Feb 21 - Alison Wylie UBC Philosophy "Radiocarbon Dating and Robustness Reasoning in Archaeology"

Talk Description

If anything looks like an ‘infallible foundation’ for archaeological reasoning it’s radiocarbon dating. Hailed as a revolution that got under way in the 1950s, 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, the process of bringing these tools of physical dating to bear on archaeological problems has been a long, tortuous process, now described as proceeding through three radiocarbon revolutions. The first revolution, Libby’s initial introduction of radiocarbon dating to archaeology, quickly gave rise to a decades-long process of calibration by which 14C chronologies were corrected and refined, often against the very lines of evidence they were meant to displace. Increasingly, however, the advocates of a third, “pragmatic Bayesian” revolution argue that, no matter how much it is refined, radiocarbon dating cannot on its own resolve the chronological problems that archaeologists address. To construct chronological data that can travel, archaeologists must mobilize many different lines of evidence; they rely on a genre of “robustness reasoning.” I identify conditions for success in this that are made explicit in debate about chronologies based on legacy data. 

Alison Wylie, Professor of Philosophy, University of British Columbia


Alison Wylie is Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. She works on philosophical issues raised by archaeological practice and by feminist research in the social sciences: questions about ideals of objectivity, the role of contextual values in research practice, models of evidential reasoning, and issues of accountability to research subjects and others affected by research. She is co-author of Evidential Reasoning in Archaeology (2016) and co-editor of Material Evidence (2015), author of Thinking from Things (2002), and a contributor to collections on Objectivity in Science (2015), Appropriating the Past (2012), Evidence, Inference and Enquiry (2011), How Well do 'Facts' Travel? (2010), and Agnotology (2008).