2.5 Social action and reflexive archaeology

The process of source criticism is essentially a reflexive archaeological practice (Hodder 1999, 81-104). Reflexive archaeology encourages greater awareness of the role of the archaeologist in the creation of archaeological data. Whether surveying landscapes or digging trenches, the actions of archaeologists shape their datasets; for example, decisions on how to sample artefact scatters or how to define a 'site'. This does not mean there is no reality 'out there', but simply that there is no objective way of recording it. Hodder and others have called for greater reflexivity about the nature of archaeological data and, in particular, the illusory distinction between objective description (fieldwork, cataloguing) and subjective interpretation. This is, of course, of particular relevance when using legacy data as initial data capture and use may be separated from secondary re-use by decades, and filtered through various media such as archives and databases.

To date, most GIS applications have focused on studying the behaviour of people in the past, whether through settlement preferences, site intervisibility or movement. However, GIS also offers an environment in which to study the archaeological process in the present (or, in the case of legacy data, the very recent past); in other words, to develop a reflexive archaeology. To date, such analysis has focused on formal metadata (e.g. surface visibility), but a range of other contextual metadata can be addressed. For example, Rajala et al. (1999) have explored the influence of developing aims and methods on the types and distribution of sites in the ager Faliscus, north of Rome. Such work stresses the importance of the recognition that the actions of people in the past and the actions of archaeologists in the present are not separate areas of enquiry. The deposition and recovery of archaeological materials interact to create the specific character of archaeological datasets. For example,

The study of this relationship is particularly important when using legacy data because the actions of past archaeologists may differ significantly from those of contemporary archaeologists. Survey methodology has evolved rapidly and the actions of archaeologists 10, 25 and 50 years ago are likely to be very different. Current surveyors can think reflexively about how their own methodologies impact their data; for most legacy data, the opportunities for such reflection have been lost (Kintigh 2006).


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Last updated: Mon Jun 30 2008