Published: Feb. 24, 2016 By

As a graduate student who thinks and processes information in an outline format, Kintigh et al’s 2014 PNAS article concerning grand challenges for archaeology helped me gain an understanding of the state of archaeology as senior scholars in the field see it. Based on the results of a crowd-sourcing report (Kintigh 2013) and a more in-depth American Antiquity article (Kintigh et al 2014), the PNAS article identifies five themes that revolve around ideas of interaction, comparison, and change and development. Within each theme are a series of questions that scholars consider key to understanding the archaeological record.

My own research revolves around spatial and temporal transition zones in the American Southwest. I’m interested in temporal transitions from an ecological perspective: how were people arranging themselves on the landscape and utilizing different environmental niches from one archaeological time period to the next, and why? I’m also interested in spatial transitions from a network and interaction perspective: why did patterns of movement and interaction between regions (such as the Great Plains and the Southwest) change through time, what objects indicate these processes, and what do their styles and uses tell us about group interaction and affiliation? In my mind, these interests address several of the Grand Challenges, including:

C2 (What are the relationships among environment, population dynamics, settlement structure, and human mobility?);

C4 (Why does migration occur and why do migrant groups maintain identities in some circumstances and adopt new ones in others?);

D2 (How do people form identities and what are the aggregate long-term and large-scale effects of these processes?); and

D3 (How do spatial and material reconfigurations of landscapes and experiential fields affect societal development?).

Although the article covers questions archaeologists should be thinking about, it does not really address how we should go about answering them. I can imagine the same questions being addressed in a number of different ways, and at a number of different scales. For example, increasing interaction, network formation, and negotiation can be addressed at the scale of a specific trade center on the Plains-Pueblo frontier (my current thesis project) or on a larger, or grander, scale of entire settlement systems in many different contexts. Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to explore how these scales link up through a collaborative project I’m involved with.

The Social Reactors Project ( is an interdisciplinary collaboration of archaeologists, economists, and physicists interested in relationships between human interactions and patterns in material culture and settlement infrastructure. We’re working at a fairly abstract scale, using formal models and measurements of aggregate quantities such as population, house area, storage area, etc. to compare the properties of settlements. We are thinking about human settlements as social reactors because of the way they seem to concentrate human interactions in space and time, leading to a wide variety of measurable (and somewhat predictable!) effects. In this way we are illuminating important similarities and differences in community growth patterns, which can then be studied further using various approaches best suited to the different scales of analysis.

The work of this group directly addresses Grand Challenge A5 (How and why do small-scale human communities grow into spatially and demographically larger and politically more complex entities?) and A6 (How can systematic investigation of prehistoric and historic urban landscapes shed new light on the social and demographic processes that drive urbanism and its consequences?). The methods we are using are also crucial as examples of how to study a grand challenge at a grand scale and in a systematic way. Empirical contributions of our group to addressing the Grand Challenges include a) compiling large datasets in relational databases so they can be expanded on by and of use to others; and b) compiling consistent measurements of each site.

The most important contribution of our work, as I see it, is connecting the present to the past not through analogy as a substitute for direct evidence, but through the evidence itself, which is to say, by analyzing the same measures from modern and ancient settlements in the same way. In 1970, Fritz and Plog offered the sobering statement that, “unless archaeologists find ways to make their research increasingly relevant to the modern world, the modern world will find itself increasingly capable of getting along without archaeologists.” I think this project provides a good example of the relevance Fritz and Plog were speaking of.

The question I was left with after reading the Grand Challenges PNAS article was how would these questions be framed for different scales of analysis, and, for the large scales, how do we compile and manage the vast amounts of data needed to address them? The work of the Social Reactors Project is a step in addressing this question.

Kaitlyn Davis is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at CU Boulder.

For additional responses to the Grand Challenges, see


Fritz, John M. and Fred T. Plog.

1970. “The Nature of Archaeological Explanation.” American Antiquity 35(4):405-412.

Kintigh, Keith W.

2013. Grand Challenges for Archaeology Crowd Sourcing Report. .

Kintigh, Keith W. et. al.

            2014. “Grand challenges for archaeology.” PNAS 111(3):879-880.

Kintigh, Keith W. et. al.

            2014 “Grand Challenges for Archaeology.” American Antiquity 79(1):5-24).