Indiana University Bloomington

The Creation of a Geoscience-based Archaeology

Multidisciplinary research has different aspects. When these broader aspects of research become important, exchange and reciprocity between multiple disciplines can occur. Archaeology is the material record of culture and cultural change. Our material approach maintains that the establishment of raw material reference standards is essential to the development of a new conceptual framework for archaeological problem-solving. At the same time we are building new definitions for artifactual material that are based on the physical, mineralogical and chemical characteristics of their raw material sources. By shifting our perspective from the product only to a relationship between the raw material and its product, it is possible to demonstrate that human responses are not only dependent on raw materials but their physical environments.

We have come to the point in our research where the emergence of complexity in human culture, viewed as a system, needs to be conceptualized in all its diversity. There is no one trigger for any action, rather an intertwined pattern of actions and interactions that result in innovation and change. How do we best keep this notion of complexity alive and develop models that are based on complexity? This integration of thought processes and reasoning takes patience, infrastructure and a new vocabulary. With this approach we are attempting to move from data to knowledge. In order to move forward conceptually we need a research environment where physical science (its analytical techniques and method of explanation) embraces humanity. We believe it is imperative to develop a unique new kind of research that brings together disparate data sets in a way that permits new knowledge to be discovered through queries that are now impossible to formulate and execute.

We also expect requirements that emerge from framing and validating models of cultural change rooted in complexity to include a broad range of existing analytical techniques as well as refinements to these and novel approaches drawn from chemistry, materials science, and geology. It is this synergy between characterizing the physical matrix and artifacts of human culture and an understanding of processes that shaped cultural change that we believe will produce new knowledge about where we came from as a species and, perhaps, where we are going.

Research potential

In today's world no one discipline can stand alone. As Alan Leshner has recently noted in his editorial comments for Science magazine, “But now many of our papers involve teams of scientists from many specialties, bringing diverse expertise to bear in an integrated rather than merely parallel way. The fact that this interdisciplinarity characterizes so much of today's most exciting work may portend the gradual demise of single-discipline science” (6 February 2004:729).

The potential of this collaborative interdisciplinary research is great. Expert and panel reviews are a testament to that notion. The challenge, however, will be how to most effectively achieve that potential. There remains a huge gap between the humanities and physical sciences. Much misunderstanding is present on both sides. We have encountered concern from other archaeological research groups that this research does not fit an archaeological research design. It is our opinion that such thinking limits the impact of archaeological research.

It is equally difficult for the physical science community to see that they can effectively explain cultural change from their analytical point of view rather than merely feeding data to cultural models already in existence. Likewise, more effort needs to be expended so that applied clay mineralogists, ceramic engineers and economic geologists see the value in proto-industrial clay deposits and their much needed input in evaluation of these ancient sources.

Education Potential:

Various artistic and social science methods are currently used to explain emergent cultural complexity. These methods reflect the disciplinary traditions of individual researchers, e.g. art history, object-driven classical archaeology, structural history, anthropological modeling, and economic theory. This body of existing knowledge represents a predictable reality for contemporary teaching and learning of social organization in the ancient world. At the same time, there exists ongoing research which attempts to create new knowledge and explanations for past cultural experience. More recently, this research has a strong physical science component to it. This body of numerical data and the accompanying conceptual frameworks, generated by that data, represent the unpredictable aspect of learning about social complexity in the past. What was the nature of cultural change? What mechanisms and agents of change were involved? When viewed as a system, what changes triggered complexity? Can a study of past emerging cultural complexity inform contemporary social organization?

Recent Departmental Research that applies a Geoscience Approach to Archaeological Problems:

The SAVA Database Project confronts diverse researchers with the need to integrate traditional explanations for cultural change in the Greek Bronze Age (3 rd to 2 nd millennium B.C.) - and by extension the Holocene period (ca. 10,000 B.C. to present) - with new advancements in data retrieval, data collection, and data interpretation. Computational thinking facilitates this data integration and problem-solving. As a result it is hoped that researchers as a whole recognize why new knowledge must be developed and have a systematic approach to paradigm shifts.

Holocene Climate Change and its Impact on Cultural Change: Impact of Abrupt Climate Change on Carbon and Nutrient Cycling in Alpine Ecosystems in the Early Holocene ; Peter Sauer co-PI, with Zianzhong Wang, IUPUI, as PI; NSF-BCS; 7/1/08 - 6/30/10; $191,876

An ultra-high resolution, multi-proxy study of the past 2,000 years of climate change in Southern California ; A. Schimmelmann , PI; collaborators with separate budgets at U. Michigan and UC Santa Barbara; NSF, OCE - Marine Geology and Geophysics; 09/01/2008 - 08/31/2011; $187,241