Review of: The Archaeology of Science: Studying the creation of useful knowledge by Michael Brian Schiffer


Twenty years ago, perhaps due to the very “intellectual faddism” that the author laments (5), a book similarly titled would likely be a metaphorical appropriation of the discipline’s popularized method in the manner of Foucault. Yet on page six alone, in the clear and succinct writing style that characterizes the volume, the author reclaims the distinctiveness of archaeology and why it is particularly suited to studying science. “. . .[T]he foundation of any archaeological investigation [is] a concern with people making and using artifacts”: People and things. Despite other currents cross-cutting the field, behavioral archaeology has unwaveringly held to this relationship as a key matter of concern to build generalizations about. Of course, it is a broad definition of archaeology. So broad that such a ‘Renaissance archaeology’ may risk studying everything and no thing.

To the contrary, however, the author’s behavioral approach studies ‘mere’ things and their interactions with other objects, humans and life-fellows in abundant detail. Case studies fill the later two thirds of this volume and amply demonstrate such attention to thingly detail. Consider the specificity of the following definitions on page fifteen: “material properties”, the nonrelational, measurable qualities of a material; “performance characteristics”, the relational competence of an “interactor” (human or nonhuman) among other interactors in real-world activities; or “sensory performance characteristics” as the relational qualities of interactors with respect to the human senses. These have been refined from close observation of people and things.

Static, essential qualities of objects, the relational, emergent capacities of networks or inter-actants; these terms and modes of description would be at home in recent, self-styled ontological works in archaeology, computer science, design studies, human geography, speculative philosophy, science and technology studies (STS) and other fields. In many ways, behavioral archaeology took the so-called turn to things decades ago, and has been an inspiration for re-membering the ‘discipline of things’ (Olsen et al. 2012); a discipline capable of contributing to the above fields and beyond. A Renaissance man in the best sense of the phrase, the author long ago ventured forth with such archaeological expertise into inter-disciplinary waters, whether with early electrification, the portable radio, or the electric automobile (e.g. Schiffer et al. 2003). Shoring up and consolidating earlier forays into the collective accomplishments wrought by people and things in early modern science and modern science and engineering, this book attempts to systematize and stake out an archaeological approach to science studies by characterizing scientific activity in behavioral terms (187).

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Archaeologists should grapple with the anthropocene too…

Figure 1. ‘Metropolis Globe New York’ by Werner Kunz, distributed under a Creative Commons licence from
This paper briefly summarises recent discussions of the anthropocene by geologists, biochemists, climatologists, and other scientists. It goes on to argue that archaeologists should engage with these issues too.

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Fields of artifacts: archaeology of contemporary scientific discovery

The scenario: a team of specialists are discovering artifacts from the past and attempting to establish their mode of origin. Tool-marks and other traces of human action come into view. Artificial patterns emerge and take shape from the material field that has just been worked, standing out as figures against a natural background. With experience it becomes possible to tell artifacts apart from similar-looking natural objects or features. A skilled practitioner can work out what kind of past human action gave rise to them and what sort of tools were being used at the time.
Is this a description of archaeological excavation?
No. There are other archaeologies, other archaeologists (though they may not style themselves as such). They inhabit worlds parallel to our own, dealing for the most part with different kinds of substances and materials, using different equipment, in different environments or sites of discovery. This article deals with one of those parallel worlds, where a kind of archaeology is routinely practiced; this is the world of the scientific laboratory.
Electron microscope
(Photo by dpape, 2009. Creative Commons Licence.

