Summary of ‘Can science accommodate multiple ontologies? The genetics revolution and archaeological theory’ Workshop (11-12 June 2018)

posterworkshopjuneThis is a short summary of what happened earlier this week during the two days of the ‘Can science accommodate multiple ontologies? The genetics revolution and archaeological theory‘ Workshop which we held at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (11-12 June) (see here the Programme, and Abstracts). With this event we hoped to foster critical dialogue between several disciplines on recent DNA studies in archaeology. The aim of the event was to deal with epistemological concerns regarding the integration of empirical data, especially genetics, in archaeological/ historical interpretative models. At the same time, we wanted to see how we can contribute to the wider current debates in Anthropology, the sciences, and History, on the ways in which various kinds of evidence can be successfully integrated, at the cross-roads of humanities and hard sciences approaches.

We had 2 ½ months to plan, 11 speakers, and around 40 participants in the audience. 4 speakers were ‘local’, but from 4 different departments/institutions: Department of Genetics, Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, Cambridge Archaeological Unit, and Newnham College.

Workshop speakers’ countries represented


Deputy Director James Barrett kindly opened our event, followed by some introductory remarks from us organisers (Darryl Wilkinson, and I).



We started the first session from the case study of the latest Bell-Beaker archaeogenetics papers, by taking advantage that we had among us one of the authors on the paper.  Christopher Evans, from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, started strong with a Sherlock Holmes reference to the rule of three, charting sequences and influxes of new kinds of material culture in the UK Prehistory. By taking the case studies of Mucking, Trumpington and Over, he tried to show how the interpretation of gaps/changes in archaeological record can be addressed through genetics analysis. Christopher Fowler from Newcastle University talked about ways of constructing identity in Bell-Beaker funerary contexts, especially with regards to sexual differentiation patterns, and pushed for a productive use of hybrid knowledge by history. Geneticist Aylwyn Scally (University of Cambridge) had several important points on the way disciplines talk, namely the use of figures and images, and at what stage in a genetics paper interpretation is present. He also made the point that flow of genes does not necessarily = with flow of people, and that we should always look for alternative paths to ancestry.

Chris Evans
Chris Fowler
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Aylwyn Scally

Thus, several questions arose: Why think DNA is the one good method for interpreting change? If we talk about identity, what does it mean to then call something a Beaker complex? Colin Renfrew pointed out that Bell Beaker only derives from Yamnaya, which shows how such data puts into motion similar data. But what is a population, and how can the genetics and archaeological definitions work together? If flow of genes do not equal flow of people, how do we tie this in archaeological terms? The geneticists in the room seemed to push more for equating genes with people, while archaeologists seemed to favour going beyond simple statements.

Second session followed up on these points, with the presentations of Martin Furholt, and John Barrett. The former talked about the main fallacy of culture historical models, which start from the premise of cultural coherence and wholeness, thus neglecting the complexity of social processes. Furthermore, migration narratives circumscribed to archaeo-genetics papers often seem to follow along the same patterns, and ascribe to these movements collective agency, unidirectionality, and see them as clearly bounded phenomena. Instead we should downscale, and look at local processes, and histories. John Barrett questioned the current model of niche construction, and tried to push for rethinking organisms as genes and cultural beings, as part of an organic process of becoming- material conditions of life being the material conditions of possibility.

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Martin Furholt
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John Barrett

One of the key issues that was discussed in the debate which followed was the question of scale, and the challenge of moving from big scales to small scales.

Monday was a beautiful sunny day, so we had lunch on the front lawn, under the big tree towering the Downing Site courtyard.

Refreshed, we returned to the afternoon session which consisted of three papers by Duncan Sayer (University of Central Lancashire), Eva Fernandez-Dominguez (Durham University), and Erika Hagelberg (University of Oslo). Duncan Sayer gave an illuminating paper on the use of the past in the present, in particular on how archaeo-genetics narratives have been used in support of current political groups. By taking the case study of a genetics paper on the Anglo-Saxon population, and contrasting it with the archaeological, and historical evidence, he showed how seemingly objective scientific papers are very much intertwined with nationalistic concepts- in this case, the Victorian era creation of the Anglo-Saxons people.

Duncan Sayer

Eva Fernandez-Dominguez took us into the realm of ethics: ethics of sampling human remains, of publishing them, and not least- of designing good collaborations across disciplines. As she rightly stressed, there is currently no explicit code regarding the ethics of studying human remains as part of genetics papers, though we can refer to the general codes of good practice for osteology/anthropology. At the same time, she presented an interesting survey she conducted, having several dozen respondents, on the ways in which archaeologists perceive their collaboration with geneticists. While most of them agreed that DNA studies are important for archaeology, they also reported that often the communication and explanations are lacking across disciplines. Erika Hagelberg finished by presenting some of her personal experiences with having been a pioneer in the field, and seeing how it changed through time. Her talk also showed the disagreements regarding methods, or research questions, within the field of genetics.

