Archaeology as a Bridge Between Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities

Organiser Zena Kamash (University of Oxford)

This session aims to move beyond the ‘is archaeology a science?’ debate by thinking about the chameleon-like nature of archaeology. In particular, this session can begin to explore the ways in which archaeologists communicate and undertake research across disciplinary boundaries, and look at the ways in which archaeological practices can influence other disciplines. Some of the key questions for this session include:

  • Are there particular areas of archaeology in which archaeologists with differing disciplinary backgrounds communicate most successfully?
  • How do/can findings from archaeology feed back into and influence other disciplines?
  • What can other disciplines learn from archaeology’s inherent multidisciplinarity?
  • In what ways are developments in various disciplines used in complementary and creative ways by archaeologists?
  • Are there areas where further knowledge exchange might be encouraged?
  • How useful are concepts, such as ‘boundary objects’ (Star & Griesemer 1989 Social Studies of Science 19(3)) and ‘trading zones’ (Galison 1997 Image and Logic), in understanding archaeological practice?
  • What are the shared visual tools (e.g. reconstructions; GIS) for understanding data in science, arts and humanities?
  • How can sciences and humanities learn together in terms of new digital practices?

Space & Time as a Cross-Disciplinary Bridge

Speaker: Stella Souvatzi (Hellenic Open University)

Space and time are increasingly recognised as fundamental in analysis and theoretical discourse across the humanities and social sciences. They reflect growing interdisciplinary interests, linking not only differing backgrounds within archaeology, but also archaeology with anthropology, geography, history, philosophy and sociology.

In archaeology space and time have always been central themes of inquiry. Archaeologists have long pursued theoretically and methodologically innovative research on these subjects and have incorporated advances and ideas in other disciplines along the way. Yet, the other disciplines continue to pay limited attention to archaeological scholarship.

This paper argues that space and time are a major area for further exchange of knowledge and that they can bring archaeology and the social sciences together into closer, and more effective, interaction. It presents how archaeology has benefited from developments in various disciplines, transforming itself repeatedly over the years, but also what other disciplines can learn from the archaeology of space and time or from relevant areas of archaeological thought they might have not drawn inspiration as yet. Despite different methodologies and data sets, archaeology, social sciences and humanities complement each other in their respective considerations of human societies and it is time to start breaking down long-held disciplinary barriers.

Of People & Things: Archaeological Perspectives in Historical Enquiry

Speaker: Antony Buxton (University of Oxford)

Given the volume and multitude of traces of the past, historical enquiry has to be selective both in evidence and methodology, a focus which becomes both the defining feature of a discipline and the subject of ongoing debate. Historians have tended to view and to use material evidence of the past primarily as indicators of economic and social processes and change, but in so doing tend to disregard the very relationships which lie at their base. It is the archaeological appreciation of the paramount importance of context and association which can enrich the historical enquiry. Based on research into the domestic life of the early modern period I will argue that archaeology, with its focus on the complex and multi-faceted relationship between people and their material environment, set in a vigorous theoretical debate and employing evolving methodologies can provide powerful new levels of understanding of the manner in which objects act on and through people, actions around objects structuring social relationships and generating conceptual values which are in turn invested in the material environment.

Beyond the Chronologies: the introduction of tree-ring & radiocarbon dating methods in European prehistory

Speaker: Géraldine Delley (University College London)

It is admitted that science is animated by a fundamental tension between diverse groups of actors whose background, aims, and strategies are divergent, but who need to collaborate in order to create common understandings (Star & Griesemer 1989; Latour 2005). Such an analytical framework has until now mostly been used in the field of science and technology studies, whereas humanities has largely remained unexplored from this point of view. This paper attempts to present the results of current research on the introduction of tree-ring and radiocarbon dating methods in the field of German and Swiss lake-dwelling studies, between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, examining how the diverse groups of actors – archaeologists, botanists, physicists and politicians – managed to create stability. It will be shown how these methods helped prehistorians to police disciplinary boundaries (Kuklick & Kohler 1996) in a period where the professionalization of the discipline constituted a necessity for some of its actors. As a result, this study raises broader questions which overpass the identification of the heuristic impact of these methods, but also tackles the problem of the heterogeneity of prehistoric research.

