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The University of Southampton
TAG 2016 Southampton

S15. Integrating Science, Technology and Theory in Prehistoric Archaeology

Session organizers:

Sophy Charlton (Natural History Museum, London, and Andy Needham (University of York,

Session abstract:

Prehistoric archaeology is at its best when scientific, technological and theoretical approaches can be integrated, creating dynamic approaches to myriad research questions, and providing a greater understanding of the archaeological past. It is increasingly important for the theorist to engage with scientific and technological approaches, and for the scientist to engage with theoretical approaches, not least to facilitate effective research collaborations.

The 21st century has seen the expansion of archaeological science, with the increasing use of aDNA, isotopic, proteomic, and ZooMS analyses providing new information on bone identification, diet, health and the movement of humans and animals. In tandem with this, the emergence of non-destructive and digital technologies, such as raman spectroscopy, pXRF, pXRD, 3D modelling and photogrammetry, has allowed for the analysis of diverse highly delicate and rare finds to be studied in unprecedented levels of detail and to be disseminated to a broader audience. New and refined techniques for dating, such as ultrafiltration and pre-treatment in radiocarbon, and advances in uranium series dating, have also allowed for increasing accuracy in the dating of material culture and sites. Alongside these scientific advances, the 21st century has also given rise to increasingly rich theoretical frameworks to explore cognition, the continued elaboration of non-western ontologies as an alternative to western assumptions, and a resurgence of interest in material culture, expressed through materiality as well as how things interact, such as new work on entanglement theory (Hodder 2012; 2016) and assemblage theory (Bennett 2010).

At present however, there still remains somewhat of a gap to be bridged between science and theory in prehistoric archaeology - a degree of epistemological division between ‘two cultures’ running in parallel (Snow 1959). As such, this session aims to create a forum for the discussion of how diverse scientific techniques and theoretical approaches can be combined to explore future research questions in prehistoric archaeology. To facilitate this aim, the session casts a wide net over the full span of the prehistory, with an interest in innovative blends of scientific and technological approaches and applications of theory, with emphasis on how science and theory can be integrated. We therefore invite speakers of all theoretical persuasions and technical or methodological specialisms from any prehistoric period or region. Contributions that focus on the nature of science and theory and how they might be integrated at a more abstract scale are also encouraged, as well as contributions that consider future directions for an integrated prehistoric archaeology.


Bennett, R. J. (2010) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hodder, I. (2012) Entangled: An Archaeology of the Relationships between Humans and Things. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

Hodder, I. (2016) Studies in Human-Thing Entanglement.

Snow, C. P. (1959) The two cultures and the scientific revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Contributor Abstracts:

Flint Provenancing: Combining Archaeometric and Archaeological Perspectives to Tackle Stony Issues

Josie Mills (University College London)

Determining the geological provenance of prehistoric flint artefacts is a subject that appears to prompt both interest and scepticism in equal parts. Recent innovation in scientific methodology has spurred a flurry of studies employing geochemical profiling techniques, such as portable ED-XRF and (LA) ICP-MS, to link artefacts to their geological source areas (for example Pettit et al. 2012). These projects use geochemical data to infer characteristics of prehistoric subsistence behaviour aiming to enhance knowledge of raw material acquisition. However this popularisation of flint ‘sourcing’ has incurred criticism from the archaeometric community who suggest that, at times, science is being employed without a proper methodological background (see Shackley 1998). This is particularly pertinent to studies using portable ED-XRF, as the precision and accuracy of data generated is negatively affected by the miniaturised nature of the device. Similarly from an archaeological perspective geochemical sourcing can be seen as an expensive extra that is not guaranteed to provide reliable results and cannot substitute for good geological knowledge and macroscopic study. Further to this the process is inherently hampered by complexities within flint itself and the propensity for prehistoric populations to use highly chemically variable secondary flint deposits (e.g. glacial till). This presentation discusses combining archaeological and archaeometric perspectives in order to surmount these challenges, highlighting the need for geochemical data to be considered from both a scientific and archaeological standpoint.


Pettit, P., Rockman, M., Chennery, S. 2012. The British Final Magdalenian: society, settlement and raw material movements revealed through LA ICP-MS trace element analysis of diagnostic artefacts. Quaternary International 272, 275-287.

Shackley, M. S. Archaeological petrology and the archaeometry of lithic materials. 2008. Archaeometry 50, 194-215.

