes against the horizon.
Regional Ways of Seeing
2020 |Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology 11
prominence—or both—were culturally relevant in the cultic place-
making process. In the case of prominence, my methodology
also explores how the same place could have been noticed
differently. The Argive Heraion sanctuary, located in the central
Argive Plain, is an excellent example. Based on the CVSO analysis,
this sanctuary is noticeable. Its location midway up Mount Akraia
meant that it was visible at ranging distances across the Argive
Plain. The VPO analyses tell a different story. The Argive Heraion
yields a VPO score of 0; its mid-slope location made it unnotice-
able against the horizon (Figure 10). Consequently, the Argive
Heraion was noticeable, provided an observer knew where
to look. During ﬁeldwork, I did not notice such a distinction.
I anticipated this sanctuary’s prominence as a result of previous
scholars’work, all of whom highlight a CVSO-way of looking at the
landscape (Cole 1986:115–116; de Polignac 1995:33; Foley
1988:135; Kerényi 2015:117).
There are earlier sanctuaries in the region (e.g., Mount Arachnaion)
with high VPO scores and CVSO scores close to 0, and here is
where comparison against regional datasets, as well as critical
FIGURE 8. VPO (Visual Prominence of the Observer) analysis output is not continuous. Only cultic places that intersect the
polygonal boundaries of visually prominent landforms are considered prominent.
FIGURE 9. I normalized the visualscape analyses’average scores and graphed them per century. These scores reﬂect new
additions to the landscape or revisitations of older cultic places.
Natalie M. Susmann
12 Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology | 2020
engagement with excavation and historical data, becomes neces-
sary (Susmann 2019b:140–153). Comparing the Argive Heraion’s
CVSO and VPO results against other contemporary sanctuaries in
theArgivePlain(Figure 11), I concluded that Argive Plain inhabi-
tants valued accessibility alongside prominence at speciﬁc
moments, and these preferences are tied to cultural and political
shifts (Susmann 2019b:153). Prior to the seventh century BC, sanc-
tuaries such as Mount Arachnaion—located at a noticeable
mountain peak—were preferred (Susmann 2019b:80–83).
Fieldwork Can Identify Limitations in Analytical
Parameters and Data Collection Strategies
Fieldwork provided critical ground-truthing data. Environmental
factors such as vegetation, smoke, and light will impact what an
observer sees, but archaeologists cannot record geospatial data
for them at a regional level. As I collected data at each cultic
place, I observed whether my ability to move and see was
impeded or enhanced by certain variables.
To that end, ﬁeldwork is necessary for identifying whether certain
place types should not be included in the study. Greek archae-
ologists consider burials as cultic places (Antonaccio 1994:398).
My ﬁeldwork experiences drove me to exclude their results from
As I surveyed tholos tombs, for example, I began to
recognize their extremely variable prominence. These are sub-
terranean tombs covered with earthen mounds, and my ability to
spot them depended on topography, vegetation, travel pathway,
and direction of gaze. While Mason (2007) has successfully applied
ancient roadway datasets to understand how travel routes
impacted tholoi prominence, the study is speciﬁcally about the
citadel of Mycenae and its surrounding tombs. Similar road
datasets are not available for my entire study area.
My chosen geospatial approaches will yield misleading results
about burial prominence. Quantitative data do not convey how
minor topographic changes impact the observer’s ability to see
these small targets, and only ﬁeldwork can provide such context.
Consequently, although burials are considered Greek cultic
places, their functional relationship to the landscape is very
FIGURE 10. The Argive Heraion sanctuary is located midway up Mount Akraia. Although portions of Mount Akraia yield a VPO
(Visual Prominence of the Observer) score greater than 1, the sanctuary’s boundaries do not intersect that area.
Regional Ways of Seeing
2020 |Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology 13
different from places such as altars or temples. Burials require a
separate geospatial strategy, one that potentially measures
degree of invisibility.
Phenomenology Transforms “Hyperclean”
Archaeological Sites (Weddle 2013:154) into
Active Cultural Spaces
Phenomenology produces real-time data about human engage-
ment with the landscape. At any given site, I encountered tourists,
students, archaeologists, and state employees; I witnessed how
every person’s pauses, gazes, and movements were a product of
their identity. These individuals animated my archaeological data
points and transformed them into active cultural spaces (Barrett
and Ko 2009:282).
