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Hyperne Interactions 150: 711, 2003. 2003 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

Bridging the Gap between Archaeology and the Physical Sciences

Department of Anthropology, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802, USA Abstract. The collaboration between archaeologists and representatives of the physical sciences is often rendered difcult by differing training and expectations, poor mutual understanding, inconsistent terminologies, and a lack of time and willingness to bridge these gaps. In this paper some thoughts and suggestions on research design and interpretation in interdisciplinary studies are brought forth and suggestions towards a fruitful collaboration are made. Key words: archaeology, typology, archaeometry, analyses of artefacts.

1. Introduction This paper comments on collaborative research between archaeologists and physical scientists, particularly in the analysis and interpretation of the technology of ancient objects. I write as someone who is primarily a eld archaeologist though I have worked closely with scientists in a laboratory setting. This experience has allowed me to see both the great potential of collaborative work and the occasional difculties of communicating across disciplines. Here, I offer some observations to bridge possible gaps in understanding and make some general suggestions for designing interdisciplinary projects. My comments are directed towards physical scientists who may work with archaeologists from a (confusingly) wide range of backgrounds, as well as archaeologists who hope to answer research questions using archaeometric techniques. 2. What do archaeologists do? Archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains. These remains are systematically recorded and collected from the surface or through excavation and their characteristics and patterning are used to make interpretations about the people who left them behind. Beyond this common ground, there is a great deal of variation in epistemologies, theoretical outlooks, and research practices at national, institutional, and individual levels. There are differences and sometimes disagreement over whether archaeology falls within the sciences or humanities, or whether the goal of research is to understand the particular history of a region or culture or to compare across regions and cultures in order to make


general observations. This variation affects everything from the kinds of research questions posed, to excavation and recording practices, the sampling of artifacts for analysis, the kind of logic applied to drawing inferences from the artifacts, and the language (or jargon) that is used to discuss results (see, for example, [1]). 3. Why study technology? Not surprisingly, the reasons for archaeological studies of technology also vary. First, there is a certain appeal in simply knowing how something was made, particularly when the techniques are complex or difcult to reconstruct. Second, evidence for a particular technology might be used to date an object. Third, patterns or changes in technology can reect larger economic, social, or political processes or events. A detailed discussion of the third point can be found in a recent article by Sillar and Tite [2]. The authors comment on the current interest in technological choice the idea that all technologies can be seen as a series of choices (in raw materials, tools, energy sources, techniques and production sequence) and that these choices are shaped by both cultural and physical realities. For example, pottery manufacturing choices are as much tied to cultural practices and ideas about how pots are made as they are to local ecology and the desired physical attributes of the pots. There may be many ways to make a sturdy cooking pot given available materials but the particular clays chosen and the techniques used to form, nish, and re the vessels are linked to such diverse factors as the organisation of the potters, their social identity, the perception of different raw materials and fuels, and the integration of pottery-making with other activities. The potential for applying techniques from the physical sciences to the study of technological choice is obvious. For example, Mssbauer spectroscopy can be used to reconstruct choices in pottery ring, a key step in the manufacturing process. These choices can then be placed within a larger social context. For example, administrators of the Andean Inka Empire recruited artisans from among conquered groups to make goods, such as pottery, in supervised workshops. These potters continued to manufacture pots using their own techniques, but they may have been retrained to re Inka ceremonial jars with Inka techniques as was revealed through analyses using Mssbauer spectroscopy, X-ray diffraction, and study of thin sections [3, 4]. The archaeometric analyses complemented the observations made at excavations of Inka workshops. They provided pieces of the puzzle, not accessible through other means, of how labour was organised in the imperial provinces. 4. Archaeometry and archaeological research design Beyond purely methodological or descriptive studies, the usefulness of any archaeometric analysis depends on its t with the overall research design. One persistent problem is that the integration of archaeometric analyses and archaeological research questions is often poor or lacking [59]. Often, this is the fault of ar-


