How did the peoples of the past interact with each other? How did their societies function? What influence did their environments have on them? And if there are only traces of their societies left in the archaeological record, how can we ever really know?
Colin Wren, Associate Professor of Anthropology at UCCS, has an answer — and it’s the focus of his new book, “Agent-Based Modeling for Archaeology: Simulating the Complexity of Societies.” The book was co-authored with Iza Romanowska, Aarhus University and Stefani Crabtree, Utah State University.
Published in 2021 by SFI Press, the new textbook is meant to introduce archaeologists to agent-based modeling: a method of computer simulation that allows researchers to build a model of what they think might have been happening in the past, and then run simulations based on those premises.
Tracing examples of how other scholars have applied agent-based modeling — from studying intercontinental migration pathways of early hominins, to the trade networks of Ancient Rome — the textbook is also a practical overview of techniques, algorithms and references for social science and digital humanities researchers to use in their own work.
“We cover a wide range of algorithms within the book, divided into the themes of mobility, exchange and subsistence, aspects that are key to understanding all human societies,” Wren said.
“The part that most excites me is not what we have put into the textbook, but all the new ways other researchers are going to think of to employ these algorithms. We’ve provided the building blocks so that archaeologists could address all sorts of new fascinating research questions using these methods.”
To share more, Wren answered seven questions on the new book, which is available in print and as an open-access text on the SFI Press website. It has sold over 500 paperback copies sold and been downloaded over 3,000 times.
1. If you were describing your book to someone outside of your field, what would you say?
Agent-based modeling is a method of computer simulation that help us to understand complex problems. How people interacted with each other and their environment in the distant past is just such a complex system, since we only have indirect traces of their behavior in the archaeological record. Agent-based modeling allows us to build a simulation of what we think might have been happening in the past and then experiment with it to simulate a range of behaviors and outcomes for the archaeological record. We can simulate trade systems, foraging patterns, long-distance migrations, social and biological evolutionary dynamics and more.
Our textbook is a combination of tutorials to introduce archaeologists to ABM and a comprehensive review of existing applications so that current practitioners can more effectively build on existing work.
2. How did you get the idea for your project?
We began by teaching workshops on agent-based modeling at archaeology conferences and created a blog to post some of our workshop materials. This all went very well, but we wanted to reach more people, so we compiled our workshop materials together and then hugely expanded the range of topics covered and modeling theory to support good scholarly practices surrounding modeling so that everything could be in one place.
3. Did your focus develop or change throughout the research and writing process?
Early on, our focus was on providing self-guided tutorials that built on each other in terms of modeling methods. As we continued work on the book we integrated more and more aspects that teach our readers how to turn their models into publishable and reproducible science. We certainly want more people to be able to program and use these models, but we also wanted to make sure it was done well.
We also made sure to “practice what we preach” by making sure our chapters are also well supported with diverse published research, and that all the code and text of our book is open-access.
4. Which idea do you write about that most excites, invigorates or inspires you?
We cover a wide range of algorithms within the book, divided into the themes of mobility, exchange and subsistence, aspects that are key to understanding all human societies. The part that most excites me is not what we have put into the textbook, but all the new ways other researchers are going to think of to employ these algorithms. We’ve provided the building blocks so that archaeologists could address all sorts of new fascinating research questions using these methods.
5. Describe your writing space. Where do you do your best work? What time of day? Do you have any writing routines you are willing to share?
We started planning and writing this book in fall of 2018. We have worked on it off and on ever since, including during this pandemic. I’ve worked on this book in my office at UCCS, but also in a colleague’s office at Universite de Montreal, in coffee shops, at home sitting on my couch while my kids did remote schooling, pretty much everywhere. The key has been just consistently plugging away at it, and feeling free to switch between technical coding, tutorial-writing, writing about theory, literature research, and editing depending on my headspace at the time.
It also helped that my co-authors and I wrote the whole thing on an online collaborative writing platform, first Google Docs, then Overleaf, so there was never any confusing emailing of Word doc versions around or waiting for coauthors to finish a piece. We all just worked collectively on every part of the book whenever we each had the time to do so.
6. Is there a favorite quote or passage you want to showcase from the book?
“Agent-based modeling of archaeological systems can help us quantify and understand the trajectories of past societies, but it can also do much more than that. The saying ‘the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ (Hartley 1953) could equally be rephrased as ‘the future is a foreign country.’ By using the past as a calibration dataset, we can better understand where we are today, and where we are going tomorrow. The past is a powerful tool for examining how individuals and groups react in a plethora of different situations. In this way, it can be seen as a set of already conducted ‘experiments,’ showing us possible solutions to the challenges societies face. These experiments go on as we attempt to predict the trajectory of our future.“
7. What new questions for future exploration have you discovered?
Working on this book has been like the most detailed review of a topic I’ve ever done. It has been fascinating and I’ve learned a lot through the process, but I’m now eager to explore new topics myself. I already have several new projects that have been “back-burnered” while we finished the book and I’m eager to get back to the Palaeolithic to investigate them.
UCCS celebrates faculty and staff who author and edit books each year. In recognition of their achievement, and as part of the UCCS Author Spotlight initiative, authors are invited to submit details on their published works.