On a Scientific Roll

1 min read

Prof Chris Scarre, Editor of Antiquity


One of the most striking features of the past decade has been the revolution in scientific analysis. Not since the 1960s, when radiocarbon dating and computers came to be widely used, has such a battery of new techniques so radically altered our understanding of the past. Questions formerly beyond our reach are now within our grasp. This is particularly true in my own area of interest as a prehistorian.

We can analyse stable isotopes in bones and teeth (strontium, oxygen, lead) to establish whether people grew up in the places they died. Thus we know, for example, that the ‘Amesbury Archer’ buried close to Stonehenge was an immigrant to these shores. The successful extraction of ancient DNA from bones of humans and animals that died many thousands of years ago may help us finally resolve the long-standing debate about the relationship of Neanderthals to modern humans. And finally, the introduction of Bayesian statistics to the analysis of radiocarbon dates is allowing us to track time in unprecedented detail. The vagueness of prehistoric centuries or millennia is being replaced by chronological precision that can be reckoned in individual lifespans.

Looking ahead, what beckons? Predictions are hazardous, but the rapid improvement in scientific techniques will no doubt continue, and will allow us to answer more of the key questions about the history of human populations, as well as to examine the detail of individual lives. These may not be the only issues in archaeology, but they are definitely some of the most interesting.


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