A thousand worlds: sci-fi networks in archaeology

Rune Rattenborg presenting at 'A Thousand Worlds' in Durham
Rune Rattenborg presenting at ‘A Thousand Worlds’ in Durham
Here is a common plot in sci-fi literature and movies (based on a popular physics model): the world you know is but one in an endless range of parallel universes, where each one is slightly different. Who would ever have thought this would be a good starting point for archaeological discussions? Yet the meeting in Durham I recently attended showed that parallel universes might have more in common with archaeology than we think.

(this review was originally published as a guest post on Electric Archaeology, please join discussion there)

I was invited by Rune Rattenborg to join a workshop in Durham called ‘A Thousand Worlds: Network Models in Archaeology’. This concept of a thousand worlds can be interpreted in an archaeological research context in different ways. On the one hand, and most similar to the sci-fi parallel universes plot, you could think about the many different reconstructions of past realities that could all explain a single archaeological pattern. Literally thousands of hypotheses could be raised to explain a certain pattern, each of them suggesting different mechanisms driving human behaviour and ultimately its expression in the archaeological record. On the other hand, you could think about the many academic perspectives archaeologists find useful for understanding the past. Perspectives ranging from highly quantitative (you can place me in that camp) to very qualitative, from local to global, from scientific to philosophical, and from an explicitly present-day perspective to attempting to recreate past perspectives. Each one of these is a valid way of thinking about past human behaviour and behavioural change (or rather every configuration or combination of these perspectives).

Both of these interpretations motivated Rune to title his workshop ‘A Thousand Worlds’. He noticed that archaeologists interested in questions of past connectivity and those of us using network perspectives often address the challenges we are faced with in very different ways. The only common ground of most network perspectives seems to be that the relationships between entities are considered crucial to understanding the behaviour of these entities. For example, the romantic relationship between two individuals will affect the decision to stay in and watch a Hugh Grant romantic comedy or to go out for a beer with the guys. But Rune also noticed that each perspective allows for a wide variety of reconstructions of past realities. These two issues seem to confuse archaeologists who might be interested in using such a network perspective in their archaeological research. I totally agree with Rune’s motivation to create some order in this chaos. The main questions of this workshop therefore were: what different network perspectives are out there? What rules govern them? What do they allow us to do that we could not do before? And what are their limitations?

To some extent the meeting was successful in addressing these questions. A number of very different perspectives were discussed by selected proponents: I introduced an extremely formal network science approach, which was discussed rather more pragmatically by Anna Collar; Michelle de Gruchy highlighted some interesting challenges in a geographical context; another group of presenters (Kristoffer Damgaard, Eivind Heldaas Seland, Sofie Laurine Albris, Rune Rattenborg) used the concept of connectivity and explored how it could be reflected in archaeological and literary sources. Finally Ronan O’Donnell introduced the actor-network theory (ANT) perspective through a fascinating case study on a post-Medieval landscape in Northumberland, UK, from which the strong difference between the aims of the ANT and network science research perspectives became particularly clear.

Nevertheless, by the end of the meeting it became clear that we were not entirely successful in addressing the many questions we set out to answer. Eivind Heldaas Seland skilfully summarised each paper and formulated three key questions that require more attention: how can these different perspectives and approaches usefully work together? What is the added value of some of these compared to a more traditional description of our sources? How can we better use these perspectives in the future? The fact that we were unsuccessful at addressing these questions shows how complex and non-trivial they are (and we also ran out of discussion time). But for what it’s worth, I take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on these questions, combined with some of the points I picked up from others during the discussion.

First of all, I believe the first question presents the false impression that the different network perspectives can and need to work together. I would argue that, many network perspectives do not need to and most of them do not work well together at all. This is because some of them (like ANT and network science) are designed to address very different questions. But even those approaches that have more in common, like the quantitative vs. qualitative use of network science, don’t necessarily need to be combined into an almighty network approach. There is no need for a great unifying theory or method in archaeology, not even for one that just focuses on questions of connectivity. Rather, I consider the different network perspectives as tools that function according to certain rules, and once these rules are known the tools have a potential to make small but crucial contributions to our knowledge of the past. I believe that if we are to ever achieve the full potential of these exciting new approaches for archaeology we will need to first critically explore them in isolation.

Secondly, the added value of these perspectives is more obvious than how they should be applied. Many in the audience seemed to agree that the concept of the network itself is a powerful tool to think with. It forces us to consider the potentially important role played by relationships between entities (however defined: humans, molecules, parallel universes), which might allow us to ask and answer new questions. For me the added value lies in the recognition that all archaeologists make assumptions about the nature of such relationships when they formulate hypotheses about past phenomena. It can be useful to think about these assumptions in terms of network concepts and, most importantly, there is a real need to be critically aware of their existence and formulate them clearly. Network science can help archaeologists to think about their assumptions of past relationships, to formally express them (in words and/or in numbers), and to evaluate their implications for past behavioural change and its reflection in the archaeological record.

Finally, the “better use” of such approaches and perspectives is not optional, it is necessary if they are ever to become useful within an archaeological research context. However, a critical use and application is not just a critical awareness of the rules that govern them. Rather, an equal if not larger effort should be afforded to the archaeological interpretation of network science results, or the differences in the interpretative process that a networks perspective implies. I believe none of the scholars that attended the Durham meeting would disagree with that. The studies they presented could be roughly divided into two groups: those that THINK through network and those that DO networks. I believe the former is more important than the latter, because there can be no doing without thinking. Although this sounds like an obvious statement it is worth emphasising it because the use of quantitative network analysis is too often treated like a “black box” approach, which it is not. Every network science study in archaeology, no matter how quantitative, aims to better understand (aspects of) past phenomena. When doing so, the scholar formulates a hypothesis, expresses their assumptions about past relationships and their roles, or at least clearly defines what they mean by the network concepts they use. Only after this phase of network thinking can a scholar proceed to network doing, which involves representing hypotheses/assumptions/the archaeological record as network data (points and lines, and what they mean). The ability to use advanced quantitative tools should not be an excuse for the post-hoc imposition of a theoretical framework that fits the results nicely; nor should the appeal of using fashionable network concepts lead to reluctance to formally express what is meant by them and to evaluate their implications for understanding past phenomena.

Even though none of the three key questions about the role of the networks perspective in archaeology can be conclusively answered at this time, I felt that its future is nevertheless bright. The diversity of possible approaches and perspectives is encouraging and will lead to critical research that promises to help archaeologists better evaluate what approach is useful for their studies of past connectivity, and what is not. Some of these approaches might require multi-disciplinary collaboration, especially the more scary and maths-heavy techniques in the network science toolbox. But archaeologists should never be tempted to outsource the network thinking part of the process. Critical knowledge of the archaeological literature and data leads to an awareness of the relevant research questions, and the same knowledge will lead to valuable interpretations of analytical results and research processes. There might be a thousand pasts out there, and there might be a thousand ways of reaching them, but this quest will always need to be undertaken by archaeologists.

Selected relevant publications:
Brandes, U., Robins, G., McCranie, A., & Wasserman, S. 2013. What is network science? Network Science 1(01): p.1–15.
Brughmans, T. 2013.Thinking through networks: A Review of Formal Network Methods in Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
Knappett, C. 2011. An archaeology of interaction. Network perspectives on material culture and society. Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press.


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