Middle Ground- Firming up my ideas 2

Posted on March 21, 2011


As discussed in my first post, I am blogging about what I am going to present at the Middle Ground conference. The whole focus of this conference is to bridge the divide between two groups of archaeologists. On one hand, there are those who use quantitative methods e.g. statistics and GIS (for a great resource on GIS see here or this de-funked but still good site here) to investigate the landscape.  On the other hand, there are theoretical archaeologists who investigate experiential approaches to the landscape e.g. how a person sees the landscape, understands the landscapes, feels about the landscape, etc. Now even if you’re not familiar with these terms and the background, I am pretty sure that you can see that “computers” and a person’s “feelings” are a bit like a round peg and a square hole.

While there have been some notable attempts to use quantitative methods in theoretical experiential approaches  (Hamilton and Whitehouse 2006, Sturt 2006) for the most part there has been “a parallel development in recent years between the two positions with little apparent cross-fertilization between them, a situation that can only exacerbate the sense of theoretical naivety on the part of the latter (GIS archaeologists) by the former (experiential theoretical archaeologists) and sense of uncritical rejection in return.” (Gillings 2009) Usually, such a distance between groups leads to just a lack of understanding and collaboration.  Unfortunately, this lack of understanding is now leading to outright rejection (Tilley 2004, Thomas 2004, Thomas 2008) by experiential theoretical archaeologists of any sort of quantitative methods. Not only rejection privately but public reject in some unflattering terms:

Ancient stones in landscapes, the subject matter of this book, cannot be known or understood simply from publications, from maps, diagrams, photographs and descriptions, because these are only representations. As representations they necessarily fail in conveying a bodily understanding of prehistoric remains. Statistical analysis, Geographical Information Systems and simulations, are, if anything, far worse. (My emphasis added)
(Tilley 2004, 218)

To dismiss a tool like GIS seems a bit short-sighted. Like the hosts of the conference, I believe that it is a worthwhile endeavour to stretch both the limits of GIS and theoretical archaeologists.

Before going into the details of my proposal I think it is important to address why this divide exists. To simply put up my proposal and not actually address the underlining social/cultural problems will not solve anything, it might just make the situation worse. I would point you towards the human terrain system as an example of trying to tackle underlying cultural/political problems instead of creating bigger and more sophisticated tools. I should say that this project has been heavy criticised by anthropologists but that’s for another post. The underlying concept, that making new fancy toys can not solve everything, is the point to take away from this example even if the execution of the project was not perfect.

So what is this social/cultural problem? I like to think of it in terms of if Kent Flannery’s The Golden Marshalltown (if you haven’t read it, do!) was written today and he had to add a new character, the Computer Guy. This is the guy or gal who knows a thing or two about software, what RAM is, and why Java is not just for coffee. To him this isn’t complex stuff, a few courses and a basic understanding of math and he can do just about anything he needs to with a computer. He is a very good archaeologists, even putting up his code on the internet or in publication so that everyone else can do what he does. These are the guys that use GIS and under take the statistical analysis.

I am a computer guy. Not a great one, but I understand the basic concepts and if I know some of the code and given enough time I can make things happen. I should say I am probably not a computer guy in the eyes of other computer guys but in the eyes of others, who I will be getting to in a second, I am a computer guy.

The problem is that some people don’t like math or computer programming, lets call them Non-comps. Not only don’t they like it but some are terrified of it. This is not to say that they don’t like all math or computer programs, almost everyone is comfortable with addition and Microsoft Word, but lots of people get intimidated by math and computer programs they are not familiar with.

“What??? People are afraid but its real easy math?”-Computer Guy

Those who can have a horrible time understanding those who can’t. When I was taking a GIS class for my masters I remember some of my classmates responses when I told them what class I was taking: “Oh, won’t that be hard.” “I take it your good at math then.” “I could never do that”

My favourite description of site predictive models by a very good archaeologists was, “it’s all snake oil to me.” The problem with the Computer Guy is that sometimes he does not realize that everyone else sees his work as snake oil. To him he is just explaining it in the language he knows it best in, geek speak. To Non-Comps it might as well be Navajo. Worst still, are those Computer Guys who know they are speaking about snake oil and play it up. I am guilty of this  sometimes. When I don’t want to explain my work to people I just throw in a few terms like Boolean Algebra or Regression Algorithms and bam!, that stops the conversation right there.

This description is a simplification and barely captures the whole picture but I am pretty sure you all get where I am going with it. It is not just good enough to create a tool that other archaeologists can use but we also have to create a tool that they feel comfortable enough to use.  We, as Computer Guys, can make the perfect adoption of GIS, simulations, or statistical analysis for experiential theoretical archaeologists but if they don’t feel comfortable enough to use them then what’s the point? How to do this I haven’t yet worked out but I have several suggestions…. but that’s for anther blog.

Next time my proposal-

If you think I got this right, wrong, didn’t go far enough, etc. please drop me a line.

Flannery, K. 1982 The Golden Marshalltown: A Parable for the Archeology of the 1980s, American Anthropologist, New Series, 84 (2), 265-278

Gillings, M. 2009 Visual affordance, landscape, and the megaliths of Alderney, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 28(4), 335-356.

Hamilton, S., Whitehouse, R., Brown, K., Combes, P., Herring, E. and Seager-Thomas, M. 2006 Phenomenology in Practice: Towards a Methodology for a ‘Subjective’ Approach. European Journal of Archaeology 9(1), 31–71.

Sturt, F. 2006 Local knowledge is required: a rhythmanalytical approach to the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic of the East Anglian Fenland, UK. Journal of Maritime Archaeology 1, 119–39.

Thomas, J. 2004 Archaeology and Modernity (London).

Thomas, J. 2008 Archaeology, landscape, and dwelling. In David, B. and Thomas, J. (eds.), Handbook of Landscape Archaeology (California), 300–6.

Tilley, C. 2004 The Materiality of Stone (London).

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