How Archaeological Evidence Bites Back: Strategies for Putting Old Data to Work in New Ways

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Archaeological data are shadowy in a number of senses. Not only are they notoriously fragmentary but the conceptual and technical scaffolding on which archaeologists rely to constitute these data as evidence can be as constraining as it is enabling. A recurrent theme in internal archaeological debate is that reliance on sedimented layers of interpretative scaffolding carries the risk that “preunderstandings” configure what archaeologists recognize and record as primary data, and how they interpret it as evidence. The selective and destructive nature of data capture in archeology further suggests that there may be little scope for putting “legacy” data to work in new ways. And yet archaeologists have been strikingly successful in mining old datasets for new insights. I situate these concerns in the broader context of debate about the epistemic standing of the historical sciences, and then consider three strategies by which archaeologists address the challenges posed by legacy data. The first two – secondary retrieval and recontextualization – are a matter of reconfiguring the scaffolding that underpins evidential reasoning. The third turns on redeploying old data in the context of computational models that support the experimental simulation of the cultural systems and contexts under study.
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Archival date: 2018-01-12
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