Eva Fernandez-Dominguez


What seemed to transpire in this afternoon session was that better communication across disciplines is needed, with geneticists understanding which cultural interpretative models are obsolete, while archaeologists need to understand the limitations and specificities of DNA results. Furthermore, the way the publishing world seems to function in the case of these multi-disciplinary multi-authored papers has serious implications: who is taking responsibility for designing the research question, or even the title of the paper? (we had one main author in the room, a geneticist, who denied that he chose the paper’s title); what do we do when samples are collected, and we never hear back? How can we educate future generations to move between scientific and humanities models?


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Discussion time


After engaging discussion with the audience, a welcome wine reception followed in the McDonald Institute’s Lobby, and the evening continued with dinner for the speakers at the Eagle Pub- the place where DNA discovery was first announced.

The second day comprised three interventions: by Marko Marila (University of Helsinki), Rune Nyrup (Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence), and Artur Ribeiro (Kiel University). By taking the case study of Finnish archaeology, Marko Marila supported the view of a slow science, a science that allows us to have time, think, and develop models for the data at hand. Rune Nyrup then took the example of the recent female Viking warrior genetics study to talk about speculation in archaeology- what claims appear too strong/weak in relation to the evidence, as well as an optimistic conclusion as to why speculation on the past is helpful for the present -> a mirror which helps us shape our identities. Lastly, Artur Ribeiro asked us what constitutes big data? And then he tackled among others the questions: who gives the money for such projects? Who affords to have big data projects? (e.g. in Portugal it will never be possible a big data project as some funded in the UK, or Germany, due to lack of infrastructure, access to big grants etc.). Is the accumulation of data points leading automatically to better interpretation? What advantages does Big Data actually provide to archaeology? And what is the relation of Big Data and case-studies? And here he gave us as inspiring example the example of Carlo Ginzburg’s the ‘Cheese and the Worms’, as an experiment into moving between the two scales of analysis.

Marko Marila
Rune Nyrup
Artur Ribeiro


A couple of points that I think came up during the final discussion were:

-there seems to be a misunderstanding /misconception between both archaeologists and geneticists that proposing to critically discuss some new research trends equates with thinking that archaeo-genetics ‘is bad’. As someone during the discussion made the good observation: this isn’t /shouldn’t be a dichotomy between archaeology and DNA (science), rather it is one between good science and bad science. None of the speakers dismissed the use of scientific methods in archaeology, but on the contrary it was the aim of the discussion to see how best to integrate them. But as Artur Ribeiro mentioned, DNA studies in archaeology have a very short history, when compared with the 150 years old history of archaeology, or millennia of  history of the history discipline. Thus, being still in its infancy (or teenage years) it did not have time to critically reflect on its own epistemological models. Along the same lines, it seemed that different research traditions have very different codes in which an academic debate is framed- what seemed for UK/USA academics as a dismissive critique, for continental researchers it might have simply been an invitation to debate on how to move past inconsistencies/ problematic models. Acknowledging the difference in academic traditions, as well as histories of disciplines is an important aspect that should inform future cross-disciplinary debates.

– we should acknowledge that there is disagreement between competing models of explaining the past, or about what human beings are (As John Barrett rightly pointed out), and such disagreements can actually prove a fruitful platform from which we can address differences in the ways in which we can tackle the data at hand.

– Sam Leggett made the important observation that we, those gathered in the room, are researchers, but also teachers, hence we bear the responsibility to educate the young generations on how to ‘read’ both a genetics, and an archaeology paper, and to understand the possibilities, and limitations of both angles.

– returning to Eva’s point, as well as Martin’s and Artur’s, the ways in which we frame collaborations is key- results need to be made intelligible across disciplines, researchers need to know if the models they use are up-to-date, interdisciplinarity is not a process of spontaneous generation, and at least ‘a decent anthropologist’ in the team can help brush off any interpretative anachronisms.

– the issues of scales, depth, and meaningful grand narratives are still on the table, and thinking of these (as many generations before us have done) is where the challenge lies for the future.

-it was so useful, and simply great to have the time to debate the issues raised by the speakers / audience, as almost half of the time of the workshop was dedicated to discussion time. To have the time to listen, and to express ones interests is crucial for establishing collaboration. So maybe slow science is precisely what is needed nowadays.





Of course there were many other good points that I missed in this summary, but it is important to say that this has been a wonderful and instructive experience, and thanks are due to:

  1. the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research for supporting our idea through the D M McDonald Grants & Awards Fund.
  2. the speakers who made this a thought-provoking event
  3. everyone in the audience who came, and made this an engaging, and stimulating discussion
  4. to Laerke Recht, Ioanna Moutafi, and Laure Bonner for taking the photographs on the day
  5. to those who supported us with the admin details- Emma Jarman, Trish Murray, Steve, and Carol.


6 thoughts on “Summary of ‘Can science accommodate multiple ontologies? The genetics revolution and archaeological theory’ Workshop (11-12 June 2018)

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