Stanford University

Plenary Session

Opening Debate: The Potentials and Limits of Big Data

Friday, May 1 2020, 12.00-5.00 pm

In this introductory plenary session, 7 speakers have agreed to debate the theme of the potentials and limits of Big Data. The aim is to engender discussion about the politics of scale. In a world in which large amounts of grey literature have become available in digital form, and in which large-scale, long-term excavations have made quantitative data available, and universal ontologies promoted, and in which there are pressures to explore Big History and Grand Narrative, what are the impacts on local voices and alternative pasts? There will also be commentary by an anthropologist of the ethics of big data, proxies and algorithms in the contemporary world.

There will be 7 half-hour talks, with lots of time for discussion and debate.


Anna Agbe-Davies

Anna Agbe-Davies is a historical archaeologist and Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Her work focuses on plantation societies of the southeast US and Caribbean as well as 19th and 20th century Midwest cities and towns, particularly in relation to the African Diaspora. She has been published in numerous journals and edited volumes, with her most recent articles examining pragmatism and semiotics in archaeology.

Benjamin Alberti

Benjamin Alberti is a Professor in the Department of Sociology at Framingham State University. He received his PhD from the University of Southampton, examining gender and artwork of Bronze Age Knossos. He has published widely since then on theory in archaeology and ontologically oriented anthropology and archaeology. His most recent work examines anthropomorphism and materiality in northwest Argentina and the archaic rock art of northern New Mexico.

Kimberly Bowes 

Kimberly Bowes is an Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and an archaeologist, specializing in the archaeology of late antique religions, domestic architecture, and Roman economics. She received her PhD from Princeton University. While her earlier work examined aspects of elite culture in late antiquity, her more recent research has turned to studies of non-elites and issues around poverty in the Roman economy.

Oliver Harris

Oliver Harris is an Associate Professor in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester. He received his PhD from Cardiff University. His current project takes an approach rooted in microwear analysis to trace histories of stone and bronze over millennia and questions traditional archaeological periods. He is also co-directing the Ardnamurchan Transitions Project, a long-running research project into changing lifeways on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, western Scotland.

Tim Kohler

Tim Kohler is a Regents Professor of Archaeology and Evolutionary Anthropology at Washington State University, specializing in Southwestern archaeology. He received his PhD from the University of Florida. His work involves quantitative analysis of archaeological data or simulation of aspects of prehistoric behavior. His current research areas include paleodemography, human environmental impacts, and social evolution/culture change in Neolithic societies.

Ian Morris

Ian Morris is a historian and archaeologist, holding the Jean and Rebecca Willard Professorship in Classics at Stanford University. He received his PhD from Cambridge University. His books have been translated into fifteen languages, many of them focusing on big patterns in world history and possible future trends. He has excavated archaeological sites in Britain, Greece, and Italy, most recently as director of Stanford's dig at Monte Polizzo, a native Sicilian site from the age of Greek colonization.

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut. His research investigates the evolution of human societies to understand the economic inequality among nations. He is the founding director of the Seshat Databank—a massive historical database of cultural evolution that is gathering and systematically organizing the vast amount of knowledge about past human societies.