Review of ‘An Archaeology of Interaction’ in Antiquity

June 12, 2012

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.

Arts, Humanities, and Complex Networks ebook now out!

April 12, 2012

Leonardo (the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology) and MIT Press produced a new ebook that confirms the Arts and Humanities finally form a valuable part of the growing group of disciplines often associated with complex network research. The ebook edited by Maximilian Schich, Roger Malina and Isabel Meirelles is a collection of 26 short articles based on presentations at the Arts, Humanities, and Complex Networks Leonardo Days at the NetSci conferences, the High Throughput Humanities conference, and most were previously published in Leonardo journal. The works by specialists in fields as diverse as archaeology, history, music, visualisation and language studies illustrate that the Arts and Humanities can make original contributions to complex network research and provide fascinating new perspectives in a wide range of disciplines. A nice online companion was launched together with the ebook.

The volume includes two contributions by researchers from The University of Southampton: the Google Ancient Places project is discussed by Leif Isaksen and colleagues, and the Urban Connectivity in Iron Age and Roman Southern Spain project was introduced by Simon Keay, Graeme Earl and myself. You can find a draft of that last article on my bibliography page.

You can order the ebook on Amazon.

Do check it out!

Here is the full table of contents:

Preface by Roger Malina
Introduction by Isabel Meirelles and Maximilian Schich

I Networks in Culture

Networks of Photos, Landmarks, and People
David Crandall and Noah Snavely

GAP: A NeoGeo Approach to Classical Resources
Leif Isaksen et al.

Complex Networks in Archaeology: Urban Connectivity in Iron Age and Roman Southern Spain
Tom Brughmans, Simon Keay, and Graeme Earl

II Networks in Art

Sustaining a Global Community: Art and Religion in the Network of Baroque Hispanic-American Paintings
Juan Luis Suárez, Fernando Sancho, and Javier de la Rosa

Marek Claassen

When the Rich Don’t Get Richer: Equalizing Tendencies of Creative Networks
John Bell and Jon Ippolito

The Mnemosyne Atlas and The Meaning of Panel 79 in Aby Warburg’s Oeuvre as a Distributed Object
Sara Angel

Documenting Artistic Networks: Anna Oppermann’s Ensembles Are Complex Networks!
Martin Warnke and Carmen Wedemeyer

Net-Working with Maciunas
Astrit Schmidt-Burkhardt

Network Science: A New Method for Investigating the Complexity of Musical Experiences in the Brain
Robin W. Wilkins et al.

Networks of Contemporary Popular Musicians
Juyong Park

III Networks in the Humanities

The Making of Sixty-Nine Days of Close Encounters at the Science Gallery
Wouter Van den Broeck et al.

Social, Sexual and Economic Networks of Prostitution
Petter Holme

06.213: Attacks with Knives and Sharp Instruments: Quantitative Coding and the Witness To Atrocity
Ben Miller

The Social Network of Dante’s Inferno
Amedeo Cappelli et al.

A World Map of Knowledge in the Making: Wikipedia’s Inter-Language Linkage as a Dependency Explorer of Global Knowledge Accumulation
Thomas Petzold et al.

Evolution of Romance Language in Written Communication: Network Analysis of Late Latin and Early Romance Corpora
Alexander Mehler et al.

Need to Categorize: A Comparative Look at the Categories Of Universal Decimal Classification System and Wikipedia
Almila Akdag Salah et al.

The Development of the Journal Environment of Leonardo
Alkim Almila Akdag Salah and Loet Leydesdorff

IV Art about Networks

Tell Them Anything but the Truth: They Will Find Their Own. How We Visualized the Map of the Future with Respect to the Audience of Our Story
Michele Graffieti et al.

Model Ideas: From Stem Cell Simulation to Floating Art Work
Jane Prophet

Culture, Data and Algorithmic Organization
George Legrady

Cybernetic Bacteria 2.0
Anna Dumitriu

Narcotic of the Narrative
Ward Shelley

V Research in Network Visualization

Building Network Visualization Tools to Facilitate Metacognition Incomplex Analysis
Barbara Mirel

Pursuing the Work of Jacques Bertin
Nathalie Henry Riche

Maps of citations

October 26, 2011

These days it is easy to trace down heaps of literature on a specific topic. But how can you manage those mountains of scholarly information? I just read a cool article on citation network analysis, a set of metrics and visualisation tools that helps you to do just that.

