Archaeologies of science and historic materials

A further area that needs mentioning is the contribution of archaeological science and its subsequent repositioning vis-a-vis historical archaeology. According to a number of recent reviews, one of the most significant developments in world archaeology has been the ‘astounding expansion of archaeological science’ (Killick and Goldberg 2009: 6; see also Kristiansen 2014; Torrence et al. 2015). Writing from the perspective of global historical archaeology before the turn of the century might not have warranted mention of this somewhat estranged sibling. But twenty years is a long time in archaeology. Today questions surrounding human health, diet and demography are as important as those encompassing issues of culture, status and identity, and are often intricately woven into multifaceted studies. Concomitantly, techniques for shedding light on the organic and inorganic remains of the past have become familiar tools in our research programmes. While some will naturally view historical archaeology and archaeological science as being nothing more than branches of a single field - archaeology -the disciplined nature of their activity' in the last century' followed by a willingness to approach each other’s borders in recent years provides us with insights into how subjects bifurcate but also go through periods of reconciliation and deeper integration.

The study of organic and inorganic materials has actually been a feature of the historical archaeology of the modern world since at least the 1980s (for a review on the situation in the US see Deagan 2008). However, its development and impact has been more uneven. Given the dominance of post-processualism within American historical archaeology from the 1980s onwards - especially' its shunning of interpretations that emphasised the deterministic aspects of environment or technology — scientific approaches had more limited impact (Mrozowski 2006), being more additive than integrative (Torrence et al. 2015: 1). The fact that archaeology was subsumed within anthropology departments, which had limited space for science, did not help this situation. A further obstacle to its development in the US was limited and uneven funding. This was especially true for more expensive techniques including organic chemistry', palynology, provenance by' stable isotopes, archaeometallurgy and ceramic technology among others in comparison with Europe and notably the UK (Killick and Goldberg 2009: 7). The story' is somewhat different in the Old World where better funding and a focus on analytical techniques, particularly' those focused on the production and distribution of inorganic materials like ceramics, metal and glass, helped to create new areas of specialisation. However, as in North America, much of this research circulated within relatively restricted networks of archaeological and materials scientists.

Ask an archaeological scientist about interdisciplinarity and you will likely' receive the response that they' are naturally' predisposed towards this kind of engagement. Notably its proponents have encouraged routine connections across disciplinary boundaries (for example with chemists and biologists of different stripes), frequently with the aim of bringing new techniques to the study of archaeology (and vice versa: scientists in other fields have worked with archaeologists as a means of providing archaeological materials for scientific analysis). However, the interdisciplinarity I wish to highlight here is something of a unique development. First, it involves advancements in scientific techniques pioneered within ‘mainstream’ archaeology (predominantly prehistory or classics), which have subsequently reached historical archaeology' through something of a trickle-down effect. This has typically been precipitated either by archaeological scientists looking for new material or through the formation of instrumentalist relationships between scientists and historical archaeologists. Second, it relates to more general rapprochements seen within archaeology between theory and science (Torrence et al. 2015).

Scientific advancements have had a huge impact on both the volume and range of techniques now commonly used in archaeology. For some these changes amount to nothing less than a ‘scientific revolution’ (Kristiansen 2014). New methods have allowed archaeologists to address a much wider range of issues than was previously the case (Killick and Goldberg 2009: 10), particularly our ability to identify the specific make-up and origin of materials. However, these changes have not impacted all areas of archaeology equally, notably contexts where historic documents are sometimes assumed to make archaeological techniques redundant. Even the language of archaeological science discourse — for example terms like ‘Palaeodiet’ and ‘Palaeodemography’ as reified in keystone texts (e.g. Brothwell and Pollard 2005) - has tended to slant their relevance away from historic periods. Despite these issues, historical archaeology is witnessing a palpable increase of work that has benefited from techniques originally trialled in prehistory and then applied to the archaeology of the more recent past. While some archaeological scientists may have once viewed the archaeology of, say, New World colonies as low status in comparison with prehistory, the relative abundance of historic materials available for study, combined with invitations by historical archaeologists to study their collections, have helped to create some productive and insightful relationships.

