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Integrating Qualitative and Social Science Factors in Archaeological Modelling

Saqalli, Mehdi and Vander Linden, Marc (Eds.)
Springer-Verlag: Berlin, 2019
ISBN 9783030127220 (hb)

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Reviewed by Dries Daems
KU Leuven, Belgium

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While computational modelling has a long history in archaeology, which goes back to the 1960s and 1970s, modelling has recently been gaining even more ground in archaeological theory and methodology. Archaeological modelling entails the formalisation of arguments, factors and (interactive) processes that constitute our reasoning in the archaeological discipline. Whereas many existing works particularly cover the need for quantification, this book fills a rather under-explored niche by focusing on the usage of qualitative social factors in archaeological modelling. The volume brings together a line-up of highly qualified and specialised authors covering a wide range of topics through multiple theoretical and methodological approaches.

The first contribution by Saqalli and colleagues deepens some of the theoretical reflections initiated in the introduction — such as the epistemological role of modelling as a generative methodology — and offers a broad set of operational considerations on model building, such as the challenges of model parameterization and the inherent trade-offs between simplicity and complexity. In the second chapter, Barcelo and colleagues focus on the concept of ethnogenesis to show how even seemingly simple models based on similarity measures can help elucidate topics such as identity and group formation. Bentley and O’Brien use radiocarbon and faunal data from the European Neolithic to trace the co-evolution of dairy production and lactase persistence. They particularly emphasize that evolutionary theories of niche construction, while often applied as a conceptual framework, are hardly testable empirically with the available archaeological data. The chapter by Le Néchet and colleagues focuses on the construction of a multi-agent model to study the interaction with forager groups as a key element facilitating the expansion of Bantu farmers beyond environmental zones that were unsuited to their traditional subsistence practices. The chapter by Read does not explicitly employ computational modelling approaches but shows how mathematically-driven simplifications can help understand kinship terminology systems and the behavioural consequences of cultural rules. In her chapter on Late Chalcolithic pottery production practices, Roux elaborates an extensive critique on evolutionary models of cultural transmission and technological change. Building on the chaîne opératoire approach, she argues that technical traits offer far better proxies for cultural transmission and social learning than morphometric traits typically employed in evolutionary approaches. The final chapter by Carrer and colleagues emphasizes the challenges of using ethnographic data to inform the implementation of behavioural strategies as simulation parameters. They instead argue for a reversed approach, i.e., applying simulations to inform ethnoarchaeological case studies. They apply this approach to an ethnoarchaeological case study of land use pattern during the 18th and 19th centuries in the Alpine region of Northern Italy.

Many of these chapters grapple in some way with the question of how non-modeller archaeologists are allowed to engage with their works, as well as how to strike the balance between the need for simplicity and descriptiveness. Several contributions also muse on the role of computational modelling as a core focal point in archaeology or specialized niche activity. The editors explicitly state that it is not their intention to advocate for computational modelling to take front and centre in archaeological practices. They rightly note that the great diversity of modelling approaches offers fresh perspectives to archaeological research approaches, without necessarily elevating it to the new norm. To do so, it is essential that the archaeological discipline and the modelling community develop a mutual understanding. In this respect, the editors strongly emphasize that (despite potential institutional obstacles) modelling should be considered an inherently interdisciplinary endeavour, involving specialists (modellers and non-modellers alike) from different fields in all stages of the research process.

The call for increased interdisciplinarity, the tension between model simplicity and descriptiveness and the need for continued integration of modelling in archaeological practices, are all pertinent issues for modelling approaches in archaeology. This book offers an important contribution to these lofty goals by highlighting the need for integration and formalization of qualitative factors (the traditional purview of non-modeller archaeologists) in archaeological modelling. In the concluding chapter, the editors admit that current efforts still focus strongly on social-ecological variables that act as constraining factors of variability and provide testable data for model validations. Purely social factors such as norms, rules and customs still remain elusive in many modelling approaches. In their contribution, Saqalli and colleagues argue that a full-fledged qualitative modelling approach will have to define which variables are to be considered first to then achieve findings advancement. Here, the authors briefly touch upon some potential outlines for a future research agenda, which is otherwise not really discussed throughout the volume and could perhaps have been addressed more extensively. This is, however, a minor critique on an otherwise splendid volume.

In short, this book provides an excellent resource for both archaeological modellers and non-modellers and constitutes an important first step in bridging the gap between these two communities.


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