SAS Bulletin
Volume 19 Number 3/4 July /December 1996

Conference Report: Science & Archaeology

Rob Sternberg, President

A conference entitled "Science and Archaeology: Towards an Interdisciplinary Approach to Studying the Past" was held October 14-16, 1994 at Harvard University. The conference was organized by Robert H. Tykot (now at the University of South Florida; at right in photo) and Geoffrey D. Purcell (State University of New York, Albany; at left in photo). The conference was jointly sponsored by the Society for Archaeological Sciences and the Boston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, and was supported by grants from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation and from the Archaeological Institute of America.

The purpose and central theme of this conference was to increase communication between and to integrate the research efforts of archaeologists, classicists, art historians, museum researchers, conservation scientists, and physical scientists, in their reconstruction of historic and prehistoric societies. To that end, the organizers invited scholars from several countries to specifically address the practical aspects of doing interdisciplinary research, including research design, data interpretation and synthesis, educational/training programs and curricula. Case studies of successful interdisciplinary projects illustrated the complementarity of scientific, art historical, and archaeological information and showed how a well-designed, collaborative effort can increase our understanding of the past.

Thus, this conference followed in the tradition of musings upon the relationship between archaeology and archaeometry/archaeological science. Some previous discussions of this issue include Olin (1982); Aitken (1982); Beck (1985); Jones (1988); Renfrew (1992); Dunnell (1993); Ehrenreich (1995); and McGovern (1995).

After pre-conference tours of the Archaeometry Laboratories and the Semitic Museum, Rob Tykot's opening remarks expressed his hope that the conference would emphasize how archaeometry is done, rather than an elaboration of techniques. Geoff Purcell pondered the mission of scientific archaeology. The article by Dunnell (1993) seemed to set the stage for the conference - Dunnell begins with "many, if not most, archaeologists regard archaeometry as a sometimes interesting, largely irrelevant, and definitely optional endeavor." Our goal should be, if not to make archaeometry always required, at least to make it relevant. But one should also remember, as Pollard remanded us to Aitken (1982), that archaeometry sometimes has as much to offer to the natural sciences as it does to archaeology. This is certainly true in my own field of archaeomagnetism, where we must first determine patterns of secular variation, with the implications of these patterns for the behavior of the geomagnetic dynamo, before we can utilize these patterns for determining conventional archaeomagnetic dates.

The 50 papers and posters presented at the conference succeeded often, if not always, in meeting the goals of the organizers. I personally appreciated the talks on the teaching of archaeometry. As the cirriculum in my own liberal arts institution is under review, I hope it is revised in such a way that I can initiate a course in archaeological science, one of the relatively few endeavors where interdisciplinary links between the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities are natural, plentiful and mutually beneficial. The plenary addressed by Mark Pollard, from a Department of Archaeological Sciences (Bradford), and by James Wiseman, from a Department of Archaeology (Boston University), provided unusual perspectives on how these academic divisons might be integrated. The conference proceedings are being prepared for publication.


Aitken, M. 1982. Archaeometry does not only serve archaeology. In Olin (ed.), p. 61.

Beck, C.W. 1985. Trouble in the hedgerows. Journal of Archaeological Science 12: 405-409.

Dunnell, R.C. 1993. Why archaeologists don't care about archaeometry. Archaeomaterials 7: 161-165.

Ehrenreich, R.M. 1995. Archaeometry into archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 2: 1-6.

Jones, R.F.J. 1988. Questions, answers and the consumer in archaeological science. In E.A. Slater and J.O. Tate (eds.), Science and Archaeology, Glasgow 1987. BAR British Series 196(i): 1-7.

Olin, J.S. (ed.). 1982. Future Directions in Archaeometry: A Round Table. Smithsonian Institution.

Renfrew, A.C. 1992. The identity and future of archaeological science. In A.M. Pollard (ed.), New Developments in Archaeological Science, 285-293. Oxford University Press.

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