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50 Years of ISA

Talk given by Yannis Maniatis, May 29 2012

Dear Martin, dear Mike, dear old and new colleagues, dear friends,

I am the third Chairman in the history of the International Symposium of Archaeometry; I was a student of Mike Tite who was a student of Martin Aitken. This means three generations, three generations of people attending this Symposium. Why? Is it the brotherhood of the older folks that passes down to new generations? Perhaps! Is it the love and devotion to this particular field that passes from teachers to students and spreads around? Perhaps! Is it some uniqueness that this conference has? Perhaps all the above together but most of all I believe is its uniqueness, as it provides the only international forum for all activities in Archaeometry, individually and integrated. In which other conference one can meet experts and learn of their research in dating, geophysical methods and field studies, palaeoenvironment, biomaterials, ceramics, glass, vitreous, metals, lithics, plasters, pigments, textiles, paper and so on and, interweaved with a lot of Archaeology. This is a conference for dedicated Archaeometrists or Archaeological Scientists, but also for Archaeologists.

Here we are today celebrating our 50 th Anniversary, the Golden Jubilee of our wedding. The marriage between Science and Archaeology that is consumed every day in many different places all over the world and the results of which are presented every two years in this Symposium!

However, it was not always like that as you heard earlier. From the 60’s to the 70’s, 80’s and through the first decade of the third millennium we have witnessed a progressive shift from “Basic” Archaeometry, as I like to call it (methodology and technique development), to “Applied” Archaeometry (adaptation and application). During this time many other specialized conferences started to be organized providing forums for presentations and discussions of specific subjects in Archaeological Sciences, competing in a way with ISA. Yet, many of the scholars want to present their work in this conference. Why? Because, this is the only conference for people working in dedicated Archaeometry laboratories or departments (in Universities, Research Centres and Museums), and they deal with a lot of different kinds of archaeological materials and questions. They are interested mainly in the archaeological problem and not in the technique. They want to know which, is the best combination of techniques that answers a specific archaeological question; they need to develop integrated approaches to understand the raw material and technological choices of ancient craftsmen; they need to trace the ancient routes of people movements, materials and objects through time; the biological aspects of humans, the food and environment, the relation of settlements to agriculture and animal breeding. These are global questions which need multi-technique and multi-disciplinary approaches involving also a lot of Archaeology. It is clear that ISA is the only forum for presenting and discussing such projects.

What it may appear sometimes as a general shift from basic to applied Archaeometry is actually a more persistent work to extract as much cultural information as possible. It is a shift of orientation, a shift towards answering the archaeological questions and problems. I have felt this change in my own personal work. When I started, as a Physicist, for many years I was working in developing techniques or methodologies that could potentially be applied to answer archaeological questions. I did not know much Archaeology then. Progressively however, I begun to understand more, I begun to see more clearly the archaeological questions and I lean more deeply into them. I realized that the usefulness of a technique is judged after it has produced a vast amount of archaeological data. Its discrimination power, its ability to produce more than one useful parameter from a certain material can only be assessed after repeated applications on many objects of different kind, origin and time. The knowledge we have acquired about the techniques and methods, the understanding of materials behaviour under heating and mechanical stress and the rich databases we have created in the 20 th century is showing its fruits in the 21 st century.

I remember for years the typical complain of the archaeologists, that they did not understand much of what was said in our conferences. And my typical answer to them was that, this conference is mainly for us, the scientists, the archaeometrists, in order to discuss the techniques and developments which will eventually be useful to archaeologists. I have not heard this complain for some years now. We have become a bit more archaeologists and they have become a bit more scientists. It is easy to confirm that if you see how many papers are presented in ISA jointly by scientist and archaeologists and in several cases by archaeologists alone. It is also remarkable to see how many meaningful and important projects with a universal impact have been generated by scientists that are now deeply involved in Archaeology. In general, one may observe that, we may have lost certain part of the pure scientific side of Archaeometry but we have gained and gaining a wealth of information about our past.

One may also argue that a number of papers presented in recent years have a very narrow and limited impact concerning a specific site, a specific material or a specific problem that perhaps does not interest a lot of people. The reason for that is that the techniques are now more easily accessible, the knowledge has been diffused, the databases are more extensive and readily available and the statistical treatment packets simplified. It is therefore much easier now than it was in the past to apply scientific methods to any specific site and to any specific set of materials. Besides, archaeologists are now keener to extract data on the particular material they study, so these “narrow” papers are the result of archaeometric technology advancement, a fact that has made everything easier and turned a lot of issues to routine applications. In any case, it is needless to say that every little piece of data which is produced today is useful for tomorrow, as they will be some scholars to synthesize it and incorporate it into a work with a much greater impact. This is what Isaac Newton did; he synthesized all the data produced by Copernicus, Ticho Brahe, Kepler and others to come up with the Universal Law of Gravity!


Based on these, can we foresee how ISA is going to develop in the following decades of the 21 st century and in the next 50 years?

The systematic application of techniques, established after many years of scientific research, will continue and new innovative ways of combining them and integrating them according to the archaeological problem will be developed. The databases will continue to be expanded reaching an international and universal level. The accumulation of information on archaeological objects and materials will be compiled in a unified way in order to complete the history of mankind and fill in the gaps in the human history and culture.

In addition, the tuning of old techniques and the re-evaluation of data produced in the past, will be performed in order to increase accuracy and reliability and in the same time new techniques will be developed or adapted. This will be necessary in order to tackle more complicated problems that in some cases the application of archaeometric techniques themselves have generated. For example, the more raw materials one analyses with a certain technique the more overlapping may occur between the field parameters and in order to increase again the discrimination one has to apply more techniques in combination.

A focusing to more global problems which should be persistently studied and presented may be the future trends. For example, and I copy from Mark Pollard’s editorial in Archaeometry, “how and why did homo sapiens come to be the only large mammal species with a world-wide distribution?”, or ‘why did we have a Bronze Age?’, or ‘how did technological innovation spread throughout the ancient world?’ I can add to these more global questions which we need to tackle: “How the movements of people occurred from east to west, form south to north and from Balkans to Central Europe”, “Did the climate influence these movements?”, “What is the earliest transfer or exchange of goods?”, “what has travelled in each case? The raw materials? The finished products? The people? or the ideas?

With so many students attending, especially this Leuven symposium, I am sure that, like the law of gravity, a Universal law of the emergence of civilization will soon be discovered!

As far as the Standing Committee of ISA is concerned, we will do our best to influence the future trends in Archaeometry by organizing and maintaining apart from the standard sessions also special sessions on global questions and themes, on debatable issues, on revisiting and reconsidering old data, and many others issues. We will be open to special topics that synthesize the knowledge and data collected in the past. For selecting these we need the input and ideas of every one of our colleagues and participants.

I just hope that our present contribution will be thought of and mentioned as a little stone in the big building of ISA when the younger of you will celebrate the centennial anniversary in 2062!.

Long live to ISA!

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