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Beyond determinism. A case for complex explanations and human scale in framing archaeological causal explanations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 June 2019

Alexandra Ion*
Francisc I. Rainer Institute of Anthropology, Bucharest, Romania, and McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge University, UK


In a recent intervention, Romanian philosopher and essayist Andrei Pleşu (2018) writes on the topic of destiny,

We are not caught blindly in a network of ‘fatal’ causes and effects, rather we are integrated in an ‘epic’ structure, on a pathway which includes an ‘intrigue’, a host of significant events, sometimes stimulating, while at other times destabilising, in a ‘story’ whose makeup can only be revealed at the end of the ‘spectacle’.

Archaeology is a discipline in the privileged position of engaging with things when they have seen their end lives and conclusions, at the end of the ‘spectacle’. The downside is that sometimes too much time has passed, and traces have got lost, while at other times we forget that any story had a development, alongside moments when things could have turned out quite differently. Thus, upon trying to interpret change in the past, we sometimes end up with what Arponen and colleagues tackle in their article, namely deterministic explanations. Their article raises some points directly related to the implications of a particular kind of data set – palaeo-environmental studies – for framing historical explanations. This range of studies has become more important in recent years, as part of a wider resurgence of scientific technologies applied to interpreting the past. This trend has been accompanied by important implications, revealing the problem of integrating data sets of different kinds, from natural sciences to social sciences towards explaining historical processes. As the authors highlight, most often the explanation proceeds by identifying patterns in different data sets, climate record and archaeology, which are then correlated, and if they match they are interpreted in a causal key. But is life that simple?

© Cambridge University Press 2019 

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