A thousand worlds: sci-fi networks in archaeology

A Guest Post by Tom Brughmans, PhD Student, University of Southamptonrune durham

Here is a common plot in sci-fi literature and movies (based on a popular physics model): the world you know is but one in an endless range of parallel universes, where each one is slightly different. Who would ever have thought this would be a good starting point for archaeological discussions? Yet the meeting in Durham I recently attended showed that parallel universes might have more in common with archaeology than we think.

I was invited by Rune Rattenborg to join a workshop in Durham called ‘A Thousand Worlds: Network Models in Archaeology’. This concept of a thousand worlds can be interpreted in an archaeological research context in different ways. On the one hand, and most similar to the sci-fi parallel universes plot, you could think about the many different reconstructions of past realities that could all explain a single archaeological pattern. Literally thousands of hypotheses could be raised to explain a certain pattern, each of them suggesting different mechanisms driving human behaviour and ultimately its expression in the archaeological record. On the other hand, you could think about the many academic perspectives archaeologists find useful for understanding the past. Perspectives ranging from highly quantitative (you can place me in that camp) to very qualitative, from local to global, from scientific to philosophical, and from an explicitly present-day perspective to attempting to recreate past perspectives. Each one of these is a valid way of thinking about past human behaviour and behavioural change (or rather every configuration or combination of these perspectives).

Both of these interpretations motivated Rune to title his workshop ‘A Thousand Worlds’. He noticed that archaeologists interested in questions of past connectivity and those of us using network perspectives often address the challenges we are faced with in very different ways. The only common ground of most network perspectives seems to be that the relationships between entities are considered crucial to understanding the behaviour of these entities. For example, the romantic relationship between two individuals will affect the decision to stay in and watch a Hugh Grant romantic comedy or to go out for a beer with the guys. But Rune also noticed that each perspective allows for a wide variety of reconstructions of past realities. These two issues seem to confuse archaeologists who might be interested in using such a network perspective in their archaeological research. I totally agree with Rune’s motivation to create some order in this chaos. The main questions of this workshop therefore were: what different network perspectives are out there? What rules govern them? What do they allow us to do that we could not do before? And what are their limitations?

To some extent the meeting was successful in addressing these questions. A number of very different perspectives were discussed by selected proponents: I introduced an extremely formal network science approach, which was discussed rather more pragmatically by Anna Collar; Michelle de Gruchy highlighted some interesting challenges in a geographical context; another group of presenters (Kristoffer Damgaard, Eivind Heldaas Seland, Sofie Laurine Albris, Rune Rattenborg) used the concept of connectivity and explored how it could be reflected in archaeological and literary sources. Finally Ronan O’Donnell introduced the actor-network theory (ANT) perspective through a fascinating case study on a post-Medieval landscape in Northumberland, UK, from which the strong difference between the aims of the ANT and network science research perspectives became particularly clear.

Nevertheless, by the end of the meeting it became clear that we were not entirely successful in addressing the many questions we set out to answer. Eivind Heldaas Seland skilfully summarised each paper and formulated three key questions that require more attention: how can these different perspectives and approaches usefully work together? What is the added value of some of these compared to a more traditional description of our sources? How can we better use these perspectives in the future? The fact that we were unsuccessful at addressing these questions shows how complex and non-trivial they are (and we also ran out of discussion time). But for what it’s worth, I take this opportunity to share some of my thoughts on these questions, combined with some of the points I picked up from others during the discussion.

First of all, I believe the first question presents the false impression that the different network perspectives can and need to work together. I would argue that, many network perspectives do not need to and most of them do not work well together at all. This is because some of them (like ANT and network science) are designed to address very different questions. But even those approaches that have more in common, like the quantitative vs. qualitative use of network science, don’t necessarily need to be combined into an almighty network approach. There is no need for a great unifying theory or method in archaeology, not even for one that just focuses on questions of connectivity. Rather, I consider the different network perspectives as tools that function according to certain rules, and once these rules are known the tools have a potential to make small but crucial contributions to our knowledge of the past. I believe that if we are to ever achieve the full potential of these exciting new approaches for archaeology we will need to first critically explore them in isolation.

