4th Annual Central Europe TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group). Vienna, 16–17 October 2017
by Roderick B. Salisbury (firstname.lastname@example.org), Katharina Rebay-Salisbury (Katharina.Rebay-Salisbury@oeaw.ac.at) and Estella Weiss-Krejci (Estella.Weiss-Krejci@oeaw.ac.at)
Recent years have seen an increasing integration of natural science approaches in archaeology, so much that one could argue that the nature of the discipline is shifting from a historical-philosophical subject towards a natural science one. This brings with it a change in the discipline’s epistemology – in which ways knowledge is generated.
Archaeology is inherently cross-disciplinary, borrowing from art history, computer science, geography, biology and other subjects. Many projects today are multi-disciplinary, bringing in experts from different fields. Working in this way has become standard practice in archaeology, but how is this actually done? Do we waver uneasily between subject groups, or are we integrating different kinds of knowledge? In what ways do the paradigms of different disciplines influence the questions explored and the knowledge generated? Is it appropriate to talk about inter-disciplinarity? How are multiple disciplines integrated within actual research? These questions provide the framework for the 4th Annual Central Europe TAG conference, aimed at understanding Disciplinarity in Archaeology.
The conference, organized by the Institute OREA of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and supported by the ERC-funded project VAMOS
and the HERA-project DEEPDEAD
, took place over 16 and 17 October 2017. The first day began with a keynote lecture by Michael Schmitz (Institute for Philosophy, University of Vienna) on “Nature, mind, culture”, which addressed the important question whether the integration of hard science disciplines and methods puts us in danger of losing our original historical and sociological research questions. The speaker reached the optimistic conclusion that archaeology can preserve its identity by occasionally reinventing itself. The use of science methods does not threaten the identity of archaeology if the research is merely influenced but not dictated by the availability of certain kinds of methods and if the explanatory aims are still the reconstruction and understanding of past societies.
This was followed by the first day session Reflections on Inter-disciplinarity. This session explicitly questioned whether the discipline of archaeology is cross-, multi-, inter-, or trans-disciplinary, and whether archaeologists have defined our discipline well enough to even ask these questions (M. Bača). To answer this requires that we know who we were, and who we are now, as technological developments may be adopted much more quickly than new conceptual frameworks, as has been the case in Central Europe (E. Krekovič). Despite archaeological theory being fragmented between historical, processual, and post-modern epistemologies, archaeological methods rely heavily on technological advances in science, engineering, and computing. Unfortunately, these two aspects of archaeological practice do not always move in concert (L. Tevdovski). Furthermore, these divergent epistemologies have tended to focus narrowly on specific kinds of processes, and have not generated understanding of the conditions that make human life meaningful (J. Barrett). One of the challenges of engaging in multi or inter-disciplinary research is the barrier of language (M. Bača) and conceptual (M. Kucera) differences between scientific disciplines, and even more strongly between the sciences and humanities. There is also a strong belief that science approaches generate “hard knowledge” – indisputable facts that are beyond questioning, which can lead to epistemological misunderstandings (M. Milosavljević; M. Kucera). It is fair to say that archaeological practice is methodologically pluralist, and archaeology is perhaps strongest when acting as a plural science, combining the skills and conceptual tools of the natural sciences and humanities (A. Ribeiro).
The second day session was composed of a series of case studies on the theme of Practicing Inter-disciplinarity. Most archaeologists recognize the need for incorporating the results of “hard science” analyses in our work. This includes everything from human bioarchaeology (A. Ion; K. Rebay-Salisbury, Salisbury & Pany-Kucera; A. Anders) to digital image analysis (I. Hein, A. Rojas, M. Ornelas & V. Calzada) to palaeoenvironmental data (M. Kempf; T. Taylor & K. Kowarik). We are perhaps less open to asking whether disciplines like geophysics or chemistry are objective or subjective, or what the limitations of scientific methods are. Archaeologists need to be informed so that we do not over- or underestimate the reliability and precision methods such as stable isotope analysis (M. Depaermentier). Archaeologists also need to be willing to admit ignorance, and ask the experts for advice, even when the experts are not academically trained (A. Bauer). On the other hand, our scientific collaborators are not always aware of, or willing to accept, the limitations of archaeological data. In some cases, archaeologists become data suppliers, and concerns surrounding the comparability of small data sets might be ignored (A. Anders). Migration might be uncritically explained as an event triggered by climate change in a single-mover view of cultural development, despite archaeological evidence that migration is a multi-faceted process (M. Kempf). These presentations provided fundamental insights into whether scientific results are subsumed by archaeological assumptions, or the archaeological contributions (and concerns) lost in the structures and jargon of Science.
These case studies provided examples of issues surrounding language, epistemological concerns, and whether inter-disciplinarity is possible or even worth pursuing. Although the idea of inter-disciplinarity is taken as a good and promoted by funding agencies and international organizations, the reasons why it is good remain unexamined (A. Ion). Similarly, different regional traditions (e.g. German, American, British) have very different definitions of expertise, different systems of managing archaeological and anthropological data, and therefore different ideas of how inter-disciplinary research takes place. These lead to different expectations for how material is handled and who can access the fragmentary and finite resources of human skeletal material (K. Rebay-Salisbury, Salisbury & Pany-Kucera). Disciplinary traditions often dictate who has access to data and in which framework of reference it is examined (M. Baumanova).
A third theme that arose from the conference was of dissemination to other archaeologists and presentation to the public. These now takes place through a multitude of disparate platforms, from social media (D. Hagmann) to journalistic news media, both online and print (E. Weiss-Krejci, Šmejda & Becker) to public expositions (Pauknerová & Kapustka). For archaeologists to be successful, we need to be able to communicate to multiple groups of people, including archaeologists, other scholars and scientists, politicians and the public. This requires the ability to communicate across multiple platforms, and that we become capable communicators in multiple genres. However, archaeologists are sometimes at odds with the discipline of science journalism. While more accepting of, and early adopters of, social media technology, we do not always consider the effects of information and data sharing, intellectual property laws, or the impact of new and exciting information taken out of context.
The conference was not intended to answer whether archaeology is (or is not) in fact inter-disciplinary, and needless to say no single answer was seriously considered. Nevertheless, some very significant conclusions were brought forth, and largely accepted. First was that a pluralist approach to method and theory is more constructive than less inclusive epistemologies. In part, this is because archaeology has always been inherently pluralist, as reflected in the long history of cross-disciplinary activities and the practice of borrowing methods and theories.
Secondly, true inter-disciplinarity, or trans-disciplinarity, is difficult if not impossible when researchers are speaking in quite different scientific ‘languages’. This is only exacerbated in conditions of multi-national projects, which are becoming more and more the norm, and explicitly supported by the EU, the European Science Fund, the EAA, and other international organizations and funding bodies. ‘Doing archaeology’ is increasingly more challenging, but also exciting, as it requires the development of a meta-expertise of many different subjects, in order to understand how methods from different disciplines might contribute to one’s own field.
The breadth of presentations were a strong indication that drawing from multiple disciplines strengthens archaeology and enables us to address larger societal concerns.
It is important to engage with each other’s disciplines intensively to overcome the challenges in transcending disciplinary boundaries, despite real concerns about how and why certain methods are deployed in archaeology.
The program and abstracts of the conference are available online at the ÖAW OREA
. Some papers will be published in a special section of Interdisciplinaria Archaeologica – Natural Sciences in Archaeology (IANSA
), an international, scientific open-access journal.
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