New Directions in Interdisciplinary Archaeology
FROM THE OPENING REMARKS BY ROWAN FLAD, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
"On Monday this week, April 11, 2011, Lewis Binford passed away. Many of you may have known Binford personally. I never met him, but, like every other archaeologist trained in North America in the decades since he first started publishing, I was trained as an archaeologist under the impact he had on our field.
His work and that of his contemporaries stimulated profound changes in the way that archaeology is practiced worldwide. The “New Directions” that emerged in the subsequent decades have opened up lines of archaeological inquiry that were previously not even considered.
For instance, at Harvard, as in many American Universities, archaeologists can be found in highest concentrations in departments of Anthropology in part due to the insistence by Binford and others that archaeological research was essentially a form of anthropology. Yet we also have (or have recently had) archaeologists in other departments including the Classics, History, History of Art and Architecture, Human Evolutionary Biology, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, African and African American Studies, Medieval Studies, and East Asian Languages and Civilizations as well as in the Divinity School, the museums, the Medical School and elsewhere, and there are increasingly more similarities among the diverse ways we widely dispersed archaeologists approach our subject.
This conference is part of our efforts at Harvard to bring these widely dispersed archaeologists together. We have invited scholars at the vanguard of the discipline to present the exciting and diverse interdisciplinary field that is archaeology today.
Our first speaker, Barbara Mills, engages with an approach to social interaction that has become increasingly common across the social sciences, but to date has not been actively used in archaeological interpretation – Social Network Analysis. Building on an extensive career in the archaeology of the Southwestern US and the tremendously rich data resources in that region, this engagement with Social Network Analysis shows the effects of migration on community connectivity and illustrates the potential for archaeologists to contribute the perspective of deep time that is a strength of our discipline to the development of social network theory.
Our second presenter, Matthew Johnson, explores the case of Bodiam Castle to illustrate how and why narrow disciplinary approaches to archaeological and historical interpretation are inadequate and require increasing dialogue. He shows us how interpretation at multiple scales allows us to more satisfactorily engage with multiple interpretive dispositions in our quest to understand archaeological contexts.
Our third speaker Meg Conkey challenges the “situated” notions that are used to describe our prehistoric ancestors. She argues that the empirical basis of archaeological interpretation can be embraced while simultaneously adopting a self-conscious and critical standpoint. Her “Between the Caves” project shows how a feminist standpoint can be used to interpret aspects of social interaction in the past and the present.
Each of our invited papers will be followed by two discussants; one will be a Harvard archaeologist; and the other will be a Harvard faculty member who, before receiving an invitation from us last August, may never have imagined him- or herself addressing an archaeology symposium. We will be hearing from sociologists, social anthropologists, historians of several stripes, evolutionary biologists, and art historians. I would like to draw your attention to the programs which contain brief bios of all the participants. Ideally, everyone will walk away from this symposium with a new angle on our own research issues."
SUMMARY OF SATURDAY’S PROGRAM BY ROWAN FLAD, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
"On Saturday we continued with the remaining five speakers. Their presentations expanded our exploration of the diversity of archaeological research today.
We began, chronologically, close to where we left off – in the Pleistocene. But whereas Meg Conkey explored the theoretical implications of our reconstructions of Paleolithic lifeways, Ian Barnes provided a window into one of the most powerful new sets of tools for examining past human lifeways – Ancient DNA. Much current ancient DNA research is focused on questions of evolutionary biology, but these results have tremendous value for understanding human behavior in the past. Furthermore, methodological advances will make human DNA increasingly a target of research in the future.
From Barnes’ focus on the biological, we shifted to a talk focused on objects by Shannon Dawdy. Using Walter Benjamin as a starting point, she examined the historical archaeology of historical New Orleans by focusing on historical ruptures, everyday aesthetics and the afterlife of objects. Her talk provided lessons about the complex and layered meanings imbedded and inherent in all archaeological objects – lessons that can relate to all the other work being presented.
We continued with Tony Wilkinson, who moved us out from an object focus to one that focuses on multiple, larger scales. The individual, family, community and region are all integrated through their engagement with landscape. Wilkinson explained how “sites,” “features,” “settlement districts” and entire macro-regions need to be brought into dialogue with one another in archaeological research. This agenda has the potential of bringing scholarship from a wide range of disciplines together, including environmental sciences, agent-based modeling, urban planning and social theory.
Next we heard from Christopher Loveluck, whose discussion of Northwest Europe during the 7th to 12th centuries relates to Wilkinson’s focus on social tensions and to the networks discussed by Mills on Friday. Ports and coastal zones are the focus of discussion as he challenges expectations of how people lived in borderlands that served as culturally and socially liminal spaces.
Finally, we turned to Ann Stahl who examined one aspect of a topic that practically every archaeological course at Harvard considers during the last several weeks of a semester – namely the ethical and contemporary implications of archaeological research and interpretation. Her discussion of community and collaboration emerges from her archaeological research in Ghana but focuses more broadly on an issue central to the “broader impacts” (to use the NSF politically charged parlance) of all archaeological work. Like Conkey’s paper yesterday, she challenges us to reflect on the implications of traditional archaeological practice."
CONCLUSIONS: THE SIGNIFICANCE OF INTERDISCIPLINARY APPROACHES TO ARCHAEOLOGY
"Lewis Binford, whom we discussed at the beginning of the conference, famously adopted the mantra that archaeology is anthropology. We can see that contemporary archaeologists recognize that this is true, but that it is not only anthropology. Archaeology is biology, history, art history, chemistry, geophysics, geography, geology, computer science, museum studies, ethnography, comparative religion, linguistics, semiotics, etc...
No two papers presented in New Directions entirely overlap in terms of primary foci, yet there were overlaps that suggest some of the interdisciplinary directions that archaeology is taking. The common themes identified include, focus on alliances / politics; scale; “landscape”; mobility / migration; stakeholder communities; marginality; intersections between history and archaeology that extend beyond traditional conceptualizations of “historical archaeology”; emphasis on multiple narratives with empirical roots, and finally, networks / pathways / connectivities.
Not all archaeologists study all of these things, but all archaeologists must increasingly contemplate the connections to all of these disciplines and others. “Collaboration” – a concern of the last paper and of Suzanne Blier’s comments on it – is an essential aspect of current, interdisciplinary approaches to archaeology."