Secondly, the added value of these perspectives is more obvious than how they should be applied. Many in the audience seemed to agree that the concept of the network itself is a powerful tool to think with. It forces us to consider the potentially important role played by relationships between entities (however defined: humans, molecules, parallel universes), which might allow us to ask and answer new questions. For me the added value lies in the recognition that all archaeologists make assumptions about the nature of such relationships when they formulate hypotheses about past phenomena. It can be useful to think about these assumptions in terms of network concepts and, most importantly, there is a real need to be critically aware of their existence and formulate them clearly. Network science can help archaeologists to think about their assumptions of past relationships, to formally express them (in words and/or in numbers), and to evaluate their implications for past behavioural change and its reflection in the archaeological record.

Finally, the “better use” of such approaches and perspectives is not optional, it is necessary if they are ever to become useful within an archaeological research context. However, a critical use and application is not just a critical awareness of the rules that govern them. Rather, an equal if not larger effort should be afforded to the archaeological interpretation of network science results, or the differences in the interpretative process that a networks perspective implies. I believe none of the scholars that attended the Durham meeting would disagree with that. The studies they presented could be roughly divided into two groups: those that THINK through network and those that DO networks. I believe the former is more important than the latter, because there can be no doing without thinking. Although this sounds like an obvious statement it is worth emphasising it because the use of quantitative network analysis is too often treated like a “black box” approach, which it is not. Every network science study in archaeology, no matter how quantitative, aims to better understand (aspects of) past phenomena. When doing so, the scholar formulates a hypothesis, expresses their assumptions about past relationships and their roles, or at least clearly defines what they mean by the network concepts they use. Only after this phase of network thinking can a scholar proceed to network doing, which involves representing hypotheses/assumptions/the archaeological record as network data (points and lines, and what they mean). The ability to use advanced quantitative tools should not be an excuse for the post-hoc imposition of a theoretical framework that fits the results nicely; nor should the appeal of using fashionable network concepts lead to reluctance to formally express what is meant by them and to evaluate their implications for understanding past phenomena.

Even though none of the three key questions about the role of the networks perspective in archaeology can be conclusively answered at this time, I felt that its future is nevertheless bright. The diversity of possible approaches and perspectives is encouraging and will lead to critical research that promises to help archaeologists better evaluate what approach is useful for their studies of past connectivity, and what is not. Some of these approaches might require multi-disciplinary collaboration, especially the more scary and maths-heavy techniques in the network science toolbox. But archaeologists should never be tempted to outsource the network thinking part of the process. Critical knowledge of the archaeological literature and data leads to an awareness of the relevant research questions, and the same knowledge will lead to valuable interpretations of analytical results and research processes. There might be a thousand pasts out there, and there might be a thousand ways of reaching them, but this quest will always need to be undertaken by archaeologists.

Selected relevant publications:
Brandes, U., Robins, G., McCranie, A., & Wasserman, S. 2013. What is network science? Network Science 1(01): p.1–15.

Brughmans, T. 2013.Thinking through networks: A Review of Formal Network Methods in Archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

Knappett, C. 2011. An archaeology of interaction. Network perspectives on material culture and society. Oxford – New York: Oxford University Press.

About the author:
Tom Brughmans is currently finishing a PhD in archaeology as a member of the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton and at the University of Leuven. His main research interest is to explore the potential of network science for the archaeological discipline. Tom blogs at archaeologicalnetworks.wordpress.com
Twitter: @tombrughmans

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One thought on “A thousand worlds: sci-fi networks in archaeology

  1. The basic divide between those of the speakers that think through networks and those that do networks is a useful point against which to consider the various approaches drawn together in Durham. I for one felt that the main problem for the former lot (quite evident in the more theoretically conservative field of Middle Eastern archaeology where I myself belong) consisted mainly in the lack of explicitly defined heuristic concepts when addressing elements of network. Kristoffer Damgaard made similar observations when contextualising his own work, stating that what he felt lacking in his own original treatment of Red Sea trading in Islamic times was a more explicit and well-defined terminology of modelling when analysing various aspects of trade and interaction. As a logical methodological consequence of doing formal network science, Tom’s approach to the subject was both enlightening and clarifying in particular in this respect.

