7.1 Archaeology as a multidisciplinary social science

The network map of co-cited archaeological sources and authors identifies the intellectual base of archaeology as a discipline (see Persson 1994). Within higher education, archaeology is usually classified with the humanities, closely associated with history or sometimes Classics. Less commonly it is seen as a social science linked to anthropology (social or cultural) or geography. The most striking feature visible in the network of sources and, to a lesser extent, authors is, firstly, the extraordinary range of academic disciplines from which archaeology constructs its intellectual base and, secondly, the age/time depth of the sources that archaeologists continue to cite.

In this map, there is a clear set of sources that we might have identified as an archaeological core prior to any bibliometric analysis. The journals Antiquity, American Antiquity, World Archaeology, The American Journal of Archaeology are typical of this core; they are clustered and mapped close together. Looking beyond this concentration, however, the engagement of archaeology with the sciences of landscape analysis (including environmental change), materials analysis (including physical and chemical approaches) and the analysis of the human body (including a broad range of life sciences and medical sciences), as represented by the sources Archaeometry, the Journal of Human Evolution and Archaeological Prospection expands the range of sources habitually used by its practitioners from a disciplinary source core to literature from a range of sources, publishing research in almost all of the subject categories of knowledge as recognised by WoS and represented in the Global Maps of the scientific literature (see Boyack et al. 2005; Klavans and Boyack 2009, Borner et al. 2012; Sinclair in prep. c). The pattern of citation to this wider group of sources demonstrates clearly that archaeology draws upon many different disciplinary methods, approaches and questions to address its central problem: the understanding of human lives through the study of material remains left from the past; in so doing, it is a truly multidisciplinary research activity. Previous studies of citations in anthropology identify the use of journals from many disciplines as a feature of anthropological writings in the 1980s (Schmidt 1982; Choi 1988a) and in the late 1990s (Robinson and Posten 2005). In these studies the sample set of journals chosen to represent anthropology includes journals in which archaeological research documents used here are also published (Current Anthropology, Journal of Anthropological Research, Journal of Anthropological Archaeology) reflecting the inclusion of archaeology as a component of a four-field anthropology in the USA.

While the use of WoS to locate archaeological research outputs will obviously and preferentially identify scientific research published in the leading science journals that are the focus of WoS approach to citation indexing, we might also argue that it is the ever-broadening engagement of archaeology as a research activity with developing scientific approaches to the analysis of (archaeological) evidence from all periods and places that explains the placing of Journal of Archaeological Science in the middle of this network map of co-cited sources by VOSviewer rather than other classic, older archaeological journals. The pervasiveness of scientific approaches to the analysis of archaeological evidence from all periods and places that is evident in the intellectual base of archaeology also suggests, provocatively perhaps, that a higher education qualification in archaeology might in future bear the title of Bachelor of Science (to reflect the importance of applied science in the discipline), rather than Bachelor of Arts as is usually the case at present.

It remains open to debate, however, whether we should think of archaeology as an interdisciplinary science whose approaches integrate separate disciplinary data, methods, tools, concepts, and theories in order to create a holistic view or common understanding of a complex issue, question, or problem or a multidisciplinary science whose approaches juxtapose disciplinary/professional perspectives, adding breadth and available knowledge, information and methods (Wagner et al. 2011, table 1, 16). Further work is needed to map not just the disciplinary domains from which archaeologists take their inspiration, but those other disciplines in which archaeological work might itself be cited in order to map our discipline's impact beyond its own research outputs. This can be achieved using the approach described here, but requires an initial dataset that is much larger and more broadly extracted in scope.

Table 9: The number and percentage of citations made from archaeological research outputs to cited documents by 10-year intervals
Publication intervals Documents cited at least 10 times Documents cited at least 20 times
Number Percentage (rounded) Number Percentage (rounded)
1854-1963 2 1
1864-1873 5 3
1874-1883 2 0
1884-1893 0 0
1894-1903 3 1
1904-1913 3 1
1914-1923 7 3
1924-1933 15 1
1934-1943 23 2
1944-1953 49 9
1954-1963 101 29
1964-1973 277 1 73
1974-1983 740 3 254 1
1984-1993 1751 6 513 2
1994-2003 6880 25 4273 19
2004-2013 17674 64 16988 77

An examination of the number of citations made to documents published in 10-year intervals, at different levels of citation (Table 9), reveals that archaeology as a citing discipline shows similarities in practice to both its perceived disciplinary neighbours in the Humanities and Social Sciences as well as to disciplines in the Physical or Biological sciences. Like the sciences, archaeological research outputs predominantly cite recently published documents (less than 10 years old) that are likely to form the most important literature in the research front of any archaeological problem. However, archaeologists still make common reference to authors and writings from the deeper history of published archaeology, with a noticeable number of citations to documents published during the time of the development of processual and scientific approaches to archaeology (1960s and 1970s), and still a significant number of citations to documents published during the mid-19th century when archaeology was being created as a discipline. This spread of age in cited documents reflects a phenomenon already observed in social studies of science (Cole 1983). Differing patterns have been observed between disciplines with respect to the age (from publication) after which academic research literature is no longer cited. This is sometimes described as the citing half-life of research outputs, following Burton and Kebler (1960) and modelled on the concept of the half-life used in radiocarbon dating at this time. The citing half-life of an article or journal is the median age of documents cited: if a citing half-life of a journal in 2010 is 5 years, then 50% of the documents cited by articles published by that journal in 2010 were published between 2006 and 2010. The half-life is also in effect a measure of the speed with which published research documents lose their active research value to contemporary researchers. Some disciplines, as is the case with the humanities (history) and social sciences (sociology), have a long citing half-life since older research outputs remain part of the essential core. In other disciplines, such as the hard sciences such as physics, chemistry and especially mathematics, the half-life is much shorter, as older research outputs can be assumed either to have become accepted common knowledge without need for further citation (Becher and Trowler 2001, 114-15) or dropped from contemporary debate and citation. In the case of archaeology, the accumulation of original, descriptive research outputs related to archaeological sites and archaeological remains, and the publication of research outputs that develop new interpretative positions making reference to earlier theoretical writings as though they were currently active evidence dramatically extends the potential citing life of research outputs. The temporal depth and long citing life of archaeological publications make an understanding of the intellectual base of archaeology a never-ending process of increasing difficulty (see discussion in Sinclair 2015).

The disciplinary range of the intellectual base of archaeology has significant implications for the design of an effective education of future archaeological practitioners. New students need to understand the diversity of approaches that are employed in archaeology, and the complexity of the evidence that informs its interpretative discussion within the highly constrained time period of higher education in order to progress from disciplinary novices to experts. This will require careful consideration of the concepts that practitioners need to know and their systematic introduction in a designed curriculum (see Sinclair 2012, for a discussion of this problem with respect to Palaeolithic archaeology). While there are difficulties in designing an effective curriculum for such a multidisciplinary subject, there are also significant advantages in the proper recognition of this multidisciplinarity. For potential students and employers, the network map of sources in the intellectual base of archaeology provides clear evidence of the fact that an education in archaeology requires students to understand data and interpretations that require science, number and language knowledge.


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.