Legacy Data, Radiocarbon Dating, and RObustness Reasoning

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Wylie, Alison
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Archaeologists put a premium on pressing “legacy data” into service, given the notoriously selective and destructive nature of their practices of data capture. Legacy data consist of material and records that been assembled over decades, sometimes centuries, often by means and for purposes long since discredited or superseded. The primary strategies by which archaeologists put the data to work for new purposes are, I argue, secondary retrieval, recontextualization, and experimental modelling. I focus here on a particularly telling and complex example of secondary retrieval: the extraction of new data from old by means of radiocarbon dating. This is by no means a straightforward process of retrieving physical samples from legacy data to which 14C techniques can be applied that can, on their own, decisively settle chronological questions. When Libby’s post-war radiocarbon revolution got under way, it was expected to establish an absolute chronology that would render obsolete the local and relative chronologies on which archaeologists had long relied. Transformative though it has been, bringing these tools of physical dating to bear on archaeological problems has been a long, tortuous process, now described as proceeding through two subsequent radiocarbon revolutions. The second was an extended (and on-going) process of calibration by which 14C chronologies were corrected and refined, often against the very lines of evidence they were meant to displace. The most recent, a “pragmatic Bayesian” approach to archaeological dating, is motivated by concern that, no matter how much it is refined, radiocarbon dating cannot on its own resolve the chronological problems that archaeologists address; the challenge, its advocates argue, is to ‘fully integrate archaeological information with 14C dating in order to address archaeologically relevant (and therefore socially relevant) timescales and episodes’ (Manning 2015: 151). This is a genre of “robustness” reasoning that illustrates its epistemic risks as well as its appeal. As recent philosophical debate makes clear (Soler et al. 2012, Soler 2014), it depends on appeals to the convergence of independent lines of evidence that may have more rhetorical than epistemic force and that may be spurious. Drawing on this philosophical literature I identify a set of conditions that must be met if these risks are to be avoided, all of which are an explicit focus of debate in cases of contestation about and reconciliation of chronologies based on legacy data. Manning, S. W. (2015) Radiocarbon Dating and Archaeology: History, Progress and Present Status. In Material Evidence, ed. Chapman and Wylie, pp. 128-158. London: Routledge. Soler, L., E. Trizio, T. Nickles, W. C. Wimsatt, eds. (2012). Characterizing the Robustness of Science: After the Practice Turn in Philosophy of Science. Dordrecht: Springer. Soler, L. (2014) “Against Robustness? Strategies to Support the Reliability of Scientific Results. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 28.2: 203-215.