macroarchaeology, bayesian epistemology, hypotheses


Perrault (2019) combines a critique of current archaeological practice with a call to re-center research on questions of culture history as well as “macroarchaeology”, or the search for large-scale patterns of human behavior and cultural development. His arguments for what archaeologists should do (and stop doing) are driven by the way the quality of the archaeological record underdetermines the answers to questions that archaeologists often seek to answer. There is much to like in Perrault’s arguments, but there also are some problematic aspects. I agree that something like Perrault’s macroarchaeology should receive greater focus within the discipline, and that archaeologists should carefully consider the quality of their data, but I cannot agree with his call for a radical pruning of archaeology’s research agenda. Perrault argues that archaeologists should search for “smoking guns” that allow hypotheses to be proven ”beyond a reasonable doubt”. This is a simplistic and unrealistic description of the research process. He does better when he introduces the idea of using likelihood ratios to evaluate the support given to multiple hypotheses but does not fully develop the idea. I argue for a Bayesian epistemology, which uses the prior probabilities as well as the likelihood ratios of multiple hypotheses (given available data) to reduce uncertainty about the hypotheses, without strictly confirming or rejecting any particular hypothesis. A Bayesian research model provides a different perspective on the underdetermination problem – if smoking guns aren’t necessary for research to progress, then the quality of the archaeological record is not as debilitating as Perrault suggests. Archaeological research can (and should) proceed at a variety of scales and work with data of varying quality. Macroarchaeology should become an important part of the discipline, but its impact will require successful macroscale studies, not radical pruning of other parts of archaeology’s research agenda.

Original Publication Citation

James R. Allison 2022 Macroarchaeology, Epistomology, and the Quality of the Archaeological Record. Paper presented at the 28th annual meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists, Budapest, Hungary.

Document Type

Conference Paper

Publication Date



European Association of Archaeologists




Family, Home, and Social Sciences



University Standing at Time of Publication

Associate Professor