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Some scattered thoughts on sciencey archaeology

March 16, 2013

Well, I’ve reached the point where I have a bit of down time to update here (as in, I’m no longer desperately rushing to finish a project I’m behind on), and there are a few things I’ve been meaning to mention for weeks but haven’t had the time for. Now that I have the time, I suppose I should actually do it.

The first thing I wanted to point to is this Antiquity Project Gallery by some of my colleagues in the UCSD Levantine Archaeology Lab and CISA3, as well as Chris Tuttle, Associate Director of ACOR. They discuss a short project that involved documenting some of the features at Petra with the digital tools that ELRAP uses in the field. Although I was in Petra the weekend they did this, I was also supervising excavations at KNA during the week, so I spent my weekend relaxing in my hotel and sightseeing, rather than working. Even though I wasn’t involved, though, this was a neat collaboration between ELRAP and the Temple of the Winged Lions CRM Initiative (TWLCRM), and it’s worth checking out if only for the vertigo-inducing Figure 3 (assuming you haven’t already been sent this link 15-20 times like I have). On a related note, Chris also has a paper in the first issue of Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies on the TWLCRM project, which you can take a look at here.

The second thing I wanted to mention, and have been meaning to mention for some time now, is that I’ve had a bit of time to decompress and organize some of my thoughts about WAC 7 at the Dead Sea. So much time, in fact, that I’ve mostly forgotten what those thoughts were. Luckily, I took some notes that I can refer to.

As I’ve said before, in general the conference was quite interesting. The session I was in, “Deep-time Perspectives on Culture Change in Jordan: Cyber-Archaeology, Production and Exchange,” actually had, in case you couldn’t tell from the title, many of the same people as the Antiquity Project Gallery I just linked to – enough of them, in fact, that it ran for two sessions (that’s 5 hours!) – and was organized by the ELRAP PIs. Although all good, many of the papers seemed to side-step the session theme of “grand narratives,” which was somewhat disappointing, as that was one of the (several) things that set our session apart from the other sessions broadly devoted to “digital archaeology.” On the other hand, there were papers that confronted this theme head-on, notably a nice summary paper by a bunch of authors associated with the long-lived and inimitable MPP. But enough about us.

I don’t really want to detail every session I attended, because I went to quite a few, but I found one particularly thought-provoking: a forum called “Science in archaeology: Where to next?” This raised, for me at least, two related issues. The first, which started the general discussion, was about why the Journal of Archaeological Science, as the leading archaeological science journal, has such a low impact factor. One of the responses people gave, and the one that occurred to me first, is that for an anthropology journal, JAS doesn’t have a particularly low impact factor. In fact, at 1.914 it probably has the highest impact factor of any archaeology-specific journal (I’m not aware of any over 2 [edit: turns out Radiocarbon is 2.84. Wow!]). There are certainly higher-impact anthropology journals, as this now rather outdated list shows – especially certain four-field journals and many of the bioanth journals – but JAS does pretty well.

On the other hand, this concern was primarily raised from the perspective of people in departments other than anthropology (especially in the “harder” sciences) and people who frequently collaborate with non-anthropologists. Everyone knows, to some extent, that impact factors aren’t really comparable across fields – for a variety of reasons – but this can make collaboration difficult, especially when it comes to publishing. For example, coming from a field like ecology, where none of the top 20 journals have impact factors below 4, 1.914 probably isn’t very appealing. I could ramble at length about the usefulness of impact factors in anthropology and archaeology, but I won’t.

This brings up the second point, though. The previous discussion prompted two related questions: 1) Why don’t archaeologists cite archaeological scientists more and 2) why don’t scientists cite archaeological science more? Leaving aside the issue of what archaeological science actually is, if neither archaeology nor science, there was some debate in the room about which of these was a bigger deal. For some, although archaeological science is its own discipline with its own set of questions, these should be integrated more tightly into general archaeological theory. As an archaeologist, rather than an archaeological scientist, this is the view I tend to agree with. Others, however, pointed out that since archaeologists are content to publish in low-impact journals anyway, archaeological scientists should be looking at ways to get cited more often by scientists. Overall, though, the bigger issue seems really to be about the relationship between archaeological science and archaeology generally, which can’t be easily answered by simply saying things like, “Well, but archaeology is a science.” There’s actually a session at the SAAs this year exploring this issue, called “Integrating Archaeology and Theory: How Does ‘Archaeological Science’ Really Contribute to the Science of Archaeology?” I’d love to attend it, but unfortunately we’re giving our paper at the same time, so I can’t. I’m curious to hear if anything useful comes out of it, though.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Notascientist permalink
    August 18, 2013 3:24 pm

    The reason JAS has such a high impact factor is precisely because it is so “Sciency.” Impact factors are usually calculated over a two year period, and “report” type papers and methods focused articles are much more likely to be tagged onto a reference list in such a short time-frame. Larger, more thought-out papers generally take longer to have a real impact, especially considering that the journals they are published in usually take a year or two alone from submission to publication. At that rate its amazing that some anthropology journals are even able to be ranked at all!

    • August 18, 2013 4:10 pm

      Yes, absolutely. I wouldn’t suggest otherwise. And once you start looking at the 5 and 10 year impacts, other journals start to look a bit better.

      I wasn’t really suggesting that JAS’s impact factor is mysterious, just that it seemed strange to single it out as having an abysmally low impact factor, considering how high it is for an archaeology journal. The point people were trying to make, of course, was that archaeological science journals in general have impact factors closer to archaeology than to “science,” for the reasons you note, which is a problem if you’re an archaeological scientist in, say, a geology department.

  2. Notascientist permalink
    August 18, 2013 4:58 pm

    Isn’t “Radiocarbon” the quintessential journal for “archaeological scientists employed in geology departments?” Your comment inspired me to look it up, and I found that it has an astonishingly high 5-year impact factor of 3.198 (compared to 2.245 at JAS), which makes me wonder if any non-geologists ever publish there =P

    • August 18, 2013 5:25 pm

      I hadn’t realized Radiocarbon was so high, but that makes sense. I can’t believe I didn’t think to check that one when I wrote this post.

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