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The Earth After Us

A review of ‘The Earth after us: what legacy will humans leave in the rocks?’ by Jan Zalasiewicz. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2008.
The view of the Earth from the Moon on the front of the book seems both familiar and strange at the same time. The blue jewel of a planet is recognisably ‘home’, only a few decades since space travel first made such a perspective possible. But look again and an important difference is noticed. The continents are the wrong shape, and in the wrong configuration. Is this a view of our planet in the distant past? No, this is the Earth as it is imagined to be 100 million years into the future.
Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz invites the reader to take a step in the scientific imagination far greater than that involved in looking at the Earth from the Moon. For the challenge taken up by the book is to look back at human civilization from a vantage point in time long after the human species itself has disappeared, through observations made by alien beings visiting the planet for the first time. Seeking to understand the geological strata encountered, the alien scientists soon realise that something significant happened 100 million years ago, comparable to the meteorite strike that wiped out the dinosaurs even further back in the Earth’s past. Even before they discover it, they deduce the existence of an event horizon, separating two major geological epochs – an event that triggered massive climate change and extinctions of species evident in strata from later periods. Following a trail of clues, they discover the Human Event Stratum.
The Human Event Stratum may vary from a thin sliver to several metres in thickness, sandwiched between layers of sandstone and shale. Parts of it will have been destroyed by erosion or other geological processes. It is mostly buried, hundreds of metres under the ground, but in places it has been pushed up or exposed by geological forces to outbreak on the surface. Ever wondered what will survive, millions of years hence, of our railway networks, skyscrapers, motorways and rubbish dumps? What about trains and cars, or smaller artefacts like mobile phones and ballpoint pens? Such are the questions which the book poses. In this review I consider briefly some of the implications this book has for contemporary archaeology.

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Hannibal’s Engineers and Livy (XXI.36-7) on Burned Rock – Truth or Legend?

Many have commented on Livy’s famous passage (Hist. XXI.36-7) where he describes Hannibal’s engineers surmounting a large rock blockage on the Italian descent of the Alps, including the late great French archaeologist Serge Lancel (Lancel, 1998:78-9) and our History Channel team 2006 production (June-November, 2006). According to Livy, and repeated in Ammianus Marcellinus (de Sanctis, 1917:77 ff), the ancient engineers poured boiling vinegar on the rocks to facilitate their massive cracking along with burning the rocks by a fire underneath them, after which they were able to remove sufficient rock to pass by. One immediate problem with this story – as Lancel affirmed – is that it is not repeated in Polybius, the more credible source, who also describes Hannibal’s engineers removing blocked rock after an avalanche (Polybius, Hist. III.54.5-55.1) but without this colorful detail of vinegar and burning rock. Polybius is so trustworthy on topographic detail it is surprising his text has such a lacuna if the story is true.

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Alpine Archaeology and Paleopathology: Was Hannibal’s Army also decimated by epidemic while crossing the Alps?

Fig. 1 Alpine vista
Joint Research by Patrick Hunt, Stanford University, and Andreea Seicean, Case Western Reserve University
Epidemiology of ancient causes of death is difficult to reconstruct by descriptions of disease. Paleopathology is a growing field relative to ancient history, but as such usually depends either on material remains – generally bioarchaeological – or ancient texts. Is there a connection to be found in Hannibal’s march across the Alps in 218 BCE?
Was the huge reported loss of troops in Hannibal’s wintry montane crossing also partly caused by related sickness or disease exacerbated by the hardship of montane passage? The late Roman author Appian, circa 150 CE, states that Hannibal started with 90,000 infantry soldiers in his march. On the contrary, the more reliable Polybius states that 38,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry actually began the alpine passage from the Rhone crossing and that Hannibal lost about half of this force (Hist. III.60.5). While Appian’s number is unverifiable and even maybe hyperbole, several sources tell us that a large portion of the army did not survive the early winter mountain passage, with possibly as few as 25,000 soldiers actually descending into Italy. Polybius also relates that the hardship was greatly exacerbated by the lack of food, loss of pack animals carrying provisions and the cold, and that the men who survived the Alps were like beasts than men due to hardship, toil and near starvation (Hist. III.60.3-4, 6).
This question of disease and related conditions of troop reduction has come up repeatedly in the last few years on the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project’s 2006 field expedition as well as in a recent public lecture at Stanford by one of the co-authors of this brief article.