Landscape as a link between archaeology, descendant communities & biology: A case study from the Canadian Arctic

Speaker: Lisa Hodgetts (University of Western Ontario & University of Cambridge) & Dongya Yang (Simon Fraser University)

Drawing on concepts from geography and anthropology, recent archaeological studies approach landscape not as a passive backdrop for human activity, but as a complex interaction between people, animals and the land; at once physically tangible and socially constructed.  This understanding of landscape promotes community archaeology because it recognizes that modern occupants of a region are engaged in the ongoing process of landscape creation, and are therefore uniquely positioned to contribute to reconstructions of its past landscapes. It also encourages “applied zooarchaeology” whereby the study of past relationships between humans and their animal prey are used to inform modern wildlife management practices. Here, we present a case study from Banks Island in the Western Canadian Arctic, where we are integrating traditional Inuit knowledge, archaeological data from multiple spatial scales, and DNA analysis of muskox and caribou remains from archaeological sites in order to reconstruct past landscapes. The theoretical approach to landscape outlined above facilitates the integration of these divergent approaches.  It also challenges us to find effective ways to communicate our results beyond academia, to Inuvialuit people (Western Canadian Inuit) and the government bodies that manage modern muskox and caribou populations in the region, for whom our results are also relevant.

But is it Art-Science?

Speaker: Helen Wickstead (Kingston University)

How does our understanding of the proper domain of archaeology influence interaction across disciplines? This paper draws on my own experience as director of ‘art+archaeology’, an organization that creates funded residencies for artists working alongside archaeologists on excavations, in laboratories and museums. It explores the recent history of engagements between archaeology and Fine Art, examining how internal debates within archaeology have played a part in defining the terms of these engagements.

The growth of art-science in the last few decades has stimulated a vibrant field of interdisciplinary art-science scholarship. Yet approaches to art-science are often dominated by ‘Big Science’ environments and art-science programmes backed by large science institutions. Encounters between art and archaeology differ from typical art-science scenarios in that they are less easy to represent as a meeting between ‘two cultures’. Far from aiding cross-disciplinary engagements, the slipperiness of archaeology between sciences and humanities may make collaboration with artists more, rather than less, difficult. Nonetheless, contemporary art plays a significant role in new developments that are transforming how archaeology is practiced today.

Tracing Networks: Bridging Science & Humanities with New Approaches to Data Management

Speakers: Lin Foxhall (University of Leicester), Katharina Rebay-Salisbury (University of Leicester), Ann Brysbaert (University of Leicester), José Fiadeiro (University of Leicester), Anthony Harding (University of Leicester), Colin Haselgrove (University of Leicester), Emilio Tuosto (University of Leicester), Peter van Dommelen (University of Leicester), Ian Whitbread (University of Leicester), et al.

The Tracing Networks programme investigates the nature of contacts across and beyond the Mediterranean region c.1500-c.200 BCE. Focussing on networks of crafts-people and craft traditions, we ask how knowledge moves and technologies are transmitted over wide areas and cultural boundaries. Seven closely linked archaeological projects, integrated with two computer science projects, form this five-year programme based at the University of Leicester, UK, funded by The Leverhulme Trust.

Material culture is our primary evidence for cultural contact and knowledge exchange. Creatively deploying a wide range of scientific analytical techniques such as petrographic thin sectioning of pottery or XRF analysis helps us to track the movements and life cycles of objects in addressing complex theoretical questions about the human contexts of their production, uses, exchange and movement. The constant dialogue between theory and science is enabled through a new approach to data management and analysis.

Overwhelmingly large, heterogeneous, unreliable and patchy datasets (intrinsic to archaeology) have hindered their full utilisation for interpretation. Our approach utilizes semantic web technology to provide a logical infrastructure supporting classification and analysis of data, which is represented in a uniform way through mapping diverse datasets to an ontology based on CIDOC-CRM.  Data and relationships among them are described as instances and property links in the ontology and linked with spatial data in geographical information systems. This may lead to the discovery of unforeseen relationships in the data and stimulate new research questions, addressing large scale issues on the transmission of knowledge and aiding holistic social interpretations.

Jack of All Trades: A Medieval Archaeologist’s Experience of “Being” Interdisciplinary

Speaker: Gemma Watson (University of Southampton)

Medieval and early modern archaeologists are lucky to be working on a period that has a multitude of sources at their disposal: manuscripts, art, literature, music, and of course material culture.  However, combining cross-disciplinary sources has its difficulties, especially when it often requires a gamut of different skills and an understanding of diverse theories and hypotheses.  You feel you have to be an expert in everything from palaeography to phenomenology. This is perhaps why it is hard to find a medieval or early modern archaeologist/historian/musicologist/literarist who truly embraces the spectrum of sources available to them.  Archaeology is perhaps more ideally placed to “be” interdisciplinary than other disciplines, but are we going far enough when studying the documented past?

This paper will draw on my own experiences of “being” interdisciplinary.  My research concerns the fifteenth century herald, Roger Machado, who we have a diverse collection of sources for still extant (including material culture).  Through discussing my research on Machado, I will consider the problems as well as the rewards of interdisciplinary research within the humanities.  I will show that with a bit of perseverance interdisciplinary research is achievable not only for the archaeologist, but for other humanity scholars.

2 Responses to Archaeology as a Bridge Between Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities

  1. gebreyesus says:

    arhaeology is a bridge between natural science and social sciences because it contains articles and concepts of both.

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