‘Environmentally Deterministic’ Predictive Models

There are two main approaches to archaeological predictive modelling; inductive and deductive. Deductive modelling derives rules from theory or expert knowledge. For example, any settlement would want a close supply of water; therefore there should be more settlements near to open water sources. Inductive modelling derives rules from observations. For example, what is the percentage of known settlements within say 500m of a known open water source? For inductive modelling, the location of past settlement is predicted on the basis of various factors, which broadly fall into two categories; environmental and social. Environmental factors include; soil type, ground slope, etc. Social factors include; existing land ownership, defence, etc. Digital datasets for various environmental factors are readily available, although it is important to remember that they represent the present environment. Having said that, my interest is with the Anglo-Saxon period (410 – 1066AD) and I was surprised by how little overall climatic variation there has been since then (see Lamb. H, ‘Climate: present, past and future’ – volume 2, 1977, Methuen & Co, London). Further, digital soils data (such as fertility, etc) quote ‘base’ properties which do not include for artificial fertilizers or drainage. Thus, suggesting that they are ‘timeless’ properties.


Unless you are modelling the documented past, digital datasets for social factors do not exist and are virtually impossible to make due to a fundamental lack of historical information. One can theorise about social factors but you soon get into all sorts of arguments and counter arguments, which end up with you guessing! For example, during the Anglo-Saxon period the East of England was subjected to raiding from across the North Sea. Therefore, living next to the North Sea or an estuary leading into it would have been precarious. However, in times of peace, these locations make ideal places to settle due to their natural resources and trading links. It all depends upon how large a threat this raiding was perceived at that time.


The degree to which social and environmental factors influenced site location is one of the purposes of academic predictive modelling. Some theoretical settlement models assume the specialization and inter-settlement exchange of local produce (see Aston. M, ‘Interpreting the Landscape’, 1999, Routledge, London). However, majority of settlements would still need to be self sufficient to a reasonable degree; else they would be a significant drain on the resources of their beneficiaries. Thus, environmental factors would still play a significant part in the choice of settlement location. Further, technological advances (such as transport, soil improvement, etc) expand the type of terrain suitable for settlement as it reduces the need for self sufficiency.


So, should archaeological predictive modellers simply ignore all social factors on the assumption that environmental factors over shadow them? If not, then how does one go about determining social datasets to use in archaeological predictive models? I feel that this issue deserves more debate and I would be interested to hear from anyone with a view on this difficult subject.



April 26, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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