Simulating complexity

There will be no dirt, no sweat and no temples in this blog post. But there will be loads of awesomeness because I (as well as a few other folks like me) do research at the very edge of observable science. It is actually so close to the edge you can see the vast expanses of ‘we really do not know yet’ emptiness that needs to be filled in with more projects, more funding and more people.

For those of you who have not heard of complexity science, let me give you a quick update. Until recently scientists thought that the better you know the elements of any given system, the better your understanding of how and why it works. This notion still holds but it gained a bit of a condition to it. You may know every stock trader on a first name basis and have intimate knowledge of their intentions (which, to be honest, are pretty simple: “buy low, sell high”), but is this going to help you predict the stock exchange crashes? No. It is not that difficult to investigate a neuron and learn all about the chemistry that happens in our brain, but will it help you explain human emotions? Unlikely. There are certain systems in the world (and a lot of them) of which behaviour is difficult to predict; systems in which a combination of individual actions of a large number of elements (stock brokers, neurons, cars, ants, you name it) produce unexpected global patterns; systems that undergo ‘critical transitions’ (like stock exchange crashes or ecosystem collapses) even though they were resilient to changes for a long time. In maths, they call them ‘non-linear systems’, in popular science the word ‘chaos’ is often invoked. I call it ‘freaking magic’ whenever I see a simulation of one of these systems unravelling in front of my eyes. It is astounding how often results of such simulations seem to put into question everything we believed in.

There is only one way to deal with such systems. You need to build them in your computer from the bottom up, starting from the smallest elements, code in the relationships between the elements and see what happens when they interact in their virtual worlds. And that is exactly what I do – I build archaeological simulations.

This means that I don’t get out of the office that much any more but I do get many opportunities to work on super-exciting projects with people of very diverse backgrounds and from around the world. Today I’m travelling to Cambridge for a meeting to discuss one of those. A group of people ranging from archaeologists to economists to physicist is developing a simulation testing how different subsistence strategies during the Late Pleistocene (ca 126,000 – 11,700 years ago) deal with abrupt climate change (rings a bell?). By investigating the resilience of different strategies in times of environmental stress we should be able to evaluate which cultural features are the most key to the survivability of a group. As the realisation that we need to tackle global challenges such as climate change, uneven resource distribution, overpopulation etc. using simulations, more and more modellers turn towards archaeology for its unique record, spanning millennia rather than decades, of how humans coped with similar issues in the past. We are no longer just pure science, useful to the general public for boosting tourism and providing topics for BBC documentaries – we are slowly moving towards applied science and, hopefully, this will mean that good times lay ahead in terms of funding, publicity and opportunities.

If you want to learn more about complexity science in archaeological context, read on some of the recent applications of simulation techniques or perhaps even learn how to code your first model (it is not as difficult as you think, promise!) check out our blog simulating complexity.

ArchaeoSpain project in Clunia, Spain

A team of students worked this past July on an archaeological dig to unearth the remains of a 9,000-seat Roman theater in the former Roman metropolis of Clunia (in the
present-day province of Burgos, Spain).

The Clunia Team

The Clunia Team

Students, all of whom study Archaeology at various American, Australian and European Universities, joined a team of archaeologists and archaeology students from Spain uncovering important information about how the Romans built and used the theatre. Our scope also included layers of post-use looting, which can tell us what happened to the theater after the final curtain-call. The daily tasks included the excavation and mapping of the site, in addition to extracting and cataloguing artefacts.

Clunia is widely considered by archaeologists as one of Spain’s most fascinating Roman cities, having served as one of northern Hispania’s capitals during the 1st and 2nd centuries. ArchaeoSpain teams consist of between around 10 participants from around the world who join Spanish crews of 10 to 20 more people.

Shannon and the other students have learned not only how to conduct an excavation, but also how to interpret the archaeological clues discovered,

said ArchaeoSpain director Mike Elkin.

Over the past few years, our joint Spanish-international crews have uncovered priceless information about Spain’s ancient past.

In recent years, teams of students joining the ArchaeoSpain fieldschool have assisted in major discoveries at various sites in Spain and Italy. In Valladolid, teams are excavating the necropolis of Pintia, an Iron Age burial site that has revealed important clues about warrior classes from the 5th century B.C. In Pollentia on the island of Mallorca, the high-school group – one of the few archaeological programs for high school students in the world – has been uncovering sections of that city’s Roman Forum. At Monte Testaccio in Rome our team is helping unearth clues about Roman trade throughout the empire. And in Son Peretó, also in Mallorca, we are excavating a Byzantine settlement dating to the 6th century.

Interviews with the project team


SteveShannon

Steve and Shannon

Steve and Shannon

Mike

Mike

Joan

Joan (in Spanish)

Iza

Iza

Fiona

Fiona

Dave

Dave

Dan

Dan

Chelsea

Chelsea

Aixa

Aixa (in Spanish)

Swen

Swen