The breadth of innovations within archaeological science is too broad to cover with any real justice here (but see Torrence et al. 2015 for a review). Those areas increasingly of relevance to historical archaeology include the analyses of ceramics, metallurgy, soils (under the guise of geoarchaeology), plant remains (micro- and macrofossils) and even insect remains to mention a few. One area that has very quickly been felt within historical archaeology is bioarchaeology and in particular stable isotopes studies (Britton 2017; Britton and Guiry this volume). Because stable isotope approaches can identify biological markers for the diets and movements of past individuals from the analysis of their physical remains, they have much scope for being able to comment directly on issues of nutrition, health and migration in the past. The recent well-publicised discovery of Richard Ill’s (putative) grave within a Leicester car park in the English Midlands provides a good example of the approach. Analysis undertaken on his skeletal remains revealed new information. For example, strontium and oxygen isotope analysis of tooth enamel was used to infer where the young king spent his childhood (possibly around his known birthplace in Northamptonshire) and analysis of his bone mineral and bone collagen suggested that prior to the king’s death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, his later life was characterised by a significant increase in feasting and wine consumption (Lamb et al. 2014).

While celebrated discoveries like English kings will make the headlines, stable isotope studies are most convincingly suited to those groups that historical archaeology has best served: those that tend to be stereotyped or ‘written out’ of history altogether. In this context the method has begun to play a powerful role in providing new information about demographic shifts and social and cultural variability, particularly within the growing towns, cities, agricultural regions and industrial centres caught up in the expending webs of mercantilism and capitalism that characterise the early modern and modern periods (Orser 1996; Mrozowski 2006). For example, Klippel (2001) has used stable isotopes in the context of eighteenth-century Caribbean sugar plantations on the island of St Kitts to show that, while sheep and goats were raised on the island (and might be assumed to provide food for all), low-quality salted beef was imported to feed the slaves. Others have drawn on similar isotopic approaches to understand the social and cultural characteristics of early modern and modern settlements. In Sweden, researchers interested in dietary habits among the sixteenth-and seventeenth-century mining community of Salberget contrasted isotopic signatures and documentary evidence with implied differences in identity seen in burial customs and the location of burial. What they found was a decidedly more diverse community than first anticipated with complex and overlapping distinctions connected to social status, gender, age as well as geographical origin — a pattern more in keeping with larger urban environments (Backstrôm et al. 2017). Still others have focused their attention on the developing urban demography of the modern world (e.g. Nitsch et al. 2011; Jorkov and Grocke 2016). For example, Nitsch, Humphrey and Hedges have looked at the otherwise virtually invisible practices surrounding weaning in the context of women’s employment opportunities in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century London. By comparing burial registers of the age at death of infants with collagen samples from their grave sites they found that weaning periods varied depending on the changing economic conditions of mothers. Infants interred in the eighteenth century had evidence of shortened weaning periods and overall higher infant mortality, which was likely connected to long hours on the shop floor consistent with the period’s booming economy, while in the nineteenth century the opposite trend was identified (Nitsch et al. 2011).

While advancements in the technical capabilities of archaeological science have clearly made their mark, we also need to look to changing attitudes towards theory and method, what divides groups of scholars and what brings them together. If the 1990s and early 2000s witnessed the height of the ‘theory wars’ when there was little left to say between relatively entrenched positions of processualism and post-processualism or cultural and scientific archaeology, recent years have seen a younger generation of archaeologists attempt to bridge the divide by learning from each other. Conferences and workshops have got people talking. The integration of science within many archaeology programmes, notably in the UK, has also played a role. And with lines of communication established archaeologists realised that despite different interests they had questions in common as well as mutual interdisciplinary needs (Deagan 2008). The result has been mostly positive, to the extent that for some ‘the boundaries between archaeology and archaeological science are becoming increasingly diffuse’ (Torrence et al. 2015). At best such relationships are helping to build on more instrumentalist forms of interdisciplinarity and towards the synoptic forms requiring a wider knowledge base and methodological consistency. That said, the fact that conferences and workshops are usually divided according to scientific or cultural interests tells us that there is still some distance to travel here.

