Using history to build a better society

Seshat General Workshop, School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography, Oxford University. October, 2015

Author: Daniel Mullins

How can we use the collective knowledge of thousands of researchers from around the globe to provide scientifically valid and meaningful solutions to humanity’s most pressing problems? A team of twenty archaeologists, historians, and anthropologists locked themselves in a room in Oxford University’s prestigious School of Anthropology and Museum Ethnography in early October to answer this question.

Much is at stake. These researchers are working to build a massive and rapidly growing collection of high-quality historical and archaeological data named ‘Seshat: The Global History Databank’. This database has the potential to transform modern society by helping us to fully grasp how the important features of human life intertwine across history. The data produced by this project is essential to understanding not only how to avoid the failures that have led one society after another to languish and collapse, but also how we can build on the successes that lead to sustained periods of peace and prosperity. An understanding of humanity’s past is essential to improving our modern world. This is common knowledge as we all learn from our own experiences as well as those of others. The fleeting glimpses into the past that are currently available, however, are not sufficient. Vivid and detailed accounts of how societies from around the globe emerged, grew, and eventually faltered are required to transform our understanding of ourselves and build a better society. The Seshat teams seeks to put their collective intelligence together to ask important questions of historical societies: What effects did human innovations in farming and warfare have in the emergence and sustainment of large and complex societies? What was the impact of climatic and environmental factors on the rise and fall of civilisations? What roles do religion and ritual play in group cohesion and cultural development?

Seeing through the fog of history. Source:

Pots of hot black coffee and cold sandwiches disappeared into this small room day after day as the Seshat team debated how best to use cutting edge tools to gather, organise, and analyse the data necessary to answer these questions. To achieve their ambitious goals, these researchers must carefully plan every aspect of this project. Resources must be allocated carefully and deliberately. When existing datasets containing high-quality data are identified, they must be carefully aligned with the databank. When historical data is missing, clever methods for analysing material remains and other alternative strategies must be developed. Scholars and citizen scientists who contribute their knowledge and expertise to the databank must be taught how to best use it. Over-interpretations of data must be identified and carefully removed. Uncertainties or scholastic debates must be recorded and considered when analysing the resulting data. Predictive mathematical models must be constructed and tested with appropriate statistical tests before being refined and retested. The demands of such a large and ambitious research programme are high.

Prof Peter Turchin Source: Sheila Fornan/UConn Photo

To push the boundaries of our understanding of our past and to bring about a more prosperous future, Seshat researchers are transforming the way we investigate the past. They are establishing new and rigorous state-of-the-art techniques for historical and archaeological research. As a result, the keys to a better society are being revealed.

To learn more about Seshat: The Global History Databank and how you can help, visit



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