When I tell people that I specialise in archaeological computing they always think I am locked up in a cellar with a massive computer screen doing things other people don’t understand. They do not associate us with doing fieldwork in a sunny place, or digging up treasures. To some extent this is true: I am generally confronted with blank stares when I try to explain my research and I do get to sit in a warm and dry office whilst others excavate ridges and furrows in a muddy trench.
Sometimes being an academic is not such a bad thing. A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being invited by a French historian to attend and present at a summer school. The week-long event took place on the French island of Proquerolles off the coast of Toulon and St Tropez, a little known gem of the French Riviera. When I did my background research before accepting the invitation I focused on weather forecasts and restaurant reviews. I decided it was in the best interest of my research group that I accept the invitation and attend this undoubtedly very interesting event.
A useful fact about Porquerolles is that it lies in France, where people speak French. The last time I practiced my French was quite a while ago and everyone I met after getting off the plane was keen to point that out to me. On the boat trip to the island I found out that in fact I was one of the only foreigners and one of only two archaeologists, all other 78 delegates were mainly sociologists, a few historians and some geographers. All of a sudden I very briefly wished I could spend the week in a cellar in front of a massive computer screen.
It turns out that the average French sociologist makes for extremely enjoyable and interesting company, although there are some distinct differences with the average archaeologist: they talk about sociology a lot and they drink less. The summer school (‘Etudier les réseaux sociaux’) was organised by the French social network analysts Claire Bidart and Michel Grosetti, and the historical network analysts Claire Lemercier and Michel Bertrand. The programme included some great scholars in social network analysis like Alain Degenne, Pierre Mercklé and Emmanuel Lazega. The topics of the presentations ranged from ‘Network Analysis for Dummies’, over the issues surrounding the use of historical data in network analyses, to networks of organisations, citations, finance and the World Wide Web. The work by Florent Hautefeuille on linking networks of individuals known from Medieval written sources with the excavated houses in which they lived was particularly interesting for archaeologists. One of the biggest strengths of the summer school were the many tutorials that introduced an impressive range of social network analysis software: Pajek, PNet, ERGM, NodeXL, Visone, Calliope, SIENA, UCINET, Netdraw, Gephi, as well as some more obscure programmes designed by individuals sitting in front of massive screens in cellars.
During a conference or summer school it is always hard to convince yourself that you are actually there for work and should stay focused during every second of all presentation. But at this summer school I came very close to paying attention almost non-stop to all the amazing new network techniques, software and their creative applications to fascinating datasets. I believe I should conclude by stating that I have seen the value of sharing knowledge across disciplines in action, especially if it takes place on a beautiful French island in the Mediterranean.