What can models tell us about history?

One of my interests has been trying to use ideas from complexity and network science to look at historical questions.  In part, this is because historical data is often really challenging to a researcher like me used to modern data sets.  At the same time, that gap in our knowledge means that there is a real opportunity for modelling to be able to contribute something positive and substantial to historical debates. Part of the challenge is to think about the role of uncertainty in models.  The effect of uncertainty in the data, how to quantify uncertainty in the models. My physics background has taught me that a conclusion without some sense of the accuracy of that conclusion carries little practical meaning. My recent paper with Ray Rivers, Was Thebes Necessary? Contingency in Spatial Modelling (Frontiers in Digital Humanities, 2017, 4, 8 ) was all about finding ways to probe uncertainties.

So I was delighted to support a suggestion from Chiara Girotto that, along with Ray Rivers, we should organise a session on the challenges faced by modelling in an archaeological context at the next  EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) meeting The session has been accepted so we are really looking forward to this session in Barcelona, 5-8 September 2018 . We are looking for contributions, from anyone with something interesting to say. All types of contribution considered, for instance, presenters might want to highlight the limitations of this approach, or they will show how some technique from physical sciences might be adapted to this context. I’d love to hear about examples built upon good archaeological methods so I can learn more about the issues that archaeologists may take for granted but that I, with no formal training in archaeology, haven’t even thought about. So do think about contributing or attending.

I really enjoyed the EAA in Maastricht in 2017.  A lot was outside my immediate research but still intriguing to me and I learnt a lot. There was also a solid core of modellers that made it both an exciting and relevant conference for me. I can see that our session entitled “Challenging the models: Reflections of reality?” fits in well with several other sessions so again, there is a really good strand through the meeting to keep me entertained and busy. At the time of writing the deadline for submissions was 15 February 2018

Session 545 at EAA Barcelona 5-8 September 2018: Challenging the models: Reflections of reality?


Currently modelling is a central part of archaeological behavioural research. Many papers focus on the ability to extract the reflections of past social interactions and structures from a variety of archaeological and environmental sources. Especially in the light of highly theoretic archaeological modelling in pre- and proto history this often leads to environmentally driven, Darwinian like models, devoid of cognitive human factors, fuzzy decision making, and the possibility of non-rational choice. Considering all implemented assumptions required for social interaction models we have to question whether a model might be too complex to operate on the basis of our data. Has it entered the vicious circle of self-affirmation? Are our models questioning our own lack of knowledge? Where are we on an epistemic-ontic scale?
In our session we wish to address and discuss current problems in archaeological behavioural modelling. Questions tackled might include
• whether we are creating Processualism 2.0?
• how narratives are encoded in models, as discussed from a theoretical, methodological or practical viewpoint?
• how the inclusion of social theory and the fuzziness of human decision making alters the results from a model?
• what is the impact of assumptions on modelling results?
• what is the impact of archaeological data on a model’s outcome?
• how we can use inherent capabilities and inabilities of models to better interpret and narrate our approximations of reality?

Main organiser:

Chiara Girotto  (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany)


Tim Evans (Imperial College London, U.K.), Ray Rivers (Imperial College London, U.K.)