Portrait of Dr Benjamin Vis

Dr Benjamin Vis

Eastern ARC Research Fellow (Digital Humanities)

About

Dr Benjamin Vis is Research Fellow for the Eastern Academic Research Consortium (Eastern ARC), based at the University of Kent and covering the broad fields of Digital Humanities and Digital Heritage. He co-convenes ADHO’s Geohumanities Special Interest Group and is a member of DARIAH’s Geo-Humanities Working Group. In spring 2019 he is also Visiting Fellow to the Urban Studies Institute at University of Antwerp.

Benjamin completed his BA and MPhil degrees in the Archaeology of the Americas at Leiden University, was awarded his PhD in Geography by the University of Leeds, and his PGCHE from the University of Kent.

He led two funded networking initiatives: Assembly for Comparative Urbanisation and the Material Environment (ACUMEN) and Pre-Columbian Tropical Urban Life (TruLife): Placing the past in designs for sustainable urban futures. The latter formed the basis for a Maya Archaeology inspired urban design ideas competition, charrette (at The Prince’s Foundation), and exhibition (at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts) titled: Dust to Dust: Redesigning Urban Life in Healthy Soils. 

Benjamin was an expert guest on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time on Maya civilisation. His 2018 monograph Cities Made of Boundaries (UCL Press) develops a new socio-material urban morphological mapping methodology, named Boundary Line Type (BLT) Mapping, which has been tested on Maya and British urban form.

Research interests

Working through a materially informed and fundamentally archaeological lens, Benjamin’s research makes contributions to the analysis and understanding of long-term urbanisation processes and the social significance of urban form. Using the built environment as a data-source on human development from the past to the present, he builds arguments and evidence for radical comparisons of cities and urban landscapes. In his overriding perspective, the deep past is seen as directly relevant to the present-day developmental challenge of improving social and ecological sustainability. 

In his theoretical work social, spatial, and material concepts are combined to enable analyses of the relationship between human beings, society, and how they inhabit the environments they construct. The foundations range from critical realist philosophy of science to GIScience. He develops methodologies that advance digital mapping and analytical tools in Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Computation is used to expand interpretive opportunities and enrich material evidence to facilitate radical comparisons visually, qualitatively, and quantitatively.

His topical research focus centres on indigenous Maya urbanism and their long-term development (Pre-Columbian, Colonial, present-day). Specific attention is paid to social-spatial practice, affordances, and the human experience of everyday urban life, built environment configurations and the spatial organisation of tropical dispersed cities more broadly. Current project and fieldwork planning concentrates on the Mérida region in Yucatán, Mexico. 

Benjamin welcomes enquiries from students interested in postgraduate study in the following areas:

  • Archaeological methods and theory
  • Comparative Urbanism (especially tropical urban landscapes)
  • Mesoamerican (Maya) Archaeology
  • Urban morphology
  • Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
  • Applied archaeology
  • Conceptual mapping and Spatial Theory
  • Aerial archaeology and remote sensing
  • Sustainable development

Publications

Article

  • Vis, B. (2016). The Material Logic of Urban Space. Journal of Space Syntax [Online] 6:271-274. Available at: http://joss.bartlett.ucl.ac.uk/journal/index.php/joss/article/viewFile/268/pdf.
  • Vis, B. (2012). Establishing Boundaries: A Conceptualisation for the Comparative Social Study of Built Environment Configurations. Spaces and Flows: An International Journal of Urban and ExtraUrban Studies [Online] 2:15-30. Available at: http://ijf.cgpublisher.com/product/pub.203/prod.123.
    It is readily acknowledged that the configuration of a built environment is shaped by theouter lines of the features it consists of. Yet, these boundary lines are not typically utilised in our theorisation of the built environment to further our social understanding of it. Studies of the built environment often originate in the study of cities: their most elaborate form. Rather than starting from conflated characterisations derived from urbanism, this paper presents a theory for studying built environment configurations by asking how they occur and how society is accommodated by them. This leads to two series ofconcepts(human being in the spatial world,and human being in the socialworld), which establish that boundary concepts are essential to the social study of built environment cofigurations, while they also retain the generality needed to enable comparative research.

Book

  • Vis, B. (2018). Cities Made of Boundaries: Mapping Social Life in Urban Form. [Online]. London: UCL Press. Available at: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/cities-made-of-boundaries.
    About the book

    Cities Made of Boundaries presents the theoretical foundation and concepts for a new social scientific urban morphological mapping method, Boundary Line Type (BLT) Mapping. Its vantage is a plea to establish a frame of reference for radically comparative urban studies positioned between geography and archaeology. Based in multidisciplinary social and spatial theory, a critical realist understanding of the boundaries that compose built space is operationalised by a mapping practice utilising Geographical Information Systems (GIS).

    Benjamin N. Vis gives a precise account of how BLT Mapping can be applied to detailed historical, reconstructed, contemporary, and archaeological urban plans, exemplified by sixteenth to twenty-first century Winchester (UK) and Classic Maya Chunchucmil (Mexico). This account demonstrates how the functional and experiential difference between compact western and tropical dispersed cities can be explored.