Prime movers: Considering the "driving forces" in the exploration of Creswell Crags through sound

Ben Elliott and Jon Hughes (University of York)

This paper reflects critically on the authors gradual development of an approach used in the exploration of sound within archaeological landscapes. This has played out in both the Vale of Pickering, North Yorkshire (under the Sonic Horizons of the Mesolithic Project) and at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire (under the SoundTracks Project), and has produced a series of novel research questions and outputs to date. Drawing on existing bodies of knowledge including archaeology, palaeoecology, geology, history, acoustic ecology, sound studies, acoustic engineering, compositional practice and experimental writing, this approach has begged, borrowed and stolen technological, theoretical and scientific approaches in pursuit of its core question: what did this place sound like?

In tracing this development, we articulate the varied and conflated influences on our approach, and argue that, within this context, a search for a "prime mover" or "origin point" for our work is somewhat moot. In doing so, we wish to ultimately question the character of truly interdisciplinary research, and the potential this offered for the generation and communication of different kinds of knowledge and understanding. 

Where Science, Technology and Theory Meet: Exploring the Life-History of a Unique Shale Pendant from the Mesolithic Site of Star Carr

Andy Needham (University of York), Michael Bamforth (University of York), Gareth Beale (University of York), Julian C. Carty (University of Bradford), Konstantinos Chatzipanagis (University of York), Shannon Croft (University of York), Chantal Conneller (University of Manchester), Ben Elliott (University of York), Laura C. Fitton (University of York), Becky Knight (University of York), Roland Kröger (University of York), Aimée Little University of York), Nicky Milner (University of York), Harry K. Robson (University of York), Charlotte C.A. Rowley (University of York) and Barry Taylor (University of Chester)

Star Carr is an important site in the British Mesolithic for its exceptional wetland preservation and rich material culture. Amongst the most recent set of excavations, a unique perforated shale pendant with faint traces of engraving was recovered. The unique status of this object rendered interpretation and comparison challenging. A multi-disciplinary team of specialists was assembled to analyse every aspect of the object and reconstruct its life history within the context of occupation at Star Carr. The object necessitated the blending of scientific techniques, including pXRF, light microscopy, experimental archaeology, micro-raman spectroscopy, use-wear analysis, residue analysis and portable SEM; cutting edge technology, including 3D white light scanning, technical illustration, H-RTI and 3D printing; and theoretical insights, centred on an object biography approach, and exploring the materiality of the pendant, to achieve this aim.

Reflecting on this research strategy, it is apparent that in a research environment that encourages increasing specialization, collaboration is a central route to avoiding a division between theoretical, scientific and technical specialists, and that the conscious bringing together and intertwining of these research strands can be a route to providing high quality, integrated research.

The New Migrationists? Resolving studies of ancient DNA and archaeological theory

Tom Booth (Natural History Museum, London)

That we are living through a ‘Golden Age’ of Ancient DNA research is now a truism. Recent studies of European ancient human genomes have provided unprecedented insight into population movement and cultural change in prehistoric Europe. For instance, we can now say confidently that the spread of Neolithic things and practices across Europe was accompanied by a large-scale movement of people ultimately originating from the Near East. Palaeogenetic studies have identified several large-scale prehistoric movements of people into Europe that were usually accompanied by significant cultural change. Most of these studies have been conducted with little input from archaeologists and without much detailed discussion of the complexities of the archaeological evidence. In extreme terms, the results may be viewed alternatively as atheoretical objective inferences, unladen by ideological baggage or naive and reductive generalisations, reminiscent of the ‘bad old days’ of culture history. 

This talk will discuss recent studies of European ancient human DNA and how the tensions between archaeological and genetic perspectives may be resolved. Better communication and engagement between geneticists and archaeologists will ultimately produce richer and more incisive interpretations of the European prehistoric archaeological record. The power of Ancient DNA in refining our understanding of the past is undeniable, but archaeological evidence is essential for making sense of genetic data on anything other than a general scale. In addition the high volume of data produced by studies of ancient DNA, somewhat unintentionally, can be used to address specific questions about prehistoric social structures, which will always require robust interpretive frameworks.

Evaluation of evidence for the identification of Richard III’s remains

Mark Thomas (University College London)

In 2012, a skeleton was excavated at the presumed site of the Grey Friars friary in Leicester, the last-known resting place of King Richard III. Archaeological, osteological and radiocarbon dating data were consistent with these being his remains, and a perfect match was found between the recovered mitochondrial DNA sequence and one living female-line relative of Richard III. However, the Y-chromosome haplotype from the skeleton did not match those from Richard III’s male-line relatives. In this presentation I will explain how these different lines of evidence were integrated to estimate an overall probability of the Grey Friars skeleton being that of Richard III.

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