    My own contribution evolved very much from an initial dissatisfaction with functional frameworks employed in societal narratives of Ancient Near Eastern societies (Yoffee 2004 comprises one excellent critique, although it fails to transform its assertions into a structured alternative). Here, an overt focus on political history, which in turn tends to enforce notions of an absolute and quite static social space, serve to conceal notions of variability and multi-vocality when venturing beyond accounts of the main tenets of society. A rather haphazard use of the word ‘state’, for example, tend to enhance concerns with temporal, and therefore evolutionary, trajectories, which often results in little attention being devoted to the – perhaps – autonomous development of economic infrastructures, ideological networks, or localised political relationships. The discourse of traditional historical narrative here seems to obscure spatial variability. And if looking at networks as a way of relativising historical space, it certainly represents a turn in another direction.

    I found that traces of an emergent interest in relational social ontologies could be seen here and there in general literature. Connectivity, for one, is a popular concept these days (Horden & Purcell 2000 is an popular point of reference), also in fields of historical research that otherwise rarely find the time or need to take in theoretical or methodological developments. Yet I find that much historical research is flawed by the incorporation of these concepts into traditional narratives without a corresponding and explicit enunciation of what this may in turn mean for their overall methodology in the first place, and their understanding of societal ontologies in the second. In other words it appears to me that relational ontologies, such as network, connectivity, and social spaces, can, and should introduce into historical research a much more consistent emphasis on polyphonous strands of social action and historical trajectory.

    Another issue is then my concern with multi-causality and empirical variability in the historical explanation of social action, and this is where there appears – to me, at least – to be some very promising avenues of inquiry present in network models. Yet I am not necessarily drawn towards the quantitative camp (and Tom made an excellent point when stating that taking sides should not be at all a question in this debate). This is firstly because I have yet to find my way in the basic use of network science (a travesty of an excuse for staying in my own comfortable, dogmatic so-and-so), but secondly also because I remain somewhat wary of the emphasis that is naturally placed on tangible attributes in network science. Formal network models do indeed represent a powerful tool in historical and archaeological research, but only if these are coupled with an appreciation of what we do not yet know, the changing meaning of symbols and concepts over time and space (to take Tom’s own case study; are we able to define the intersecting influences on the possibly changing meaning of the inter visibility of sites in the Guadalquivir over time or space, and where would this take us and the initial model? I am sure that Tom and others will respond positively, and the question is posed more as an encouragement rather than a critique).

    ‘A Thousand Worlds’ was then also a title thought to embrace that there are always a number of -quite likely diverging – social relations at play in any one historical or archaeological setting, a series of intersecting networks or infrastructures, to take my own initial starting point for thinking about historical networks (Mann 1986). The challenge presented to the qualitative camp, to my mind, is then to develop a more explicit, coherent understanding and heuristically operational conceptualisation of agents and relationships when studying past society. As many of the papers pointed out, clearly defining concepts and attributes pertaining to models or networks of analysis goes a very long way, and network science certainly excels in demonstrating this particular point. To me, however, it seems important to integrate a wider multidimensional (in lack of a better word) concern when contextualising the application of such models, in part in order to avoid the mire of rigid positivism, but also in order to take thinking about and working with networks beyond the description or explanation of isolated sets of evidence, since their isolation is quite likely of our own making, and should not prevent us from venturing further into the ever more complex particularities of historical or archaeological evidence. Albeit approaching network perspectives from different sides, I definitely agree with Tom in that this represents a very promising field of historical and archaeological inquiry, able to expand and multiply our understanding of the past.

    Horden, P. & Purcell, N. 2000. The Corrupting Sea: a study of Mediterranean history. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Mann, Michael 1986. The Sources of Social Power: Volume 1: A history of power from the beginning to A.D. 1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Yoffee, Norman 2004. Myths of the Archaic State: Evolution of the Earliest Cities, States, and Civilizations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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