    The methodological development of Cities Made of Boundaries will appeal to readers interested in the comparative social analysis of built environments, and those seeking to expand the evidence-base of design options to structure urban life and development.
  • Vis, B. (2009). Built Environments, Constructed Societies: Inverting spatial analysis. [Online]. Leiden, The Netherlands: Sidestone Press. Available at: http://www.sidestone.com/bookshop/built-environments-constructed-societies.
    Archaeology, as the discipline that searches to explain the development of society by means of material remains, has been avoiding the big issues involved with its research agenda. The topic of social evolution is concealed by anxiety about previous paradigmatic malpractice and the primary archaeological division of the world in culture areas still suffers from the archaic methods by which it was established. Archaeological inference of developing societies is weighed down by its choice of particularism within agency approaches and overtly reductionist due to the prevalence of statistical, classificatory and biological approaches.

    This book addresses these issues through a perspective on the spatial analysis of the built environment. As one of the principal properties of our dataset, as well as being the first materialisation of sociality, such spatialities are suggested to be a fundamental key for enabling an understanding of the developing social identity of places, regions and areas. In order to arrive at a truly social inference of spatial datasets, archaeology’s usual analysis working from material remains towards socio-cultural interpretations needs to be inverted. The vantage point of this study consists of aprioristic social theory. It constructs its arguments through an epistemological foundation comprising a selection of essential ideas regarding the three constitutive axes of developing societies: time, human action and human space. As it recognises the inherent position of these axes combined in the discipline of human geography, a historical comparison of these two disciplines presents the angle from which plausible theoretical advancements can be made. The core of the book explores selected works of human geographers Allan Pred, Benno Werlen and Andreas Koch against the backdrop of theories like structuration or systems theory, phenomenology, action theory, and to a lesser extent Actor Network Theory and autopoiesis. From this follows its own theoretical proposal called the social positioning of spatialities. On this basis hypotheses for methodological opportunities are discussed, establishing a research agenda.

    Firmly placing its efforts in current paradigmatic debates in the discipline, this study offers archaeological theorists an incentive to leave the safety of materially bound science and adapt an alternative perspective. It is an attempt to put archaeology back in the forefront of the social theoretical debates it should contribute to.

Book section

  • Vis, B. (2014). Mapping Socio-Spatial Relations in the Urban Built Environment Through Time: Describing the Socio-Spatial Significance of Inhabiting Urban Form. in: Rau, S. and Schonherr, E. eds. Mapping Spatial Relations, Their Perceptions and Dynamics. Springer International, pp. 45-93. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-00993-3_4.

Edited book

  • van Broekhoven, L. et al. eds. (2010). The Maya and their Neighbours : Internal and External Contacts through Time : Proceedings of the 10th European Maya Conference, Leiden, December 9-10, 2005. Markt Schwaben: Anton Saurwein.

Other

  • Vis, B. (2013). Assembly for Comparative Urbanisation and the Material Environment, Leeds, UK, 12-13 December 2012. [Journal print/digital]. Available at: http://www.urbanform.org/online_public/2013_1.shtml.

Review

  • Vis, B. (2012). Review of Bintliff, J. and Pearce, M., 'The Death of Archaeological Theory?'. Antiquity [Online]:274-275. Available at: http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/086/ant0860274.htm.

Forthcoming

  • Vis, B. (2017). Understanding by the Lines We Map: Material Boundaries and the Social Interpretation of Archaeological Built Space. in: Siart, C., Forbriger, M. and Bubenzer, O. eds. Digital Geoarchaeology: New Techniques for Interdisciplinary Human-Environmental Research. Springer. Available at: http://www.springer.com/gp/book/9783319253145.
    End users of archaeological maps are restricted in what they know about the data they are using. Mapped information is regularly used for visualisation and spatial analysis in GIS to aid interpretation. Precisely how, then, can digital spatial data best support social interpretation? Boundaries are introduced as a heuristic device to work through a series of critical observations and theoretical concepts that enable an understanding and restructuring of spatial data for social interpretation. Establishing a firm foundation for this restructuring is important to nurture a critical awareness of how archaeology can contribute to the ‘new territory’ of GIS approaches. While this chapter focuses on the example of built environment maps — which helps to formulate pertinent questions and to demonstrate the research process — the arguments remain valid for archaeology as social science broadly conceived.
    First, I will explore some limitations associated with reading built environment survey maps as an end user and reflect on conjecturing information for spatial analyses. These observations suggest that working with spatial source data demands a deep understanding of the physical information behind archaeological evidence. Second, I will introduce the notion of interpretive data as a rendition of spatial data conveying material evidence on what matters socially about physical information. This defines a human centrist remit for social interpretation which is made explicit through the concepts of material presence and agential intra-actions. Third, I determine what social interpretation of the built environment entails by adopting an inhabitant’s perspective and arguing the integrity of spatial analytical synchronicity in social archaeology. Finally, the chapter culminates by showing how, going forward, rigorous evidentiary understanding of spatial data grounded by an elaborate theoretical framework enables a distinct GIS approach dubbed ‘interpretive GIS’.
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