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Robert Chapman & Alison Wylie. Evidential reasoning in archaeology. 2016. ix+254 pages, 30 b&w illustrations. London: Bloomsbury; 978-1-4725-2527-7 hardback £60.



Robert Chapman & Alison Wylie . Evidential reasoning in archaeology. 2016. ix+254 pages, 30 b&w illustrations. London: Bloomsbury; 978-1-4725-2527-7 hardback £60. - Volume 91 Issue 358 - Antonio Blanco-González
Book reviews
Robert Chapman &Alison Wylie.Evidential
reasoning in archaeology. 2016. ix+254 pages, 30
b&w illustrations. London: Bloomsbury; 978-1-
4725-2527-7 hardback £60.
This book and its
companion, the
co-edited volume
Material evidence
(Chapman & Wylie
2015), are the result
of a collaboration
between Robert
Chapman and
Alison Wylie, who define themselves, respectively,
as a British, philosophically minded archaeologist
and a North American philosopher of science with
an archaeological background. Their cooperation
started in 2010 when Wylie was a visiting professor
at Chapman’s home institution, the University
of Reading. This visit involved several lectures
and a seminar on ‘Material culture as evidence’.
Evidential reasoning in archaeology draws on these
sessions and wider reflections to offer a much-
needed re-evaluation on the fundamental question
of how archaeologists build up their claims from the
datasets they record and use as evidence of the past.
Despite the centrality of this issue for archaeological
practice, it has received little attention over the past
two decades; only recently has it gained renewed
interest with the intellectual turn to things and
The key ideas in this book are not new; most
of them are synthesised by the authors in their
introduction to Material evidence (2015), supple-
mented here, especially on the philosophical side of
their argument, with material published elsewhere.
These antecedents, however, do not diminish the
value of Evidential reasoning in archaeology,which
offers a detailed and worthwhile discussion of these
important lessons in a cogent text. The book is a
concise and insightful piece of work divided into
an introduction, four chapters and a concluding
section. The short introduction presents the paradox
of material evidence—an enigmatic resource that
combines a challenging equifinality and ambiguous
nature with an eloquence and robustness resisting
appropriation. Indeed, this capacity of data as a social
construct that can “bite back” (p. 31) is at the very
heart of archaeological practice.
Chapter 1 exposes some of the misplaced assump-
tions that have characterised recurrent high-level
theoretical debates between the two opposing camps,
vividly depicted here as the two horns of a dilemma.
Thus, on one side are pessimistic normative scholars
aiming to provide a neutral description of past
facts (the ‘data-first’ approach), and avoiding any
untestable speculation; on the opposite side are
optimistic archaeologists seeking deductive validity
and advocating that the limits of knowledge are
not inherent in the material record itself but rather
lie in the mode of enquiry. Postmodern critics
have contributed to this dispute, making clear that
every observation is theory-laden; that scientific
arguments are constructs facilitated and inhibited by
contingent factors; and that deductive certainty in
science is unattainable. The authors contend that
beyond such maximalist and abstract terms, these
divisive all-or-nothing positions, which persisted into
the 1990s, make little sense. After the waning of
these ‘theoretical wars’, more than 20 years ago,
the challenge of inferring conclusions from material
evidence remains far from resolved. But the issue has
gone underground, internalised as tacit knowledge,
leading to confusion.
In the absence of infallible self-warranting founda-
tions or any truth to recover, the book’s middle way
proposes to distinguish between varying degrees of
credibility in our inferential claims. There is a rich
suite of possibilities on the spectrum between the
two extremes, and the authors seek to identify the
most plausible options. Consequently, the following
chapters take real examples from the archaeological
literature as the means through which to scrutinise
how archaeologists do their best—and their worst—
to draw provisional conclusions.
Chapter 2 shows that it is necessary to build infer-
ential scaffolding to develop background knowledge.
It is also crucial to mobilise disparate lines of
indirect (proxy) evidence, as, according to Wylie’s
argument, they mutually constrain and reinforce
© Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2017
antiquity 91 358 (2017): 1104–1120 doi:10.15184/aqy.2017.107
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one another, thus providing evidential robustness—
in her terms, cables are stronger than chains.
Chapter 3, ‘Working with old evidence’, focuses
on two examples of the iterative and continuous
refinement of legacy data: the indigenous mound-
building traditions in the central United States of
America and the complex case of the Iron Age village
of Glastonbury in southern England. This chapter
clearly shows how evidential claims can be ap-
praised and their varying credibility strengthened or
Chapter 4 discusses the idea of approaching the
multi-stranded nature of archaeological research as
a trading zone. It draws on several case studies:
the three radiocarbon revolutions and two British-
based research projects: a successful one (the
‘Diaspora Communities in Roman Britain’) and
a problematic example (the lead isotope analysis
of Bronze Age Mediterranean metal objects by
Oxford scholars). Their review highlights some of the
requirements to be met if we seek robust evidential
reasoning: to bring together as many strands of
evidence as possible with each line independently
credible, adequately calibrated to avoid spurious
convergence and without one regarded as superior
or indisputable; and to foster reciprocal training and
inter-disciplinary communication and competence,
for we as archaeologists must bear the ultimate
responsibility for interpretation.
In short, the particular expertise and shared interests
of the authors complement their collaborative
endeavour. The results are far richer than those
that archaeologists and philosophers of science will
encounter within their own individual disciplines.
In contrast, the authors focus exclusively on their
own national traditions, but the central message
of this volume will affect the audiences in other
nations in varied ways. Discussion of the limits of
archaeological interpretation may be familiar in the
Anglophone milieu, where such topics were debated
up to the 1990s, but in other regions that did not
experience similar disputes, such as South America or
mainland Europe, practitioners have rarely benefited
from these deliberations. The pragmatic and realistic
alternative presented here will probably have a
significant impact in years to come. Multi-faceted,
interdisciplinary, science-based research programmes
will increase in number in the near future, and
this book offers good guidance for the design
and conduct of high-quality evidential reasoning in
Chapman,R. &A. Wylie (ed.). 2015. Material
evidence: learning from archaeological practice.
London: Routledge.
Antonio Blanco-González
Department of Prehistory,
University of Salamanca, Spain
Peggy Sotirakopoulou.The pottery from Dhaskalio
(The sanctuary on Keros and the origins of Aegean
ritual: the excavations of 2006–2008, volume IV).
2016. xvii+477 pages, numerous b&w illustrations,
tables, CD. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Ar-
chaeological Research; 978-1-902937-76-2 hardback
The Aegean
island of Keros,
Greece, has long
captured the
interest of Aegean
prehistorians and
the general public
as it is the alleged
findspot of such
famous Cycladic
figurines as the
flutist and harpist held in the National Archaeological
Museum of Athens (Koehler 1884: pl. 6), as well as
the so-called Keros Hoard (Sotirakopoulou 2008).
Since the 1960s, the island and its neighbouring
islet of Dhaskalio have been investigated by several
rescue and systematic programmes of archaeological
exploration that have revealed that this now
uninhabited set of islands was once a centrally
located Cycladic sanctuary. The volume under
review, the fourth in the series reporting the results
of the Cambridge Keros Project, focuses on the Early
Bronze Age pottery (third millennium BC) recovered
during the 2007–2008 excavations on Dhaskalio.
The settlement on the islet presents great interest not
only because of its connection (and, to an extent,
complementarity) to the two Special Deposits from
Kavos on Keros (with which it was connected by
a causeway in antiquity), but also because of its
substantial size, on a par with or even larger than
some famous contemporaneous sites in the Aegean.
The author, Peggy Sotirakopoulou, is a pottery
specialist with an impressive publication record
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