What is Archaeological Synthesis?

Since CfAS was founded in 2017, the Coalition has sponsored 8 working groups. We have purposely not dictated either a definition or a single approach to archaeological synthesis. Three approaches have emerged. Some working groups have followed a quantitative approach in which collaborators each bring a data set to bear on a research topic. The datasets are integrated into one master database, which is then analyzed through statistical techniques to come to results that could not be obtained by analyzing each data set individually. Other working groups have taken a comparative approach in which the data sets are analyzed individually and then the cases are examined for common patterns and processes. A third approach is qualitative in nature. Data sets that are not comparable—for example, quantitative counts of material culture, traditional knowledge practices, and ethnographic observations—are integrated through logical arguments.

All working groups have produced interesting results. The two completed projects have affected public policy through management plans and national climatic strategies as well as restorative justice programs that have reintroduced traditional practices into environmental management.

While we view the diversity of approaches as generally positive, we also understand that it can be confusing to Partners and Associates. Some of you have come to us wondering what exactly we mean by synthesis and whether a particular approach or project would be acceptable. Our response is that synthesis is whatever the CfAS community says it is and that there is no one right way to conduct it. So what does the community think?

On Thursday, April 18th at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting in New Orleans, CfAS will hold a one-hour discussion on what CfAS members mean by the term synthesis and how they go about it. The session will take place in Oak Alley on the 4th floor of the Sheraton Hotel from 10:00 to 11:00 AM. We invite all CfAS Partners, Associates, and anyone interested in the topic to attend. In preparation for the discussion, we invite you to comment on this blog or send a short email to ten.puorgolenac@luhcstlahj describing what you mean by synthesis, what approaches you use, what problems you encounter, and how you integrate data and expertise of all needed fields to work toward a common goal. We look forward to a lively discussion that will help CfAS chart its future.

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3 thoughts on “What is Archaeological Synthesis?”

  1. To me, synthesis is the outcome of research that combines multiple sources of data and information in a way that the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts. Compiling information from multiple sources isn’t synthesis unless, through the analysis of these sources combined, one is able to derive a result or conclusion that would not have been reached by looking at the individual cases separately.

    That said, I agree that there are many ways of going about synthesis. We have, of course, Flannery’s Great Synthesizer from The Early Mesoamerican Village and real-world examples of individual synthesizers such as V. Gordon Childe. A place for such efforts certainly remains. Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything is an interesting recent example. Nonetheless, with more than 20,000 field projects conducted annually in the US and untold thousands more around the world, this sort of synthesis will most often be concerned with relatively restricted topics or research at limited temporal and geographical scales.

    It is more than just being able to compile a sufficiently comprehensive data set that makes collaborative research appealing. I believe that synthetic projects undertaken by a diverse group of researchers invested in a specific topic have the potential to surpass the efforts of individuals or groups of like-minded scholars. Without prescribing exactly how that synthesis should proceed, CfAS has privileged the working group approach to synthesis pioneered by the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS). Observing CfAS-sponsored working groups in action reinforces my enthusiasm for the working group approach, for our process of selecting working group participants based on a widely distributed Request for Information, and for enforcing diversity in the selection process, including diversity in theoretical, geographical, and disciplinary expertise and in social and professional characteristics.

    In addition to fostering synthetic research conducted by working groups, I believe there is also a role for CfAS in efforts that are not themselves synthetic but that encourage or enhance synthetic research. Certainly in the US, and I suspect globally, only a miniscule fraction of field projects end up with their digital data deposited in a usable form in an accessible repository. Any initiative that would result in more data being deposited in FAIR repositories would benefit synthesis by making more of our irreplaceable data available to contribute to synthetic research. And, as we all know too well, different investigators encode conceptually identical observations in innumerable different ways, making the data integration needed for effective synthesis more difficult or even impossible. Thus, participating in the formulation of data standards and encouraging their adoption would have enduring advantages for synthetic research.

  2. Thanks for getting this conversation started, Jeff! I tend to think of synthesis as a new approach to observing aggregate human behavior that has only become feasible through the integration of archaeology with data science and geospatial technologies. In this sense, synthesis is a telescope that allows one to measure human social behavior at previously unattainable scales. And in the same way that telescopic vision led to new and better models of the universe, synthesis is leading to new and better models of human societies, what they consist of, how they work, and how they change. I think these new and better models will in turn provide better answers to enduring questions in the social sciences ranging from demography to development, sustainability, energy use, innovation, productivity, and inequality, among others.

    Synthesis is not a replacement for the varied aspects of archaeology that have existed previously. Rather, it is an additional aspect that focuses on the significance of the cumulative record of human experience revealed through the integration of decades of archaeological field and laboratory work, and through new forms of large scale, systematic observation of the archaeological record.

  3. I define archaeological synthesis in a way that is aligned with the positions already expressed by Keith Kintigh, Scott Ortman, and Jeff Altshul. Rather than reiterating, I express what I see as both an urgent and propitious time for greater synthesis in archaeology.

    To the great credit of archaeological practitioners, we have collected an incredible amount of data over the last 75 years at a range of scales from the molecular to the macroregional, and with levels of context and precision rarely achieved before. We have expanded our deep time perspective to six continents. It is becoming increasingly clear that these findings are not in accord with one simple past—homogenous, linear, nor uniform. These are important findings as they tend to directly challenge prior presumptions and reconstructions of the human past that were drawn heavily from episodes in the European history or the musings and personal experiences of great thinkers and philosophers. These studies have given archaeology a grand storehouse of information, and since we often know something about outcomes, comparing past institutions and practices in the face of challenges and perturbations provides an incredible foundation to assess notions regarding the how the world today came to be.

    The urgency of this mission is heightened by the rapid disappearance of the archaeological record in the face of climate change, urbanization, and others factors, as well as the declining funding base for the field, and the greater difficulties and costs to implement field research. At the same time, synthesis helps bridge the diverse institutional context of archaeology across the globe, bringing together data and practitioners from different disciplinary contexts and traditions. As integral features of synthesis, agreeing on coding and definitional schemes along with more consistent applications of terminologies, facilitates the crafting of more coherent messages that have a chance to transcend academic silos. These steps will be important if archaeology is to be recognized by the public and in policy as having a key contribution to make and role to play in understanding migration, climate change, governance, urbanization, and many other issues of central concern.


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