The Importance of Science in Scottish Archaeology
Scotland has the potential to be a world leader in the development and application of archaeological science and builds on a long and distinctive tradition of both scientific and archaeological innovation. A variety of peoples have met, interacted and lived in Scotland over many thousands of years and archaeological science is fundamental to understanding their life stories: from establishing when and where they lived, to the objects they produced, and the material remains of the individuals themselves. The Scottish environment itself offers a unique blend of characteristics within a relatively small geographical area that preserve a range of information on past peoples and landscapes. The body of evidence is large enough to be encompassing, though small enough to be comprehensible. Understanding the past is also wholly relevant to the present day, contributing to current understandings of how peoples and individuals interact with one another and with the world around them, as well as enriching current life through understanding and presenting this rich heritage in contemporary terms to modern people.
In Science, Scotland excels in a number of fields and can draw upon a range of resources and skills distributed across the country. Archaeologically, Scotland offers a diverse set of contexts in which to apply and improve techniques of analysis in order to understand past lives. Partnerships between these diverse (and often overlapping) communities provides the opportunity to combine both, exploring the past through landscapes, site, artefacts and people, both in the field and in the laboratory.
Panel Task and Remit
The task that faced the ScARF Science in Scottish Archaeology Panel was to provide a critical review of the application of scientific techniques within archaeological research and to identify improvements for future research. To this end, the panel undertook to summarise the current state of knowledge, divided into five study themes: Chronology, Human and animal sciences, Understanding materials, People and the environment, and Detecting and imaging heritage assets. The panel report is aimed at both archaeologists and natural scientists, hopefully making both communities better aware of the data, techniques and resources that the other can provide, and promoting the benefits of collaboration.
The main recommendations of the panel report can be summarised under four key headings:
- High quality, high impact research: the importance of archaeological science is reflected in work that explores issues connected to important contemporary topics, including: the demography of, the nature of movement of, and contact between peoples; societal resilience; living on the Atlantic edge of Europe; and coping with environmental and climatic change. A series of large-scale and integrated archaeological science projects are required to stimulate research into these important topics. To engage fully with these questions data of sufficient richness is required that is accessible, both within Scotland and internationally. The RCAHMS’ database Canmore provides a model for digital dissemination that should be built on.
- Integration: Archaeological science should be involved early in the process of archaeological investigation and as a matter of routine. Resultant data needs to be securely stored, made accessible and the research results widely disseminated. Sources of advice and its communication must be developed and promoted to support work in the commercial, academic, research, governmental and 3rd sectors.
- Knowledge exchange and transfer: knowledge, data and skills need to be routinely transferred and embedded across the archaeological sector. This will enable the archaeological science community to better work together, establishing routes of communication and improving infrastructure. Improvements should be made to communication between different groups including peers, press and the wider public. Mechanisms exist to enable the wider community to engage with, and to feed into, the development of the archaeological and scientific database and to engage with current debates. Projects involving the wider community in data generation should be encouraged and opportunities for public engagement should be pursued through, for example, National Science Week and Scottish Archaeology Month.
- Networks and forums: A network of specialists should be promoted to aid collaboration, provide access to the best advice, and raise awareness of current work. This would be complemented by creating a series inter-disciplinary working groups, to discuss and articulate archaeological science issues. An online service to match people (i.e. specialist or student) to material (whether e.g. environmental sample, artefactual assemblage, or skeletal assemblage) is also recommended. An annual meeting should also be held at which researchers would be able to promote current and future work, and draw attention to materials available for analysis, and to specialists/students looking to work on particular assemblages or projects. Such meetings could be rolled into a suitable public outreach event.