Scales of data and analysis

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Social scientists, including archaeologists, examine both big-picture issues and fine-grained data. This means they consider large-scale topics like sociopolitical evolution and the formation of nation-states. Of course, some of the data archaeologists collect is very small and local, like the location of house posts and fire pits, and the distribution of houses in a community—for example, in a prehistoric village, as surrounded the mounds we call Etowah, near Cartersville.

Historians, like archaeologists, also consider both big-picture concepts, and work to that broad scale from small bits of information.

Henry Story of the Confederacy jacket

Consider Robert Selph Henry’s The Story of the Confederacy (second, revised edition; 1936; Grosset & Dunlap; New York). Henry integrated information from government records, memoirs, and monographs to detail the history of the Confederacy in a single volume of about 500 pages.

The letters of a soldier or reports of a field commander tell of specific events and very localized activities. Henry took that kind of information and analyzed it to summarize the history and offer insights and patterns not visible within a collection of letters and reports.

Henry closed the preface to the revised edition, written in February 1936, with these thoughts:

The story is not of men and women long dead, moving in a remote and unreal world. It is a story of our immediate past, vital with meaning for our present and our future. It is a story of a war which almost complete lack of military preparation on both sides failed to prevent; a story of controversy exasperated into bloody conflict by continued vaunting of superior virtue. War came, the “brothers’ war,” despite the Constitution established to govern the relations of the once-independent states and their peoples, one with another and all with the central power. The human forces which made even that conflict inescapable are the same today as in the ’sixties. When will that fact be learned by those Americans who seek to promote peace by preachments to or at other peoples?

Clearly, Henry has moved from the specific information on troop movements and provisioning, casualties and battle strategies, and so on, to reflect on not only the Confederacy, but on the general topic of warfare.

Although this topic is historical—we are now in the sesquicentennial of the Civil War—this pattern of a conceptual continuum from fine-grained data to broad-scale analysis and theorizing also happens in archaeological literature.

Thus, the archaeologist working on a crew excavating, for example, a Mississippian village site, may be looking at a pattern of post holes that indicate where the walls of a house were, feeling sweaty and reaching for a bottle of cool water, and thinking, I’ve got to shoot measurements with the total station then finish my notes.

Soon, the tired yet excited archaeologist may consider whether other known Mississippian-period houses are larger or smaller, whether the sizes vary across space or through time, and, to top it all off, what does this pattern mean about social organization (e.g., how many people regularly slept in this house and were they all members of the same family?) and, perhaps how far did people go to get the materials to build and maintain the house?

Likewise, the archaeologist’s publications after leaving the field and doing laboratory analysis will perhaps build from data reports with analysis of this specific information, to discussion of this particular house and community in the context of this particular valley, region, and macro-region. Finally, the archaeologist may consider these patterns in a comparative study with other societies, known either historically or archaeologically from around the globe. Thus, the fine-grained data like a post hole can be integrated into a theory of sociopolitical evolution.

Of course, the scale of data and analysis are related.

If you are investigating the size of posts that were used to build the walls of Mississippian-period houses, you collect measurements of post holes from many houses, with specific dating so you know if the houses date to earlier or later. Thus, perhaps you can chart change over time. Perhaps the size of posts became smaller over time, and more houses were built. Thus, you could speculate that perhaps the larger trees were no longer available. Or it could have been a style change, and the walls were made differently, in a way that favored selection of smaller posts.

If instead you are interested in the size of households, you move from the post data to the size of the houses indicated by the pattern of post holes to compare them to house-size data from other periods and cultures. Perhaps the area of the floor of the Mississippian structures is comparable to that of domiciles known to have housed, say, ten or a dozen people rather than up to about six. The size of a group of people that commonly sleeps under the same roof or is most tightly affiliated within a village (perhaps due to more than kinship relationships) has implications for social organization that you can then explore.

To make this kind of analysis, you have moved from post-hole data to a broader, comparative understanding of social processes.

Consider how quantities of fine-grained data obtained through careful, well-documented excavation can be integrated to investigate broader questions of socio-political evolution. What kinds of data would you find particularly useful for both fine-grained and broad-scale analyses? What research questions do you find most thought-provoking?