My observations about modern people guided my interpretations
about the ancient cultic landscape. Phenomenology reminded me
of the precise subjects of my geospatial model. Consider
Panhellenic festivals and the diverse group of visitors they
attracted to sanctuaries every year. Devotees, athletes, politicians,
vendors, and spectators came to the same sanctuary. The way
each person engaged with it—their sense of place (Ashmore and
Knapp 1999:21)—was based on their identity, goals, and level of
piety. This geospatial model measures visual impact as pertains to
a worshiping observer. If an observer looked at the same land-
scape through a different cultural lens (e.g., political, social,
defensive, ancestral), their attention could shift toward other
places, topographies, and sensory experiences.
The geospatial analyses account for change over broad spans of
time. Phenomenology models how visualscapes can change
FIGURE 11. Visualscape scores can be represented per sanctuary and isolate smaller study areas for detailed comparisons.
Natalie M. Susmann
14 Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology | 2020
within a few hours. I left my apartment on a Saturday morning to
travel to Epidaurus for data collection. It was a peaceful drive, and
I had clear views of the surrounding landscape. A Ministry of
Culture sign served as a landmark for my exit off the highway.
Later that evening, I returned to Epidaurus for a theater perfor-
mance. I followed the same pathway but my experience traveling
drastically changed. Trafﬁc made the route noisy, slow, and ﬁlled
with exhaust fumes, and it altered the viewshed I had previously
encountered. It was difﬁcult to see past these other cars. Instead
of a highway sign, the end of my journey was signaled by a grid-
This was a paramount—albeit unplanned—phenomenological
experience because it forced me to think more creatively about
immeasurable and time-sensitive impacts. The activities sur-
rounding cultic practice—processions, lighting smoky ﬁres, and
sacriﬁcing animals—would have temporarily increased a place’s
noticeability (Susmann 2019b:130–131, 134–136). The geospatial
analyses do account for change over time, but short-term human
impacts cannot be measured without other critical data: festival
dates and durations, crowd size and travel patterns, and the
number of sacral ﬁres and their spatial extent.
Many archaeologists have discussed the complementary rela-
tionship between phenomenological approaches and geospatial
analyses (Eve 2012; Fábrega-Álvarez and Parcero-Oubiña 2019;
Fitzjohn 2007; Given 2004; Rennell 2012; Seamon 2014; Thomas
1993,2008; Van Dyke et al. 2016). Geospatial technology produces
quantitative, comparable data about the landscape, but these are
problematically treated as “ﬁnished product[s]”(Brück 2005:54;
Thomas 2008:7). Phenomenology explores valuable questions
about how humans shape—and are shaped by—the landscape.
Critics understandably express concern about imprecise approaches
and subjective interpretations (Brück 2005; De Reu et al. 2011;
Fleming 1999). There is a wide gap between pixels and people, and
archaeologists need clear pathways for bridging it. This reﬂexive
methodology constantly interrogates either dataset’s limitations and
links. Phenomenology activates the geospatial data; quantitative
methods pave the way for systematic examination of cultural behavior.
Ashmore’s(2002:1173) life history framework was foundational in
developing this approach. Every place’s formation, decline, and
possible revisitation was accounted for. During both the ﬁeldwork
and geospatial phases, I considered how these distinctive phases
of use were physically represented in the landscape. I explored
whether and why individuals’pathways changed as a result,
thereby dictating geospatial parameters. Creating dynamic time-
lines underscores the complexity of visualscape. What we see is
born from individual and collective senses of place.
This is a precise, analytical framework for treating natural features
as archaeological artifacts. Scholars can use it to collect, record,
and organize archaeological and natural data. They can examine
how the landscape impacted the siting of meaningful places—be
they for worship or otherwise. That said, interested parties should
be cautious in assuming that visibility analyses—and particularly
those described here—will always produce meaningful results.
Gillings says it best: “Whilst generating them has always been a
relatively trivial task, knowing what to do with them once generated
has proven far more difﬁcult”(2017:121). Indeed, visibility-based
analyses are only as powerful as the questions they answer. There
should be compelling cultural data to inspire their implementation.
