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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Material Evidence: knowing the past


Professor Alison Wylie (Durham University) and Professor Alia Al Saji (McGill University)

This panel highlights the following evidence-related aspects of the IAS 2012 annual theme ‘Time’: that of the materiality of the past, its survival in the present, and of evidential reasoning from material traces.

There is growing emphasis on the need to put material evidence to work in the context of social, historical research programs that have typically relied on ‘interactive’ methods (surveys, interviews, participant observation) and on textual sources to study the past. Often, however, even the strongest advocates for this expansion of evidential resources lament the fact that they lack the expertise to make effective use of physical traces and material objects as evidence. And in the process of grappling with methodological challenges they confront underlying philosophical questions about the nature of material evidence, the ways in which it embodies the past and is also configured by its uses in the present.

The focus of this panel is, on the one hand, on the strategies and implications of using material traces as evidence in various contexts, and, on the other hand, on background ontological understandings of the past that these strategies might put into play. It includes two archaeologists who reflect on the strategies pioneered by archaeologists in addressing this challenge with respect to an enormously diverse range of material evidence (Chapman and Scarre); an historian of science who actively engages material evidence and can speak to its impact in science and technology studies (Werrett); and two philosophers (both 2012 IAS Fellows) who address questions about the complexities of evidential reasoning, how the past is reconfigured by studies of it, and how different ways of knowing the past can bring to light or do violence to the past (Al Saji and Wylie).

Panelists include:

Professor Alia Al Saji (Philosophy, McGill University)

Dr Maurits Ertsen (Delft University of Technology)

Professor Christopher Scarre (Archaeology, Durham University

Dr Simon Werrett (Science Technology Studies, UCL)

Professor Alison Wylie (Philosophy, Durham University and University of Washington)