Blurring the Boundaries: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Archaeology

Posted on June 1, 2016


Your Wednesday archaeology conference videos! Again, from the TAG conference.

Archaeology is well known for the vast scope of its study and the range of theories and practices it employs, often borrowed and adapted from other disciplines. However, in spite of this intellectual diversity, and an increasing amount of inter-disciplinary research, archaeological conferences often feature little in the way of participation from outside the normal boundaries of the discipline. Following this year’s TAG theme of diversity, the aims of this session are to bring in perspectives from beyond archaeology itself, and highlight some of the research taking place in other disciplines which is of relevance and interest to an archaeological audience.
This session will achieve several aims. Some papers will shed light on the discipline of archaeology itself, as seen by those from beyond its normal boundaries. Other papers will present research of papers by those from other disciplines who are working on archaeologically-related projects, or who have brought a background in another discipline to their current archaeological studies. The session will end with a general discussion, allowing the case studies provided by the papers to be used to debate the advantages and problems thrown up by the ever-increasing diversity of disciplines and perspectives that those engaged in archaeological research make use of.

Session organisers: Sarah MORTON and Stephen O’BRIEN (University of Oxford and University of Liverpool)

Philosophy and archaeology: an underrated relation

While many archaeologists have looked into philosophy for a deeper understanding of their discipline and philosophers have contributed to archaeological theory, e.g. Alison Wylie, Merilee Salmon, and Peter Kosso, the relationship between archaeology and philosophy remains unstructured. Disciplines like Physics and Biology count today with the help of several philosophers and archaeology could benefit from a similar type of relationship. Assuming that archaeology is an empirical discipline in that it aims at understanding phenomena, philosophy has the task of not questioning phenomena but how an understanding of phenomena is possible in the first place. With this in mind, I wish to commend the idea of interdisciplinarity but at the same time, subject it to an immanent critique. Being interdisciplinary is not a straightforward issue and the concept hides several problems. For instance, how does one mediate between two competing explanations that originate from different disciplines? Is interdisciplinarity a mere combination of disciplines or is it a combination of different types of inference?
My own research attempts to answer these questions by understanding the several ways in which we can understand how phenomena can occur. Ultimately, I believe that the issue regarding interdisciplinarity lies not in understanding the disciplines and their methods per se, but in understanding how different disciplines conceive putative objects of enquiry and the causal relations between those objects.

Artur RIBEIRO (University of Kiel, Germany)

If the (concealed) shoe fits: The logical pairing of archaeology and folklore

If I had to label myself – and academic trend suggests that I do – I would employ the term ‘folklore archaeologist’. This is an innocuous enough pairing with a simple meaning: basically, I study folkloric beliefs and customs through their material manifestations. Yet this term has been met with blank looks and raised eyebrows, with more than a few fellow archaeologists advising me against employment of the word ‘folklore’, which appears to have become an academic taboo in some disciplines.
However, such a pairing is far from unreasonable. While ‘folklore archaeology’ may not be an officially recognised academic title, the two subjects have a long history of affiliation, and it is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate the value – indeed the logic – of employing methodologies from both folklore and archaeology in elucidating the material manifestations of popular beliefs. Arguments and theories will be drawn from my own experiences researching the post-medieval custom of shoe concealment, whereby shoes were enigmatically employed as domestic apotropaic devices.


Automating causal explanations of observed features using temporal planning

Temporal Planning is an automated method for finding a sequence of actions that converts one state of the world into another, over time. There has been a very large body of work in the area over the last 20 years, with application mainly in the domain of automating robot decision-making and goal-directed behaviour. In this paper we con-sider whether the same automated planning methods might be used to generate plausible explanations of how archaeological assemblages were formed, and the human, temporal and physical processes involved.