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Hannibal or Hasdrubal?: Some Numismatic and Chronometric Considerations for Alpine Archaeology

1hannibal.jpg 2hasdrubal.jpg
Figs 1 & 2 Carthaginian shekels (probably silver), said to represent Hannibal, c. 220 BC, and Hasdrubal, c. 209 BC, (both as Herakles-Melqart?) respectively
What kind of archaeological evidence could distinguish two very similar events only a little more than a decade apart? Of all the possible absolute or relative chronometers an archaeologist might use, sometimes coins are the most datable artifacts. This is the optimum evidence our Stanford Alpine Archaeology project hopes to ultimately find in our ongoing Hannibal research expeditions. As Metcalf says, “The relationship between numismatics and archaeology has always been close…coin finds help to date strata or levels…” (Metcalf, 1996:814). Possibly applicable here, the well known and intrepid Hannibal Barca’s crossing of the Alps was in 218 BC and his less well known brother Hasdrubal Barca followed him around 208-07 BC. Both traveled with an army and elephants, although Hasdrubal’s was apparently a much smaller army and the second crossing happened during spring as opposed to Hannibal’s passage in late fall moving into early winter.
As I have published elsewhere (Alpine Archaeology 2007), there are archaeological means to potentially distinguish Hannibal’s from Hasdrubal’s passage – or at least indicate that if mintings of Hasdrubal coins were found, it would prove that it was not Hannibal’s passage. However, if Hannibal coin issues were found but no Hasdrubal coin issues were found, it would still not prove that it was Hannibal’s passage, only that it could be either of the two.
Stanford University
copyright © 2006
Patrick Hunt

Alpine Archaeology: Hannibal Expedition – Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project 2006 Field Report

Fig. 1 Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project 2006 Team (Dr. Patrick Hunt, Director & photographer) Team: front row: Gina Farias-Eisner, Brian Head, Ed Boenig, Katie Goldhan, second row: Beatrice Hunt, Jessi Humphries, back row: Andreea Seicean, Jessica Bradley, Sarah Concklin, Scotti Shafer, Brian Knowles, Nancy El-Sakkhary, Rhianon Liu, Casey Carroll, Dave Beall
In August 2006 the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project continued its focused search for Hannibal’s pass crossed in 218 BCE. Under the direction of Dr. Patrick Hunt, the Stanford group of 16 persons traveled at least 3500 kms through the Alps following the Isere-Arc river watersheds, the Durance-Queyras watersheds and the Dora Balthea and Rhone watersheds. We have had ongoing assistance from John Hoyte, co-leader of the Cambridge Alpine Elephant Expedition 1958-59 as well as collaboration with John Prevas, fellow explorer and military historian-author.
While some of our 2006 alpine routes were by vehicle over the Mont-Genevre, the Mont Cenis, the Little St. Bernard and others, our primary exploration over the passes was hiking on foot. Passes covered on foot included the Great St. Bernard (from below Bourg-St-Pierre to the summit, 5000 – 8300 – 7500 ft ) crossing from Switzerland into Italy (around 20 kms), the Fenetre de Ferret (7000 – 9000 – 7000 ft) crossing from Italy to Switzerland and back to Italy (around 10 kms), among others, but we especially concentrated on the Col du Clapier (4000 – 8600 – 3000 ft.) from Bramans and Le Planey in France to the Susa Valley in Italy (around 30 kms) and the Col de la Traversette (6000 – 9600 – 6000 ft.) from France to the border of Italy (around 10 kms).
In all, as I have published elsewhere (Alpine Archaeology 2007), our Hannibal searches in summer of 2006 covered at least around 20,000 vertical feet by hiking around 80 kms and in this new book further evidence is offered why the Col de Clapier – Savine Coche route is the most reasonable route to date, far more plausible than any other pass including the Traversette route, nonetheless acknowledging John Prevas’ excellent study. Until compelling archaeological evidence is found, however, the question remains unanswered.
Fig. 2 Selected possible Hannibal Alpine Routes followed in 2006: red is Clapier route; yellow is Traversette route; turquoise is Little St. Bernard route; blue is Mont-Cenis route; green is Mont-Genevre route; orange is Great St. Bernard and Fenetre de Ferret routes
Stanford University
copyright © 2006
Dr. Patrick Hunt

