The Romans and calculators: discuss! (debate published in Antiquity)

What are the limits of using computational modelling for understanding the Roman past? Where do such formal approaches fit in the existing theoretical context of Roman studies? These are the questions we debate in a discussion piece published today in Antiquity; a reply to Astrid Van Oyen’s critical and constructive discussion of our previous computational modelling work also published in Antiquity.

In our original work we argued that computational modelling should become more commonly used in the study of the Roman economy, because it holds the potential of overcoming the current deadlock in Roman macroeconomic debates by formally expressing and comparing the many interesting conflicting descriptive models, simulating their predicted behaviour (in terms of distributions of goods and prices) and comparing these simulations with archaeological data such as distributions of ceramics.

Astrid Van Oyen wrote an elaborate discussion piece, reviewing the beneficial and challenging aspects of this kind of work. She usefully and correctly places the potential of this method within current Roman economic debates, arguing for the timeliness of the approach. However, most of Van Oyen’s piece is concerned with problematising three aspects of the approach, asking whether these pose problems, and constructively thinking through possible alternatives:

  1. Can formalist modelling yield primitivist results?
  2. Do the big archaeological datasets of ceramics necessarily have to be interpreted in light of the flow of commodities?
  3. Is it possible to consider heterogeneity in agent behaviour?

In our reply, we answer the first question with a firm “yes”. We find the link commonly drawn between primitivist theories and substantivist methods on the one hand, and modernist theories and formalist methods on the other, an unhelpful and unnecessary byproduct of common practice in Roman economy studies. We argue we have shown in our own work that primitivist ideas can be formally explored (agents with limited information, the effects of social network structures), and that much more of this kind of work is necessary.

We find this debate hugely important and constructive, because we have argued that Roman economy studies is stuck in a deadlock due to a number of issues:

  1. Many models use different and sometimes ill-defined concepts to describe the complexities of the Roman economy, making them difficult to compare.
  2. The concepts used often lack specifications as to how they may be explored using data, i.e. what sort of patterns would be expected as the outcome of hypothetical processes.
  3. Consequently, the development of these conceptual models has not gone hand in hand with the development of approaches to represent, compare and (where possible) validate them formally.
  4. The role of archaeological data in testing conceptual models, although increasingly recognised, deserves greater attention, as it is the only source of information on the functioning and performance of the Roman economy that can be used for quantitative validation of complex computational and conceptual models.

Brughmans and Poblome 2016. Antiquity.

We sincerely hope that together we can position computational modelling in its rightful place in Roman studies to constructively contribute to ongoing substantive debates. We have argued that in order for this to happen, a few things are necessary:

authors of conceptual models should:

(a) clearly define the concepts used and discuss exactly how these differ from the concepts used by others,

(b) make explicit how these concepts can be represented as data,

(c) describe the expected behaviour of the system using the defined concepts,

(d) describe the expected data patterns resulting from this behaviour, and

(e) define how (if at all) archaeological and historical sources can be used as reflections or proxies of these expected data patterns.

Brughmans and Poblome 2016 http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/19/1/3.html 5.6

Want to know more? Have a look at discussion through the links below:

Our original paper in Antiquity
Van Oyen’s discussion
Our reply

Review of ‘An Archaeology of Interaction’ in Antiquity

My review of Carl Knappett’s recently published book ‘An Archaeology of Interaction: network perspectives on material culture and society’ has appeared in the June issue of Antiquity. For the official published version, please access the Antiquity website. I have written a much more extensive and unreviewed earlier version as well, which I would like to share with you here:

CARL KNAPPETT. An archaeology of interaction: network perspectives on material culture and society. x+251 pages, 50 illustrations. 2011. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 978-0-19-921545-4 hardback £60.

With An Archaeology of Interaction Carl Knappett wrote a much-needed book that provides both an overview of existing approaches to human interaction as well as a new networks perspective. The key issue addressed in the book is that theories of human interaction generally do not incorporate materiality. The author suggests network thinking as a perspective that succeeds in combining theoretical and methodological approaches to interaction in a single framework and ‘foregrounds the relations between objects and people more effectively’ (p. 7). Much of the book is concerned with exploring approaches from a range of disciplines in the social and physical sciences, and their potential to contribute to this framework. Indeed, Knappett argues that the relevance of An Archaeology of Interaction is by no means restricted to the archaeological discipline, but aims to illustrate the potential archaeological contributions to understanding social interactions in general. A number of issues considered crucial for this new approach to interaction are stressed again and again throughout the volume: the incorporation of materiality, the need to consider assemblages of objects rather than objects in isolation, and the crossing of scales of analysis. Carl Knappett’s search for compatible theoretical ideas and methodological techniques takes him on an explicitly multi-disciplinary journey guided by a clear research question based on a few critical issues and illustrated throughout with archaeological examples (largely from the Bronze Age Aegean). All of this results in a highly readable volume that is both close to exhaustive in its description of issues and approaches, as well as focused on providing an innovative, but above all useful, framework for understanding social interactions.