Maria FOX (King’s College London)

The Manchester’s Improving Daily Project

This paper will outline an ongoing project that combines archaeology and archival research with live music, spoken word, audio-visual displays and the production of a CD and accompanying book due for release in 2016.
Manchester Improving Daily is an ongoing Heritage Lottery Fund/ Arts Council England funded project that has its origins in conversations and chance meetings at Band on the Wall, a music and arts venue in Manchester. Edward II is a roots/reggae band that has previously recorded songs from the English Morris tradition. The project has involved different musical, academic, historic and cultural participants that has resulted in a diverse range of actants combining to interpret the eighteenth and nineteenth century Penny Broadsides for a 21st century audience. I am the named archaeologist in the HLF bid, and have written the CD liner notes, the various posters and projection used at the live gigs, and the book that will accompany the CD when it is released.
The interaction between these disparate groups has further enriched the project, resulting in a project that has transcended the original outline, with a dynamic and evolving investigation into the Manchester Ballads. In this respect, it is an example of intellectual, cultural and academic diversity that has blurred and crossed boundaries in the process of researching an overlooked and largely forgotten historical source. However – just as official versions of events are ‘spun’ by politicians and media outlets today, it is clear that ballad writers often had an agenda, and perhaps ulterior motives for publication. Nevertheless, the Manchester Ballads as a collection support and add to the understanding of Mancunian life in an era before newspapers were sold, and at a time when literacy was rare within the working classes. Taken together as a narrative, the Manchester Ballads are a snapshot of life in Industrial era Manchester, and the project has included performances in several of the historic locations that are featured in the songs, including The Angel Inn and Kersal Moor.
I will outline the Manchester’s Improving Daily project as is currently stands, and I will suggest it is an exemplar of cultural and heritage activity – giving an interdisciplinary perspective – that gravitates around significant locations such as Band on the Wall. During the session, I will include some of the artwork and music created during the session – with a preview of the music recorded at Elbow’s Blueprint studios in Salford, due for release as a combined CD/book Package in 2016.


Text and matter intertwined. Testing interdisciplinary on the case of inscribed stirrup jars

Traditionally, archaeologists study material culture, and ancient texts, inscriptions and other forms of texts belong to the realm of ancient history and classics. In the past decades though, the study of antiquity seems to be transforming, with scholars of different disciplines making more and more effort to collaborate, share their methods and theories. In case of studying historical periods, it seems quite logical that objects and historical texts should not be studied separately, as both these sources can provide valuable evidence which, if combined could lead to a broader frame of knowledge and help answer more questions. But what happens when a prehistorian encounters a text on an object?
In this paper I would like to question the potential of interdisciplinary research when studying inscribed objects from prehistoric periods. As a case study I would like to use Late Bronze Age inscribed stirrup jars found on Crete and Mycenaean Greek mainland. This case of vessels used for transport and storage of oil and wine, bearing painted Linear B inscriptions of names of persons and places are an exceeding example of multilayered interplay between text and matter. This paper is an experiment where the potential of interdisciplinary research are being explored. The case study broaches issues such as definition of ‘text’ and its limits; the use of different types of sources for the purpose of getting a bigger picture on the matter; and finally, the incorporation of social sciences in the study of antiquity, exploring a cognitive approach on the matter.


Challenges and opportunities in the interdisciplinary study of religious relics

A new interdisciplinary research cluster has recently begun at the Advanced Studies Centre in Keble College, Oxford, dedicated to the study of relics: objects of cultural, historical and religious significance. The group comprises researchers from a wide range of specialisms, including archaeology, archaeometry, genetics, osteology, art history, theology, history, geography, 3D imaging and linguistics. Current work focuses on the multi-disciplinary investigation of relics attributed to St John the Baptist, in collaboration with the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen. Using a range of scientific and text-based sources of evidence allows the life histories of relics to be reconstructed, providing important insights into health, patronage, diplomacy and religion throughout history. Moreover, 3D imaging can be used to record reliquaries and their contents, preserving them forever in digital form and making them more easily available for study by researchers across the world.
Traditionally, the study of ancient relics has been dogged by researchers working in isolation from one another and by an historic divide between the sciences and humanities. Our experience suggests this is starting to change, and there are considerable benefits to a multidisciplinary approach. Such work attempts to bridge perhaps the greatest disciplinary divide of all, namely the traditional separation between ‘science’ and ‘faith’. This paper aims to discuss the ongoing interdisciplinary investigations into Christian religious relics and reliquaries, considering in particular the ways in which archaeometry can work effectively with other disciplines, and with the Church, to improve our understanding of the human.

Jamie CAMERON, Thomas HIGHAM, Georges KAZAN, Thibaut DEVIESE and Eleanor FARBER (University of Oxford)


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