chaeologists who treat the analytical work as a service, rather than as part of an interdisciplinary, cooperative research endeavour. Ideally, collaboration and the exchange of ideas take place from the beginning of the project, long before heading out into the eld. Rather than incorporating archaeometric analyses as an afterthought, it is preferable to discuss the research questions and goals beforehand, and to work together to identify appropriate methods and to devise a sampling scheme. Grant proposal budgets should include adequate funding to support the analyses as well as meetings between collaborators and visits to the eld (for the physical scientist) and lab (for the archaeologist). On the part of the archaeologist, successful collaboration requires providing as much background information (such as maps, publications, and photographs) as possible. Terms, particularly systems of classication or typology, need to be clearly explained. For any given region, artifacts are classied based on characteristics such as material, shape, decoration, or colour. These classications are thought to represent different groups of people and periods of time. The delineation of types is based on the observation that styles come in, have a period of use or popularity, then go out. Just as it is possible to identify cars or clothing from different places and times based on their material, technology, and appearance, these same criteria can be used to classify artifacts. In some cases, the types are based on general observations; in others, types are identied through statistical analyses of artifact attributes. Type names may include physical characteristics (e.g., thin orange pottery) geographic place names (the site where the type was rst dened, a nearby river, the name of the region), the period or people to whom they are attributed, or a combination of these features (e.g., Godin III Painted Buff). Specialists working in a region may have particular naming conventions, but these are not universal. To an outsider, type names are meaningless. Thus the archaeologist is responsible for clearly explaining the classication and its signicance, since sampling schemes are often based on testing ideas about the production, use or distribution of particular types. At present, it is unusual for the physical scientist to participate in the eldwork or for the archaeologist to work in the analysts lab, but this arrangement has obvious benets. First, it greatly facilitates communication, as discussion and e-mail messages can only give a partial picture of the work done at both ends. Second, the physical scientist in the eld can see the full range of artifacts (not just the bits that arrive at the lab) and more importantly their contexts, advise on object sampling, and identify conditions (such as potential sources of contamination) which might affect the analyses. The scientist can also help plan and supervise any experimental work done in the eld [10]. An archaeologist working in the lab learns how the different analytical techniques work, provides instant feedback when there are questions about particular samples, or patterns or anomalies in the results, and (as my colleagues gently remind me) comes to appreciate the amount of work involved in sample preparation and analysis and in the interpretation of results. An additional benet of close interaction in eld and lab is that it sparks



the kind of spontaneous, creative brain storming that improves or renes a project in progress and inspires new directions for research. Improved training in the archaeological sciences will also help ensure the productive linkage of eldwork and laboratory analyses [5, 7, 9, 11, 12]. One promising development is the creation of departments or concentrations within departments in archaeological science that emphasise both archaeology and the analytical techniques (e.g., the University of Bradford). Internships or fellowships at archaeological science facilities (such as the Missouri University Research Reactor or the Conservation Analytical Laboratory at the Smithsonian Institution) provide rst-hand experience for the archaeologist (generally graduate students or recent Ph.D.s) in the analysts lab. Killick and Young suggest that a course that concentrates on making archaeologists educated consumers of archaeometry should be required of all archaeologists [8]. Ideally, such a course would not simply introduce different techniques but would also demonstrate their integration into research designs that investigate well-framed archaeological questions. Who could teach these courses? Either the (rare) individual with strong backgrounds in the natural or physical sciences and archaeology, or a pair or team of instructors in these elds. For schools in the United States that lack large science programs, a new initiative at MIT aims to introduce archaeological science into undergraduate curricula by providing training for faculty from liberal arts colleges <>.

5. Summary Archaeometric studies have great potential to deepen our understanding of ancient technologies and their social contexts. This potential can only be realised through close collaboration between archaeologists and physical scientists that requires discussion and the exchange of ideas throughout the research process, from proposal writing through eldwork, sample selection, analyses, and write-up. Together with improved education and training, efforts towards truly integrated research designs will go far to bridge the gap in archaeological science.

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