Imagine a Google Maps of scholarship, a set of tools sophisticated enough to help researchers locate hot research, spot hidden connections to other fields, and even identify new disciplines as they emerge in the sprawling terrain of scholarly communication.

The article discusses Bergstrom and West’s Eigenfactor metric. More than just the number of citations an article receives, the Eigenfactor metric weights the source of the publication. So an article published in Nature that was cited 20 times will be more prominent than an article published in ‘The Hampshire Journal of Late Medieval Pottery’ cited an equal number of times. Citation networks are just full of stories about how researchers think, build on ideas and elaborate on them.

And I think this is extremely cool! Some of my own work on citation networks of archaeological papers will follow soon.

For now, do have a look at the awesome motion graphs on the Eigenfactor website. You can explore the evolution of the number of articles and their influence through time. Check out Anthropology for example under which all the archaeology journals are grouped. You will see that journals like Antiquity, Journal of Archaeological Science and American Antiquity have a relatively lower impact (according to the eigenfactor metric) compared to Current Anthropology and Journal of Human Evolution for example.

Conference Newcastle ‘Networks and Scales’ 23 May

May 17, 2011

I would just like to remind you all that next Monday the School of Historical Studies at Newcastle University will host a Postgraduate conference titled ‘Networks and Scales: Relating the local and the global’. I will present a paper myself on issues surrounding the archaeological application of network analysis, the potential of a multi-scalar network method, and show examples from the ‘Urban connectivity in Iron Age and Roman Southern Spain’ project directed by Simon Keay and Graeme Earl.

I am very much looking forward to the event, the list of speakers looks very promising.

Have a look for yourself:

This interdisciplinary conference seeks to address the notion of networks across boundaries and disciplines. Are we aware of the networks within which our subjects exist? Do we address sufficiently issues of network and scale in the past? How do we make connections between the often narrow focus of doctoral research and the local and global scales within which we practice?

The variety of papers that we were offered has been thrilling and it has been a great pleasure to organise what looks set to be an interesting and stimulating day. The papers transcend the disciplines of archaeology, history, ancient history, classics and history of medicine bringing together diverse research interests and a range of researchers united by a common interest in connecting different people, places and things, building links between data and interpretation and locating the local or individual in broader networks. We hope that today will provide the opportunity for our speakers and audience to both explore and create new networks.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank the people without whom today would not be possible. Firstly, our sincere thanks to Professor Keith Wrightson and Professor Norman McCord for offering their continued support for the poster and paper prizes respectively. Our thanks are also due to the judging panels for said prizes. In addition we would like to thank the School of Historical Studies for their financial support, and in particular Dr. Helen Berry, director of postgraduate studies. We are grateful to those who have submitted posters, and hope that you have found it a useful experience. We would like to thank our speakers for offering such varied and intriguing abstracts and, we are sure, thought-provoking and interesting papers.

Finally, it is a great pleasure to welcome Professor Richard Hingley of Durham University as our key note speaker. We are honoured to have him address the conference and can think of no better way to end the day than with his lecture on networking frontiers.

Schedule for the Day

9.30am – Registration in the Research Beehive

Exploring Network Theories

10.00am Tom Brughmans – Complex networks in archaeology: Urban connectivity in Roman southern Spain

10.30am Keith Scholes – Recovering past networks : An approach to Early Medieval trade and communications

11am Coffee

11.30am Piotr Jacobsson – Re-assembling Aceramic Cyprus

12.00pm Louise Tolson- Exclusive/Inclusive: Public involvement and collaboration in the archaeology of the recent past

12.30pm Lunch

Scaling Sickness and Health

1.30pm Michelle Gamble – Bones, people and populations: A palaeopathological case study from Chalcolithic Cyprus

2.00pm Graham Butler – “Elizabeth Ferney, having procured a foul distemper, ordered into the workhouse until cured”: The Parish, the parish workhouse and parochial medicine in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1770-1830

2.30pm Coffee

Networks of Power

3.00pm David Linden – One Nation Networking: Baroness Elles and European Toryism

3.30pm Fiona Noble – Sulla and Aphrodisias: Greek and Roman Interaction in the 1st century BC.

