How to begin to think about Predictive Models in Archaeology (for the non-expert!)

I’m a physical anthropology student with a not-so-secret desire to be an archaeologist as well. There, I said it! While I’m happy existing in the space in between (bioarchaeology), I have always felt like I should know more about the archaeological theories that inform, or even tangentially relate to, the science that I use in my own research. Fellow students give presentations or defenses that excite me, what with their “negotiated peripherality” an “peer polity interaction” theories that are entrenched in archaeological thought and practice. I have to work overtime to wrap my brain around these models, but it is that exact word, “model”, that I think causes so much excitement. The thought that we may be able to mass and filter all the data that we collect and somehow process, interpret and more critically, understand human behaviors is…well, I can’t find the right positive adjective without sounding like I’m overstating the matter!

The truth is, I haven’t worked much with models. Sure, I know the basic ones that involve health stress, disease, demography, and so on, but I have no real experience with model building or predictive modeling as it relates to archaeological theory and practice. This is why when Dr. Goldstein suggested that I use all the gendered space data that I was gathering from Archives to begin to build a predictive model for CAP, I had to start from the beginning. I’m talking the real beginning: what is “predictive modeling”? Why and how do archaeologists use it/them? It has been slightly slow going teaching this to myself, but I found that reading about predictive modeling in Cultural Resource Management was pretty interesting and entailed a number of variables I had never considered. I’m sharing another excerpt of my (very rough) draft for the gendered space and predictive modeling paper below which highlights some of the basics of model use in  archaeology:

Materials: Artifacts and Archives

The historical documents at the Archives may be used to build a model for how women thought of use and restriction of space on the campus, as well as when they may have circumvented university administration and created their own space. By using documents from the turn of the century as well as modern texts, it will be possible to see how different historical variables affected women’s use of campus landscape. infusing the material from the Archives allows CAP to build a predictive model for where we may find material correlates of women’s work, space, and experience.

Methods: Predictive Modeling

Kohler and Parker (1986:400) defined predictive modeling as a method that attempts to predict the , “location of archaeological sites or materials in a region based on a sample of the region or on fundamental notions concerning human behavior.” With roots in Processual archaeology, predictive modeling hinges upon the principle of forecast; that is, can an archaeologically relevant space be located and tested using previous observations? Experiencing a surge of popularity in the United States in the late 1970s, this type of modeling has been variably received since its inception namely because this technique may overlook potential archaeological locales that are ephemeral in nature, in favor of those spaces that yield more material culture (Verhagen and Whitley 2012).

Typically, a predictive model explores environmental variable and resultant patterns related to human activity and occupation in order to generate a predictive data set for future excavations. Because of the near constant (re)development and expansion of the Michigan State University campus, CAP must work closely with a number of university operations (e.g. Physical Plant, Infrastructure and Planning, etc…) to build a use narrative of particular spaces. The University Archives collections of historical documents ranging from budget notes to farm logs to personal accounts of life on campus helps us to effectively cobble together how students and faculty used and experienced space throughout the decades. This piecemeal aggregation of written records allows us to contextualize the artifacts that we find through CAP excavations. Often, the spaces we excavate have been reused or re-purposed over a period of time, so basic stratigraphic principles must be considered under a new lens.

Author: Amy Michael

Kohler TA, Parker SC. 1986. Predictive models for archaeological resource location. Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory 9:397-452.
Verhagen Ph, Whitley TG. 2012. Integrating archaeological theory and predictive modeling: a live report from the scene. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 19:49-100.

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