Wednesday, November 9, 2011

CAA 2012 [Call for Roundtable]: Models and Simulations in Archaeology: where we are and where we are headed?

Following the previous post, I just wanted to let you know that we (Mark Lake, Bernardo Rondelli, Xavier Rubio and myself) are also proposing a roundtable (details below). This year's (again, academic year) CAA will have two sessions on Simulation ("Archaeological Simulation Modelling as Computational Social Science: Next Steps Forward" and "Artificial Societies in Prehistory and Ancient Times") so it's a good opportunity to discuss "hands-on", having solid basis to start from.... In the last couple of years the number of publications using ABM, and computer simulations in general is growing, so we really need to sit back and think carefully about it...

Here's the details of our proposal:

Models and Simulations in Archaeology: where we are and where we are headed?

Computer simulation is a well-established technique which has long provided substantive insights in the physical sciences and increasingly does so in the life sciences. In addition, the field of social simulation has developed rapidly since the mid 1990s. The archaeological application of computer models dates back to the early 1970s, but despite forty years of activity, the impact of simulation has, with a few exceptions, been relatively slight, and it is largely still viewed as a fringe activity (e.g. Lake 2010). However, the first decade of the new ,millennium has witnessed a resurgence of interest, made manifest in a growing number of publications which provide the potential to change this perspective. In large part this is due to the way that agent-based modelling has captured archaeologists’ imagination, especially given the increased availability of simple software environments (e.g. NetLogo) that do not require advanced knowledge in programming and can easily be run on desktop computers.

Since this increasing “democratisation” of simulation seems likely to lead to more widespread application of the technique to substantive archaeological problems this seems a good moment to take stock and consider whether the appropriate epistemic foundations are in place to support the growth of productive archaeological simulation. It is vitally important to recognise that the availability and accessibility of user-friendly software environments does not solve per se issues arising from the complexity of the model building process and, in particular, the validation and portability of the experiment’s results. Consequently, an epistemological reflection and methodological overview of the use of modelling and simulation in archaeology is very timely. We think that a discussion between specialist and non-specialist, experienced and non-experienced users can stimulate a reflection on where we are, and more importantly, where we are headed in the application of computer simulation to archaeological research questions.


Over tthe last decade the archaeological application of computer simulation has taken two distinct directions. On the one hand, a number of models have been developed to test specific hypotheses. This approach quantitatively or semi-quantitatively compares a existing archaeological data with artificial data produced by the simulations. The other direction is the development of abstract models derived from assumptions developed within our discipline or elsewhere (behavioural ecology, evolutionary anthropology, biology etc.), which have been used in to generate new
theories, or to explore the implications of previously formulated ones in a dynamic and computational environment.

The two directions are not mutually exclusive, but each leads to a series of important question: How can we validate abstract models? How can we translate archaeological and anthropological theories in terms computational and/or mathematical algorithms? How do the limits of computational representation affect our model building exercise? How does the scientific audience evaluate extremely complex and realistic models? How do we communicate our models, especially to non- specialists?
By discussing these concrete questions we hope that the roundtable will approach deeper questions, such as: will computer simulation have an impact on our discipline or it will remain a fringe activity? If the former, then will increased use of simulation change mainstream archaeology or it will lead to the emergence of a “new” sub-discipline?

We are particularly interested in the following topics:

  • Abstract vs. Realistic Models: An adversative or complemental epistemology? 
  • Mathematical Models vs. Agent Based Models: two faces of the same coin or alternative pathways?
  • Validation and Verification of Computer Models. 
  • Communicating Models: looking for a common protocol or a language? 
  • Potential pitfalls and common problems of modelling in archaeology.
  • Why computer models are still an outsider?

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