This methodology was applied to the ancient Greek Peloponnese,
but its impact reaches farther. All data—typological, visual, and
methodological—are being moved into an open-access user
interface (Susmann 2019a).
In addition to survey data, the inter-
face provides access to methodological tutorials and database
and interface codes, as well as my daily journals kept during the
ﬁeldwork and research phases.
I would like to thank Andrea Berlin, Mac Marston, Christopher
Roosevelt, Curtis Runnels, and Bonna Wescoat for their guidance.
I am indebted to staff at the American School of Classical Studies
at Athens (ASCSA) and the Greek Archaeological Service for their
cooperation. Data collection at the Sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas
was completed in compliance with permit number 6569, granted
by the Ephorate of Antiquities of Argolida. Data collection at
Bassae was completed under permit number 2427, and data col-
lection at Skilloundia was completed in compliance with permit
number 6795, both granted by the Ephorate of Antiquities of Ilia.
Data collection at all other sites did not require research permits,
conﬁrmed by the ASCSA and Greek Archaeological Service. I am
grateful for the invaluable technical support offered by Wes
Bernardini, Mark Gillings, Brian Gregor, and Boston University’s
Hariri Center for Computing and Computational Science &
Engineering. This research was completed with the following
research grants: Boston University Graduate Research Abroad
Fellowship, Boston University Graduate Student Organization
travel grant, GeoEye Foundation Award for the Application of
High-Resolution Digital Satellite Imagery, and Boston University
Digital Humanities Seminar Start-Up Grant.
Data Availability Statement
Spatial and visual data, methodological tutorials, ﬁeld notes, and
research journals from this project are freely available on an
open-source interface: http://gncproj.org. The interface was
launched in mid-September 2019. Readers are also encouraged to
contact the author with any questions or data requests.
For supplemental material accompanying this article, visit https://
Supplemental Database. Template of the Access database
developed to record data for the survey as well as geospatial
results. Field descriptions are included in each table’s metadata;
tables are also populated with sample records.
Supplemental Text. Descriptions of database schema to be used
in conjunction with table metadata.
1. Visualscape was made popular by Marcos Llobera, who wanted to coin a
single phrase capturing the multitude of analytical approaches by which an
Regional Ways of Seeing
2020 |Advances in Archaeological Practice | A Journal of the Society for American Archaeology 15
archaeologist could describe all of the visual qualities for a place. See
Llobera 2001,2003,2004,2007; Llobera et al. 2010.
2. Behaviors include prayer, sacriﬁce, construction, and intentional deposit of
objects, as well as burials. Excluding Bronze Age (ca. 2800–1100 BC) tombs
converted into post-eleventh-century BC sanctuaries, burial results are not
3. See “Links”table in Supplemental Database.
4. See “Place_Period”table in Supplemental Database.
5. “Experiential archaeology”is an equivalent term (Rennell 2012:511–512).
6. See Susmann (2019a,2019b) for detailed descriptions of ﬁeld equipment.
7. Lake and Ortega (2013:223–224) employed a 100 km total viewshed to
examine the visibility between 306 stone circles in Great Britain, amounting
to 29,624 viewsheds calculated in 18 days. Considering my much larger
study area, I applied a cumulative approach. I began with observers sepa-
rated by 1,000 m, using ArcGIS running on two Alienware Area-51 machines.
Power outages led me to contact Boston University’s Shared Computing
Cluster (SCC), and I was able to decrease observer distance to 200 m apart.
For the Argolid, this was 70,378 observers, and for Messenia, 101,278
observers. Total CPU time was seven days and six hours, and 10 days and six
8. Owing to institutional CPU time restrictions, VPO was not completed using
the SCC. The minimum feasible radius for two Alienware Area-51 machines
was 2,000 m. Results are consistent with ﬁeld observations.
9. Certain Bronze Age (c. 2800–1050 BC) burials were reused as altars after the
tenth century BC. These burials were included in the analyses, but only as
pertains to their new cultic function.
10. Tutorials are publicly available. To protect site locations, researchers can
apply for data access.
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Natalie M. Susmann ▪History Section, Massachusetts Institute of Technology,
77 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge MA 02139, USA (email@example.com)
Natalie M. Susmann
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