My Chemical Romance: Keeping our Theoretical Heads in the Face of Seductive Methodological ‘Certainties’

Posted on February 21, 2020


This part of my series of posts on conference presentations, that I have filmed. This is another one from the TAG conference:

Session Info

Over the past twenty years, archaeology has benefited from a raft of new and improved scientific dating methods, allowing us to be more precise than ever before about the dates of significant events and practices in the past. Through the increased use of sophisticated techniques including radiocarbon, archaeomagnetic, dendrochronological and luminescence dating, and with the application of statistical methods such as Bayesian approaches or quantum theory, we have ever more data available to inform us. While all these methods and approaches have been taken up by the discipline, they are not without theoretical ramifications. This session aims to assess the impact of this numerical revolution on archaeological interpretations, asking whether our wider theoretical approaches have caught up with these new forms of data, questioning the implications of the blind acceptance of statistics, and examining the effects on our narratives of the past. How can we compare sites and areas with significant differences in the levels of chronological information available? Is there a danger that proposed statistical models become the unchallenged status quo? What kinds of data are these scientific methodologies producing, what are they not telling us, and how does this affect our research outputs? When do these techniques and approaches become problematic for historical interpretations? Do we have adequate training in archaeology to ensure a robust understanding of these complex mathematical models? Further, how do we address the construction of new categories of interpretive data from dating summaries e.g. ‘outliers’ and ‘residuality’? As well as scientific dating, there will be relevant implications for other new scientific analyses (such as DNA and genetics research). Papers explore this broad theme, providing case studies or commentaries on archaeological research where chronologies have provided theoretical challenges or opportunities.

Organisers: Susan Greaney (Cardiff University/English Heritage), Anne Teather (UCL) and Emily Wright (University of Cambridge)

How Many Hands Has a Clock? Integrating chronological records: A semiotic approach

Some of the main chronological problems that archaeology is facing in the 21st century date back to the very birth of this discipline. Many have argued that such issues will be resolved through the acquisition of new data and the progressive improvement of dating methods. I present the hypothesis that such controversies might instead originate from theoretical and historical issues. Borrowing some tools from semiotics (C.S. Peirce) and from the logicistic approach to archaeological theory (J.C. Gardin), dating methods can be dissected in their epistemological components. Different dating methods are built on peculiar – and sometimes conflicting – models, which rely on theories and are based on units of analysis whose integration can lead to some inconsistencies in results. Moreover, both dating methods and chronological controversies are historical entities. Some of the main chronological controversies have been objects of research for more than a century. When data are understood to be (at least in part) dependent on the intellectual context that generated them (Kuhn), long-lasting chronological controversies appear to be a crucible of different approaches about historical change, time and the very nature of the discipline. Expecting a flawless consistency to come from an addition of new dates would be unrealistic. While this does not undermine the validity of the methods, it does corroborate the view of perspectival realism on scientific ‘truth’ (M. Massimini).

Maria Emanuela Oddo (IMT School for Advanced Studies, Lucca)

It is now ten years since the publication of the chronologies of early Neolithic long barrows project (Bayliss and Whittle 2007), which can be credited with bringing to wide attention the possibilities of using Bayesian analysis of radiocarbon dates to produce robust and precise chronological models. Since then, the methodology has been applied widely in British and Irish archaeology, initially to the early Neolithic and more recently to other periods such as the Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon. A recent volume of World Archaeology (Pettit and Zilhao 2015) was dedicated to reviewing the rapid spread of Bayesian approaches and reflected concerns from a number of period experts and dating specialists that flawed models were being published and uncritically accepted by the wider discipline. In particular, the responsibility of archaeologists in rigorously selecting and clearly justifying the archaeological samples and their association information (priors) was highlighted, and the need for archaeologists and statisticians to work together to refine and model alternative interpretations of the archaeological evidence was emphasised. This paper takes the critique one step further, particularly discussing how these models affect the sort of narratives that we construct for the past and what they can mean for the ‘hermeneutic spiral’ of understanding. The late Neolithic henge monument of Mount Pleasant in Dorset will be used as an example in this discussion, with an exploration of previous theoretical narratives of this monument and how they relate to our changing understanding of the chronology of the site. ‘Events’, such as the start and end of construction of a monument, or duration of use of a cemetery, are the easiest questions to define, but are they our only research questions? What about the rates of change and the tempo of processes? How easy is it to compare between sites or map changes in material culture? Similarly, once Bayesian models are published, how are these being used in the construction of archaeological narratives? Are our discussions of human agency, memory and history becoming more nuanced to reflect the new precision? Archaeologists have a responsibility to use the models from these dating projects responsibly and wisely, with a good understanding of the methodologies behind them.

