Integrating Archaeological Theory and Predictive Modelling

Activity: Lecture / PresentationAcademic


Archaeological predictive modelling has been used successfully for over twenty years as a decision-making tool in cultural resources management. Its appreciation in academic circles however has been mixed because of its perceived theoretical poverty. Within archaeology, a sometimes strong aversion is found to using statistical, correlative procedures for predictive modelling, as these methods preclude any understanding of the reasons why the current spatial patterning of archaeological materials came about. They may therefore lead to inaccurate predictions, and most experts therefore agree that predictive modelling has arrived at a point of necessary reflection and evaluation. So far, it has largely neglected the social and cultural dimensions of past landscapes. Input is commonly derived from correlations between archaeological sites and natural landscape features. The result is a rather static way of modelling, in which the human factor remains unexplored. Furthermore, issues of temporality have been addressed uncritically or insufficiently. To maintain its value for archaeological research, therefore, predictive modelling needs new methodologies, concepts and theories.

In this paper I will discuss the issue of integrating current archaeological theoretical approaches and predictive modelling. I will try to lay out the background to the issue, state the case for integration of archaeological theory and predictive modelling, and suggest a methodology for doing so by focusing on the process of theory-based modelling, rather than on the resulting models and the uses they are put to. I will suggest a practical methodology for doing so based on cognitive archaeology, middle-range theory and palaeo-economic modelling. While the prediction of site distribution patterns can in this way be tackled reasonably successfully using ‘processual’ methods and theories like site catchment analysis and environmental determinism, I will also discuss what might be gained by including newer theoretical approaches like the role of agency and social memory. These newer and ‘softer’ theoretical viewpoints are usually not specified in a way that might result in a quantifiable, and thus testable hypothesis concerning site distribution – which is ultimately what is needed, not only for purposes of heritage management, but also for establishing the validity of the theories used.
Period16 Mar 2011
Event titleOpen Workshop "Socio-environmental dynamics over the last 12,000 years: the creation of landscapes II"
Event typeWorkshop