Lessons from the past, over 30 different geographic areas and 12,000 years: the Seshat project

Hello! I’m Agathe Dupeyron, a nomadic archaeologist who can occasionally be found in Peru, France, or the UK. In previous years, I was not able to take part in the Day of Archaeology. Indeed, at this time of year, I normally find myself digging in the sands of coastal Peru without internet access.

Seshat, the Egyptian goddess of databanks, and the deity after which the project was named. Copyright © 2015, Evolution Institute & Seshat Project

My background is in public archaeology – a strand of our discipline that aims to reflect on the economic, social and political impacts of archaeology on the real world. However, since February 2015 I started working as a research assistant on an ambitious and innovative digital project that blends cultural evolution, archaeology and history, and I now spend more time digging through books and PDFs than excavating dead bodies.

 

The Seshat: Global History Databank project aims to detect and understand long-term trends in societies using rigorous mathematical models based on actual archaeological and historical evidence in order to inform future policy-making.  We use data collected on a very large-scale, both temporally and spatially. This kind of approach, which we call cliodynamics (for Clio, the goddess of history) has so far enabled researchers like Peter Turchin to foresee events such as the rise of ISIS, Brexit, or the disruption of traditional political parties in the USA. When I found out about the project, the opportunities that it would present to use the lessons of history and influence current trends were not lost on me. After all, using our knowledge of the past to change the world is what public archaeologists strive to do.

Although there are no excavations involved, our aims are very similar to those of more traditional archaeologists. We seek to test theories about humanity and the evolution of societies, such as understanding the role of warfare and ritual in the emergence of states, or looking at the relationship between social inequality, political (in)stability and well-being. Cultural evolution is the idea that societies have attributes that are heritable and subject to change, and can be selected for or against at various levels, much like individual traits in genetic evolution. Hence, some traits make societies more durable and are thus likely to spread. The project evaluates the importance of various parameters in the long-term and across the globe. So far, we have sampled 30 regions, but there will be many more in the future as we expand.

The map of  NGAs (Natural Geographic Areas) sampled by the Seshat project. Copyright © 2015, Evolution Institute & Seshat Project

We are directly dependent on the scholarship produced by archaeological projects on the ground (excavation reports, books, journal articles, catalogues) among other sources. Many archaeological projects have made inroads into the theories we want to test, but until now there was no way to check whether they held up against actual evidence in more than a few case studies. Besides, the project goes beyond archaeology in a truly interdisciplinary fashion, reflected in our team, made up of evolutionary biologists, anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and computer scientists.

On a typical day, I’ll peruse (usually academic) texts about a region of the world and look for specific variables. At the moment, I’m focusing on a succession of polities in Anatolia and looking for information on legal systems, institutions, economics, discrimination, slavery, and many other parameters. Trying to fit so much information into a uniform coding pattern does not come without challenges. It involves scanning huge swathes of literature rapidly to look for the most relevant data, and evaluating the reliability of the source – which are staple research skills. In this respect, my job is not so different from that of an academic. Then, I extract the information I need and code it into what we call ‘polity sheets’ using a prescribed set of variables (here’s the code book).

This means that we have to choose from the available options for consistency, in a way that will be machine-readable, and provide our explanations with quotes (and detail our conundrums, if any!) in the explanatory paragraph. Here’s an example for the Roman Principate. If you want to learn more about it, the coding process has also been detailed in a really good post written by my colleague Eva Brandl.

The Zunghar khanate (Mongolia), one of the polities I've worked on. This is the first map ever recorded, possibly drawn by Galdan Tseren himself and/or Johan Gustaf Renat, a Swedish explorer in the 18th century. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Zunghar khanate (Mongolia), one of the polities I’ve worked on. This is the first map ever recorded, possibly drawn by Galdan Tseren himself and/or Johan Gustaf Renat, a Swedish explorer in the 18th century. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, we make sure to contact experts to double-check that our information is correct, and to obtain more suggestions. The approach has been very fruitful so far, and dozens of archaeologists and historians have contributed in order to refine the quality of our data.

This job has given me the chance to focus on the archaeology and history of a variety of places that I had not necessarily studied before, and I have learnt so much. Initially I started with Peru, which I am very familiar with after living there for a year and a half, but quickly moved on to Colombia, China, the Paris Basin, Sogdiana or Mongolia. I have read hundreds of books and articles on ritual, warfare, settlement patterns, and almost any topic that can be broached in scholarly literature.

Thanks to my nomadic lifestyle, I sometimes end up visiting archaeological sites mere weeks after reading about them. Here, the Inka/colonial site of Vilcashuaman in Peru.

Thanks to my nomadic lifestyle, I sometimes end up visiting archaeological sites mere weeks after reading about them. Here, the Inka/colonial site of Vilcashuaman in Peru. Image taken by the author.

As I come across bizarre/interesting tidbits of information about past societies, I tweet some of them at @agatheducrayon (I also occasionally upload photos from some of  the most interesting sites I see in the Andes). The Seshat project can be followed at @SeshatDatabank, and it’s very refreshing to see beautiful images of sites, objects and interesting projects popping through the stream of politics and news. We also have a hashtag, #Seshat, that most research assistants use to share what we’ve been working on, and a blog which is regularly updated.

Over the next few years, the database will become publicly available (starting in March 2017), and anyone will have access to it for browsing or theory-testing. If you are interested in contributing or sharing your knowledge, or just want to find out more information on the project, don’t hesitate to contact us on social media, on Twitter, Facebook or on our dedicated website.