All in the Details: History and the Seshat Method

As an historian, I came to the Seshat Databank—specifically, to its current project collecting data on social complexity, warfare and inequality in prehistoric Europe—with an understanding of the past, but not the material-based, schematic understanding that seems to characterize archaeological investigation. This new focus was a slight learning curve. I had to shift from my often abstract and conceptual approach to the past towards a more quantitative one. My job was not to ask grand and complex questions about topics like the construction of gender, or to apply a theoretical framework to the larger historical narrative. As a research assistant, my job was to take a geographical region, over thousands of years, and break it down into digestible and meaningful pieces. Meaningful, in that each piece forms part of a set meant to describe a culture and its varying social complexity, to measure how that complexity changes over time, all the while making the past more accessible by gathering data from various sources in one place. At least that is how I saw it.

Photo provided by the author

These differences in approach and methodology made my own skillset feel more dynamic as I applied it to each task: this was history in a scientific form. Academic interdisciplinary methods are constantly evolving, and the value of such evolution was made clear during my experience researching and coding for Seshat. It is so easy to get lost in the narrative, in the context, in accounting for every possibility of the past world we are trying to illuminate. Back in the history department, I have found myself many times plagued by the difficulty of writing an introduction that adequately sets up what I eventually want to say. Each sentence down feeds more anxiety: “is it clear that this happened because that happened? And that it happened because of a response to this set of changes? Oh, and what about the significance!?” It can get really unwieldy, really fast, even for a period of only fifty years. The trick is to isolate the key points and stick to those. I think the Seshat method helps us do this very well.

Each variable serves as an efficient entry point into the sea—or in some cases, the puddle—of academic literature on the subject, and Seshat’s coding conventions provide parameters as well. This helps prevent too much thankless wading through articles and monographs in search of where to begin. However, the specificity required to code a variable can also be challenging. Especially when the evidence you find is ambiguous and general, like the mention of weapons in a tomb. Which weapons exactly? Seshat’s variables distinguish between daggers and swords: weapons with blades under 50 cm long are coded as daggers, while those with longer blades are classified as swords. It is also important to distinguish between, for example, axes used primarily to chop down trees and “battle axes,” made to serve as offensive weapons. The reason we must specify relates to what the presence of purpose-made weapons may reveal about the social context, such as the level of intensity and formalization of violence within a culture.

This critical analysis of where to draw the line when coding a variable is where the skills honed as an historian are well-used. As in history, archaeological evidence is never one hundred per cent certain or indisputable. There is always bias, conjecture, and argument, and as someone interacting with these variables it is necessary to—tactfully, not blindly—use your own judgement. One scholar might say that there was absolutely no need for fortifications in the Bronze Age Argaric culture of southern Iberia, while another will allude to the existence of stone walls with bastions, ditches, even “hillforts.” Perhaps the rift is over the nature of fortifications as defensive? It’s curious and uncertain. Equally unclear is the existence of “administrative buildings” in the Chasséen Culture in northern France. Evidence of such structures is elusive, except, possibly, for the fortified enclosures of varying sizes and complexity, which are described as central to the territorial structuring of the settlements around them. These sticky points can spark an urge to code everything as “unknown” with an asterisk to indicate uncertainty because it’s hard to say, and “absent” or “present” feel too extreme. But this has to be done. There is nothing more boring than an historian who doesn’t take a stand; “it could mean anything…” will have your audience drifting away in no time at all. Come back to the evidence and interpret it with care.

With that said, Seshat’s coding conventions also allow for ambiguity and scholarly disagreement to be flagged up, so that where there is a difference in opinion, it isn’t artificially smoothed over. It’s important not to give the impression of a neat consensus where none exists. Tagging codes as “disputed” and contextualizing the debate in the explanatory paragraph can help strike a balance between a non-committal shrug and overconfident assertions.

At this stage, there is another important feature of the Seshat method worth mentioning. This is the review, supplementation and fine-tuning by experts in the field (as well as other RAs) of the information gathered in the first phase of data collection. One person’s interpretation of the evidence is not the last word on the matter. Specific questions about “suspected unknown” variables are fielded to experts and uncertainties are thoughtfully considered. Research can be lonely, and as we have seen, sometimes intimidating when what you’re looking for isn’t quite clear. But, when there is this opportunity to collaborate and to check and correct the information that makes up each dataset, it becomes part of a dynamic process of building a knowledge base, with each of us learning more than we could alone as different points and perspectives are brought to the table.

An equally important part of an historian’s work is observing change over time. This is often a painstaking—even laborious—affair, consisting of noticing patterns and breaks that emerge from the evidence collected or how it is interpreted. When using the Seshat method this becomes a visual business—talk about making the past accessible! I’ll admit I found it exciting to look through a collection of datasets and easily spot a moment of change in a particular period. For example, when the code for the individual monumental burial variable switches from “absent” to “present” in west-central Germany after 2700 BCE, it alerts us to the shift from the gallery graves of the Wartberg culture to the individual monumental tombs of the Early Bronze Age. This shift then ripples outward, illuminating connected topics like ritual, to become a point of comparison with other cultures and regions.

In west-central Germany, what appears to be a lack of investment in mortuary structures and grave goods in the Early Bronze Age gives way to greater volumes of metal in tombs and evidence for elaborate burial rites in the Middle Bronze Age: a change some archaeologists have interpreted as a sign of an emerging cult of the warrior. Further east, the change from megalithic singular tombs in the Funnel Beaker and Globular Amphora cultures of Poland to the small urn pits of the Lusatian culture reveals the increasing popularity of crematory ritual, and with it a changing relationship between the living and the dead. Such changes are the peaks and valleys in the plotline of an historical narrative; it is important to look for them, as they’re what keeps history interesting. Comparison helps make the variation stand out, and it is often the different, the extraordinary, or the outlier that calls for academic investigation and suggests new answers to our questions.

On a global scale, what are now west-central Germany, northern France, and north-central Poland—the regions I worked on—are geographically not that different. To those of us unfamiliar with the complexity and variability of cultures of the distant past, it can be tempting to simply assume their prehistoric inhabitants buried their dead or conducted their rituals in the same way. It was in this vein that I really noticed the value of Seshat’s comparative capabilities: when we have the ability to see where and how things change, we are less likely to make those limited assumptions. And while we may never be able to know every detail and cause behind the evolution of complex societies, the more we learn, the less we can subscribe to the idea of a general linear progression from one ancient society to another, from the past to the present. Seshat helps us see where the “forward-march” of history and human civilization actually stops to pause, meanders off the path, retraces its steps or tries a new route.


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