4.00pm Jonathan Dugdale – Pagodas, Patronage and Power: The Role of State Sponsored Buddhism in Liao Dynasty China

4.30pm Coffee and Judging of the Keith Wrightson Poster Prize

5.15pm Presentation of the Keith Wrightson Poster Prize and the Norman McCord Prize for the best paper

5.30pm Key Note Address

Professor Richard Hingley – ‘Networking the study of frontiers’

6.30pm Wine reception and dinner at Barkolo.

Social networks and genomes join forces

February 24, 2011

Tracking transmission: Scientists used social-network analysis to find the origins of an outbreak of tuberculosis (top). A patient designated MT0001 was thought to be ground zero for the outbreak, with other patients represented as circles. After sequencing bacteria genomes, scientists could track how the microbes moved from person to person (bottom), and discovered that there were two independent outbreaks. Credit: New England Journal of Medicine

I read an interesting article today on ‘Technology Review’ titled ‘Social Networking’s Newest Friend: Genomics’. It describes a recently published study on the emergence and spread of TB in British Columbia. In order to pinpoint the source of the disease, scholars did not only trace whole-genomes of the microbes responsible, but they combined this with a survey of the affected medium-sized community. By mapping possible interactions between individuals and examining DNA sequences attested, they were able to track the disease back to two independent sources.

This is a clear example of how social networks can be relevant “in real-time” as the data becomes available, to solve real problems. If the sources of such diseases can be identified early on, then officials and the community can take measures to prevent it from spreading even more. It is generally accepted in epidemology that human networks are media for the spread of disease and network approaches have been very popular to understand such processes. By combining a networks approach with genomics, however, an innovative and extremely detailed picture can be painted of a disease’s passage through a community.

This research is not an exception to commonly accepted issues surrounding social network analysis, however. Although I do not doubt the researchers did a thorough survey of the population focusing on a diversity of parameters to construct their networks, the limitation of types of relationships to those that we think might be influential as well as the formalisation/quantification of such relationships remain a necessary evil. It is very hard with such an approach to stumble upon unconnected clusters or parameters that were not thought to be of influence, for example. Basic sampling issues. Also, the construction of a thoroughly qualified social network takes time! I very much doubt that such an approach can be performed at the same speed as the spread of many modern-day diseases.

Having said that, this is a beautiful example of how two largely unrelated perspectives can lead to a completely new approach that enhances the results of both.

Facebooking the past (draft)

February 2, 2011

I recently finished a first draft of the paper I presented at TAG in Bristol last December. It discusses the assumptions and issues surrounding the use of Social Network Analysis for Archaeology. I like to believe that the paper is very readable. It starts with a short fiction about Cicero who used Facebook and Twitter from his iPhone 4 to become consul of Rome … in 63BC. This story becomes relevant in the latter part of the paper, however, where I stress the importance of realising that when we think through a networks perspective we assume that networks must have existed in the past.

I would love any kind of feedback on this working paper! You can download it from the bibliography page (first one in the list).


Facebook currently has over 500 million active users, only six years after its launch in 2004. The social networking website’s viral spread and its direct influence on the everyday lives of its users troubles some and intrigues others. It derives its strength in popularity and influence through its ability to provide a digital medium for social relationships.

This paper is not about Facebook at all. Rather, through this analogy the strength of relationships between people becomes apparent most dramatically. Undoubtedly social relationships were as crucial to stimulating human actions in the past as they are in the present. In fact, much of what we do as archaeologists aims at understanding such relationships. But how are they reflected in the material record? And do social network analysis techniques aimed at understanding such relationships help archaeologists understand past social relationships?

This paper explores the assumptions and issues involved in applying a social network perspective in archaeology. It argues that the nature of archaeological data makes its application in archaeology fundamentally different from that in social and behavioural sciences. As a first step to solving the identified issues it will suggest an integrated approach using ego-networks, popular whole-network models, multiple networks and affiliation networks, in an analytical process that goes from method to phenomena and back again.

‘Connecting the dots’ on Electric Archaeologist

October 7, 2010

On his Electric Archaeologist blog Shawn Graham just wrote a very kind comment on my recently published article titled ‘Connecting the dots: towards archaeological network analysis’ published in Oxford Journal of Archaeology Volume 29, Issue 3, pages 277–303, August 2010.

Shawn writes: “It is well worth a read. He provides a corrective to my own focus on networks as social networks, pointing out quite rightly that there’s more to it than that” and “Tom’s article has given me much food for thought… “.

You can download the full paper (pre-published version) from my bibliography page.