Archaeology and Science Studies – round 2

Archaeology took on Science Studies (again) at the collective (4S) Society for Social Studies of Science and the History of Science Society and Philosophy of Science Association Conference this past weekend (November 2-4, 2006) in Vancouver, BC, Canada. The working title for the conference this year was: “Silence, Suffering and Survival.” While there has been a long history of engagement between archaeology and philosophy of science, too often archaeologists have not taken active part in this inter-disciplinarian debate. Science studies opens a productive avenue for attending to pressing issues in the actual practice of the human sciences. Archaeology is emerging as a unique player in these studies, straddling as it does the natural sciences-humanities divide. And the discipline was well represented with an international assembly of archaeologists and philosophers.
The session was entitled “Silenced pasts: Archaeological practice and the politics of manifestation”. It was organized by Christopher Witmore, Matt Ratto and Michael Shanks. The session included:
Matt Ratto
The Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences
The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences
“Epistemic commitments, virtual reality, and archaeological representation”
Michael Shanks
Stanford Humanities Lab, Metamedia Lab and The Archaeology Center
Stanford University
“Presence effects and archaeological media: case studies in performance arts”
Timothy Webmoor
Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology, Metamedia Lab and The Archaeology Center
Stanford University
“Open source archaeology? The politics of collaborative heritage”
Christopher Witmore
Post-Doctoral Research Associate
The Artemis A.W. Joukowsky and Martha Sharp Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World
Brown University
“Site-specific media, archaeology and collective (im)mortality”
Alison Wylie
Department of Philosophy
University of Washington
Discussant: intellectual boundary crossing and the legacy of archaeology and the study of science

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Alpine Roman Roads: Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project

Fig. 1 Grand-St-Bernard Pass: Roman rock-cut road (Survey crew: Brian Daniels, Mike Smith and E. Wang)
Fig. 1 & Fig 2 Grand St. Bernard Pass, Plan de Jupiter: Roman rock cut road, summit (Italy, 8200′, 2460 m)
In 1994 the Stanford Alpine Archaeology Project began research to examine Alpine Roman Roads in the Grand-St-Bernard pass between Aosta, Italy and Martigny, Switzerland. This research is directed by Dr. Patrick Hunt, Classics Dept. Stanford University and has been conducted under the auspices of Stanford and the Office du Recherche Archeologique, Valais, Switzerland, and the Soprintendenza for Archaeology of the Valle da Aosta, Italy. There is an international collaborative effort at present between Italian and Swiss archaeological authorities to bring together years of research in the Great St Bernard Pass. For over 30 years Francois Wiblé has undertaken magisterial archaeological research in Martigny and is the undisputed authority of Roman presence in Valais. Italian archaeologists have also conducted much archaeological research in the Plan de Jupiter – recently under Cinzia Joris – and this ongoing Italian-Swiss archaeological work will present the most complete picture to date when published. This brief article on Roman Alpine Roads does not cover the same research agenda as the above-mentioned international collaboration.
Because many of the prior studies on Roman roads in the Alps and this pass in the Pennine Alps in particular have already been published in Italian, French and German, the Stanford research noted here is much indebted to these foundational studies. The Stanford study of the Roman road in the Pennine Alps (Via per Alpis Poenina) is original in part, and while pioneering research findings are briefly summarized here, the Stanford project also seeks to make available the existing literature to an English-speaking audience. Some of the prior literature includes articles or monographs by Blondel (1962), Walser (1984), Wiblé (1975-2006), Planta (1979), Mollo Mazzena (1991) and many others, including the seminal work in English by W.W. Hyde, Roman Alpine Roads (1935), excellent but now outdated in many parts. The new and original research of the Stanford group is also summarized here, and published elsewhere in part, for example, in the Journal of Roman Archaeology XI (1998) by this author. This brief summary is also not offered as comprehensive about all Roman roads in the Alps, but mostly considers one region of the Pennine Alps.
As I have published elsewhere (Journal of Roman Archaeology XI 1998, Vallesia LXIV 1999, and most recently in a new book, Alpine Archaeology 2007, Roman roads in the Alps offer a special case for road construction where normal methods apply in general but also where added features distinguish these high montane routes from lowland routes over relatively flat ground. One of my new discoveries published in the 2007 book is the point that the angles of 105 degrees at the rock-cut road adjacent to the Plan de Jupiter in the Grand-St-Bernard Pass appears to necessitate a pivoting front axle, and if this rock cut road is from the early Flavian period, it antedates the previously-suggested date for pivoting front axles by at least 30 years.
Stanford University
copyright © 2006
Dr. Patrick Hunt