The book has three parts and each of these consists of three chapters. The first part provides a strong and convincing argument for the need of new methods and theories for understanding human interactions, by stressing the absence of objects in existing theories, highlighting issues in existing relational approaches in archaeology and suggesting network analysis as a formal method for network thinking. In the first chapter the general context of archaeological as well as non-archaeological thought within which this book was written and to which it tries to contribute is laid out. It states that humans have a drive to interact with each other as well as with objects. Knappett suggests network thinking as a research perspective to understand these interactions and argues that ‘By combining SNA [Social Network Analysis] with ANT [Actor-Network Theory] we can bring together people and things both methodologically and theoretically’ (p. 8). The second chapter highlights some broad trends in the dynamics between relational and non-relational approaches to interaction in archaeology and the social sciences. Relational approaches are generally restricted to a single analytical scale and are performed either from the bottom-up or from the top-down. The author argues that concepts and methods are needed to traverse multiple scales. In the third chapter it is suggested that a networks perspective might provide such concepts and methods. An overview of some formal network analysis techniques is given, with a particular focus on affiliation networks, and some existing archaeological applications are briefly discussed. Knappett concludes that, on the one hand, network analysis has a number of advantages: (1) it forces one to think through relationships, (2) it is explicitly multi-scalar, (3) it can integrate social and physical space (topology and geometry), and (4) both people and things can be included. The author does not forget to mention some of the potential issues with the archaeological use of formal network techniques, however: firstly that network analysis is itself by no means a unified social theory, exemplified by the academic divide between SNA and social physics; secondly that the advanced level of mathematics might surpass the abilities of many archaeologists; and thirdly, there is a clear tendency to be overly structuralist and descriptive.

Throughout the second part of the volume the potential of a multi-scalar networks perspective to interactions between people and objects is explored, with chapters focusing in turn on micro-, meso-, and macro-scales of analysis. The case studies used to illustrate Knappett’s approaches are mainly drawn from the Cretan Bronze Age, the author’s area of expertise. In chapter four Knappett argues that existing approaches to interaction at the micro-scale (including interactionism and praxeology) need to be elaborated by reconciling two aspects of micro-scale interactions: ‘the face-to-face social interactions in which objects seem to be in the background; and the individual-object interactions in which sociality seems to fall into the background’ (p. 68). He goes on to suggest an approach aimed at mapping out hypothetical relations between objects (e.g. pottery types) and people (e.g. potters) as affiliation networks. The author explores this approach in a case study aimed at understanding the changes in micro-scale practice that occurred with the shift from ‘Prepalatial’ to palatial society, focusing in turn on practices of production, distribution and consumption. The author does not use the network as an analytical tool for the study of meso-networks, however, to which he turns his attention in chapter five. Network thinking at this scale is applied through a combination of Peircean semiotics with ‘communities of practice’, an idea which is considered to have useful links with the affiliation networks approach of chapter four. Examples from the archaeology of Bronze Age Crete are used to trace such ‘communities of practice’ by describing trends in the similarities and differences between the distributions of spaces, features and artefacts that might be indicative of production, distribution and consumption practices. Knappett then goes on to argue in chapter six that it is on the macro-scale that ‘network thinking comes into its own’ (p. 124). By giving the example of the popular strength of weak ties and small-world network models he argues that at this scale it becomes particularly clear that the relationship between the structure of a network and its function is not trivial. At this level of analysis we can begin to see how macro-scale structure emerges from micro-scale interactions and why, i.e. what function gives rise to a specific structure. Knappett mentions that dynamic network models are particularly useful for exploring hypothetical processes that give rise to certain network structures. He illustrates this through a discussion of his collaboration with the theoretical physicists Tim Evans and Ray Rivers, which resulted in a network model for maritime interaction in the Middle Bronze Age Aegean. He subsequently extrapolates the object-people networks approach introduced in the previous two chapters to a wider spatiotemporal scale, by looking at the evolution of patterns of production, distribution and consumption from the Prepalatial to the Palatial periods in the southern Aegean.

The first two parts of the book set out a framework for exploring how humans interact based on network thinking. The third part moves away from discussions of how to create and explain hypothetical network structures of objects and people to ask why it is that humans interact in the first place. Three alternative approaches are suggested. In chapter seven Knappett discusses the benefits of object networks. A number of concepts are introduced that place the relationship between object and agent central, and the author sees particular potential for cognitive archaeology approaches combined with ‘exaptive bootstrapping’ applied to typological data (pp. 155-158). Through a number of archaeological examples Knappett then explains trends of change in types of artefacts through these concepts. A second approach is suggested by the author in chapter eight as finding ways to attend to the tension between the type of ‘networks of objects’ described in chapter seven and ‘meshworks of things’, a more fluid understanding of the topology of relationships as suggested by Tim Ingold. In the last chapter Knappett argues that one particular way of thinking about this tension is through the care invested by human groups in human and non-human biographies. The author stresses the need to consider biographies of assemblages rather than just individual objects.

The aim and scope of the book are ambitious to say the least and it is therefore not surprising that as a result in places the arguments are not as convincing as they could be. The underrepresentation of method and how theory could inform method, although a major theme in the book, are particularly vulnerable to this mild criticism (especially in the third part). Indeed, archaeologists might not always find the suggested network methods and their archaeological examples very persuasive (as Knappett himself admits, p. 215). They are largely limited to visualising archaeological hypotheses as networks or describing general trends in the archaeological record by using a relational vocabulary. I believe this is a necessary evil, however, in light of the sheer number of approaches covered, and it certainly does not impede the methodological examples from illustrating their most important contribution to Knappett’s network perspective: they do successfully show their obvious potential for expressing and analysing relational hypotheses by thinking explicitly through networks. Carl Knappett’s An Archaeology of Interaction provides a critical and much-needed framework, offering a range of methods and theories to any scholar ready to explore human interaction through network goggles.

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