1. Archaeology Today

In 2014, the British Academy initiated a series of annual seminars entitled 'Reflections on Disciplines'. These seminars are aimed at examining one of the disciplines within the Academy's remit by looking at its present state of health, how it is taught and how it is used by Government, industry, charities and the wider society. In so doing, they can 'capture the mood at the top of a discipline offering time and space for critical reflection' (British Academy 2016a). Following its first reflection on Economics, necessitated by the public distrust of economic forecasting following the banking collapse of 2008 (British Academy 2016b, 3), the British Academy chose to reflect upon archaeology in 2016. The guiding questions for the first seminar were as follows:

Most introductory textbooks, introductory courses, or dictionary definitions of archaeology start by saying that archaeology is the study of the ancient and recent human past through material remains (i.e. SAA 2016). The fact that a question on the nature of archaeology still needs to be asked in 2016 - yet was not asked of economics in 2015 (British Academy 2016b, 41), is itself both an accurate reflection of the inherently open-ended nature of archaeology, leading to constant change in how it engages with material remains both theoretically and methodologically and, also, an accurate reflection of how difficult it is for any individual to try to keep pace with such changes and remain able describe them to prospective students, funders or to the wider world.

Rather than the question 'what is archaeology as a discipline?', we might start by asking the following questions: Is archaeology a science, social science or humanity? What concepts or terms are necessary to understand archaeological research? To what extent is archaeology a single discipline, or rather a collection of specialist 'archaeologies', each with its own groups of archaeologists communicating within themselves and, perhaps, rarely between? Is archaeology a single, international community with English as its common language or a series of communities divided by national endeavours and local languages? For archaeologists, is status or recognition within the discipline male dominated, more evenly balanced or variable according to the subject of research? Most archaeologists, particularly those who have been working in the discipline for a while, can offer an answer to these questions, but, if pressed, many might prefer to restrict their answers to the 'area of archaeology' that they are engaged in directly. Offering an assessment of the discipline or the disciplinary community as a whole is more difficult: hence, the British Academy offered an open invitation to the wider archaeological community for its first 'Reflections on Archaeology'.

The difficulty we have in understanding developments in archaeology relates to the mechanisms through which we can observe the structure of our discipline as a whole, and how we might understand what is happening across the full range of its study. Part of this difficulty results from the considerable growth in the number of archaeologists, the amount and range of archaeological work they undertake and the number of publications through which their work is recorded, especially over the last 40 years. Even though archaeologists are still relatively few in number, at least in comparison with many other disciplines in the arts, social sciences or sciences, the actual number of people working in the discipline makes it impossible for any individual to know everyone else, let alone all their work. Unfortunately, such growth in research publications necessarily results in a process of strategic reading by established researchers and students alike and, inevitably, a progressive segmentation of knowledge over time. Another part of this difficulty relates to the widespread use of narratives portraying the discipline as an activity of human enquiry that starts from the excavation of fragmented physical remains that have survived into the present, rather than starting from a more overarching representation of how the discipline makes sense of its objects of study. In 2016, we can truthfully say that it has never been more difficult to keep track of the diverse nature of archaeology let alone describe it effectively to non-specialists, and perhaps teach it to new students (Sinclair 2008; 2012; 2015).

If, as the British Academy's initiative indicates, it is important to understand disciplines properly, and to describe their purpose to others, whether they be potential new students, industry, charities, decision makers, such that they will value their activities, then we need new ways to understand and present the diversity of archaeology as a discipline. These ways should allow us to appreciate quickly and effectively the range of archaeological enquiry, the disciplinary sources it draws upon and the networks within which we are engaged so that we can more easily present ourselves, our discipline and its potential worth to the wider society in general. Here I shall demonstrate that there are approaches used in the information sciences, and specifically scientometrics (the use of scientific methods of analysis in order to understand scientific practices), that offer such an effective way of appreciating the structure and breadth of archaeology today, and that can offer a visual appreciation of archaeology as a discipline, its internal structure and the disciplines with which it works.


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing Internet Archaeology

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.