The Connected Past: academia at its best
Just back from an excellent meeting which pulled together people interested in networks and complexity in archaeology and history. The Connected Past (twitter hash tag #connectedpast) was held at Southampton as a two day symposium preceding the CAA 2012 conference (Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology). There was an incredible range of speakers and as they were all recorded you should be able to find the talks on line eventually.
At one end Astrid Van Oyen from Cambridge talked about Actor Network Theory which seemed to me to be a good example of what researchers in social sciences understand to be a theory. That is it seemed to be largely about concepts and described in terms of words, certainly no equations, so nothing like the theories I am used to. However my experience over the last decade has been that physical scientists should not be too quick to dismiss these types of theory. The thoughts and ideas in social science theories can be used to mould the numerical models and theoretical equations which I associate with a theory.
My work on archaeological models lies at the other extreme, and we had many examples at this end too. The work of a University of Sheffield group, as described by Caitlin Buck, was a good example here. This uses Bayesian methods to produce models for the spread of agriculture across Europe but ones which are firmly based on the data (including its uncertainty), in this case carbon dated finds of cultivated cereal grains. It takes five days of computer time to produce a spatial temporal map of the spread of agriculture across Europe so it is a real challenge for the physical scientists.
I can’t resist mentioning my colleague, Ray Rivers too. I am not sure if archaeologists like his description of Knossos as being (in some models) the “Tescos of the Aegean” (you can replace Tescos with WalMart or any other appropriate supermarket chain) if they found the idea that Margaret Thatcher went wrong because she placed had too much trust in Agent Based Modelling helpful. However underneath his flowery turn of phrase was a serious message echoed by several others, that is trying to understand what we can learn from models.
Overall one of the most enjoyable meetings I have been too. The range of topics and knowledge meant there was lots of for me to take away and I hope I gave something new to others too. There is a new wave of archaeologists who can see the utility of these new ideas and tools and as a complement to existing methods. This field is part of the Digital Humanities movement as information technology delivers new avenues of research for the social sciences. The popularity of the meeting showed that in archaeology this approach has now reached a critical mass.
Perhaps the main question I came away with is “what are we delivering with these new tools”? This was one of the themes suggested by Carl Knappett from Toronto (literally as he gave his talk over Skype – a first for me at a conference). Carl suggested it was time for the field to mature and I agree with that. For this we need physical scientists to work with data and for archaeologists to become confident in working these new tools.
The overriding feeling though is one of excitement, new ideas, new opportunities, along with the challenge of what are we going to deliver. The organisers, Tom Brughmans (University of Southampton), Anna Collar (University of Liverpool) and Fiona Coward (Royal Holloway University of London) are to be praised for doing such a good job with such a timely meeting. The Connected Past meeting was academia at its best.