Susan Greaney (Cardiff University/English Heritage)

Revealing a Prehistoric Past: Evidence for the deliberate construction of a historic narrative in the British Neolithic

Over the past decade, event based narratives have become a norm in discussions of the British Neolithic. Statistical analyses of radiocarbon dates, combined with a detailed approach to individual contexts, have produced chronological resolutions that have enabled a greater understanding of the construction and use of some monuments. While these have been informative, they include interpretive nomenclature with terms such as ‘outliers’ and ‘residuality’ applied to data that does not agree with other data. Not only are these terms untheorised and their meanings unclear, they could be said to create a ghetto for dates that are not useful for Bayesian analysis, or any other analysis. This paper argues that this position is inadvertently ignoring evidence of wider cultural understandings. In particular, evidence of the deliberate inclusion of already old bone in Neolithic deposits has been identified, in dates rejected from Bayesian statistical analyses. This is argued to represent a cultural practice that may suggest a complex social reinforcement of Neolithic beliefs at their time of deposition that created a manufactured history of domesticity for Neolithic people.

Anne Teather (UCL)

Good, Bad or Absolute? Is Culture History Evil?

In the current research paradigm of British archaeology, we are accustomed to keeping in line with the consumer, innovation-driven spirit of the Western Zeitgeist. Students of archaeology are taught at the very beginning of their education that there are certain approaches to study that are now safely to be archived as a thing of the past. The culture historical approach is one of these; outdated, non-concrete and relative in a manner, which does not serve the contemporary strive for narrating generational histories in prehistory. The use of relative chronologies in line with a culture-historical paradigm is, however, still a main axis of archaeological investigation in a number of European countries. The mode of thinking in which British archaeology is presently grounded, thus often clashes with particular practices and could be seen as severely restricting the engagement of British archaeologist in these fields of research. My talk will examine the inevitable clash of approaches when attempting to analyse the Bulgarian Neolithic through a British methodological perspective. Matters of absolute and relative chronologies will be discussed in light of my own research of the problematic impasse between Neolithic chronologies in the southern Bulgaria/northern Greece area. The paper will aim to answer whether we can reconcile the ‘evil’ relative and ‘good’ absolute in order for British prehistorians to remain relevant parties in south-eastern European scholarship.

Kathy Baneva (Cardiff University)

Bad Timing: Problems with chronologies and narratives by numbers in Mediterranean prehistory

Big picture research, successfully carried out in the Mediterranean through the framework of connectivity (Horden and Purcell 2000; Broodbank 2013), hinges on understanding broad historical narrative, the ‘absolute’ chronology of events and degrees of contemporaneity. Unfortunately, work on the chronology of the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Mediterranean is beset with problems – long-term, tied to the nature of the archaeological evidence, inherent in the practices used to collect and analyse data, and, perhaps most disappointingly, the product of zealous self-assurance and disciplinary in-fighting regarding interpretation. During this period, the region has more than one ‘High vs. Low Chronology’ debate. This paper will address the separation of ‘time-as-experience’ and ‘time-as-narrative’ approaches which impact on how we reconcile archaeological evidence at many different scales. The ‘certainties’ offered by techniques including Radiocarbon dating and Bayesian analysis will be discussed in the context of archaeologists’ own subjectivity and stratigraphic methodology. There is no ‘absolute’ chronology; there is only time relative to its material perception and the circumstances of its measuring. Despite this, narratives by numbers offer an essential counter to our discipline’s blind adherence to labels of time that have outgrown their original efficacy.

Emily Wright (University of Cambridge)

Posted in: Videos