Other successful approaches to the modern integration of science with historical archaeology have lain with single scholars integrating the learning and or analytical work of previous studies. A good example is Shackel’s (2000) comparison of late Victorian notions of etiquette in nineteenth-century Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, with urban uses of animals, plants and domestic spaces as a means of unsettling more popular views of community history. Another is Martinon-Torres’ (2012) rigorous and science-informed analysis of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century alchemy sites and their associated laboratory notebooks in Europe and North America to reconstruct and challenge established wisdom about the practical, empirical and theoretical dimensions of early modern alchemy. In the face of assumptions about the irrationality of alchemy, this study shows us how much alchemists contributed to the development of scientific principles more generally — notably its emphasis on experimentation and observation.

In other contexts, the emphasis has been on dialogue within research teams constituted by individuals with very different skill sets creating something more multifaceted and sophisticated than could otherwise be achieved. The research team is a well-established means of academic production within archaeological science but is much less common among archaeologists who have their roots in the humanities or social sciences. However, recent years have seen an increase of team-based research among the latter, with important contributions made by archaeological scientists. The aforementioned study of the early modern mining community at Salberget, Sweden, which brought together historical documents, zooarchaeological material and stable isotopes fits this mould well (Backstrom et al. 2017); as does recent work focusing on stereotypes of the rural poor in nineteenthcentury Scotland (Oliver et al. 2016). In this project an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, historians, physical geographers and anthropologists compared documentary and archaeological sources connected with an informal ‘squatter’ settlement with results from soil science and palynology from nearby fields to show how assumptions about marginal living can be seriously questioned. What is more, this type of work is now being increasingly published within historical archaeology fora (e.g. Forbes et al. 2010; Lee et al. 2013; Wright et al. 2014).

Finally, a noteworthy trend of the twenty-first century is that archaeological scientists themselves have begun to explore and actively integrate the theoretical literature. For example, while archaeomaterials scientists have tended to focus a great deal on issues of technology, production and distribution, we are beginning to see work that crosses empirical findings with theoretical frameworks influenced by the anthropology of technology and material culture studied as a means of understanding the social context of production and consumption. Illustrative of this work is Martinon-Torres and Rehren’s (2009) analysis of the production, distribution and consumption of Hessian and Bavarian early modern crucibles. This study has demonstrated that consumer preferences were shaped by conflicting popular beliefs about the technical quality of ceramics that were linked to colour and texture, rather than the material properties of clay, which is the actual measure of pyrotechnological performance.

What all such studies demonstrate is that it is difficult to generalise about people living in early modern and modern environments, whether they are colonial, capitalist, urban or all three. Issues like diet, social status and choice are often implicated with complex entanglements between people and local environments, a fact that produces a great deal of variability. This helps to confirm, as Deagan (2008: 27) has pointed out, that post-processual arguments about contingency continue to matter. So an understanding of current theoretical frameworks is important, as is the recognition that scientific techniques are sometimes best suited to help bring out such nuances. Indeed some would argue that it is archaeologists that also possess a firm scientific background that are best placed to identify these issues. The bigger point, however, is that the most successful studies are often those that recognise the complementary nature of different forms of knowledge and expertise and how to bring these together (cf. Makarewicz and Sealy 2015). As noted by Kealhofer (1999), too many analytical projects were previously poorly integrated with the approaches and knowledge that mainstream historical archaeology took for granted. Given that many archaeological scientists are methods specialists, it is not difficult to see how deeper insights can be missed altogether when connections with developments in theory and material culture expertise remain more limited. The twenty-first century is not immune to these problems. But at the same time, given the propensity of archaeological scientists to work with others and the move towards more collaborative scholarship more generally, as noted in the examples above, the future has much potential.

 
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