Category Archives: News

Wanna learn about ABM? There’s an app for that

You can now procrastinate for hours learn about agent-based modelling by playing a computer game!

Yep, life research doesn’t get any better than this.

Our colleagues from the Supercomputer Centre in Barcelona and Simulpast have released a game! Evolving Planet has an archaeologically inspired plot, easy to grasp interface and cool graphics making it an absolutely outstanding procrastination tool (what do you mean ‘stop wasting time playing computer games’? I’m doing research here!).

You steer a group of bots trying to achieve tasks such as obtaining resource, arriving at a specific location or influencing another group within precise time brackets. You can give them certain qualities (ability to move faster, a boost to fertility, etc) but the internal workings of the bots are set in stone (well, code), which is a nice way of showing the methodology behind simulation. By manipulating the bots characteristics, what you are in fact doing is testing different behavioural scenarios: would a bigger but slower group be more successful in dispersal? Can you achieve the goal faster with a highly militaristic group or with a friendly ‘influencing’ group?

I breezed through the ‘dispersal’ part but struggled in several of the later missions indicating that the game is very well grounded in the most current research. However, archaeologists who do ABM (of dispersal…) on a daily basis are probably not the target audience since the whole point of the game seems to be helping non-modellers understand what the technique can and what it cannot do and what kind of questions can you approach with it (+ having some fun). So get your non-coding friends on board and hopefully, they won’t get an idea that all we do whole day long is gaming. And even if they do, they’ll join rather than cut our funding.

Evolving Planet can be downloaded from the apple and android app stores for free. For more information:


Image source: Evolving Planet presskit .

The Conference on Complex Systems, Tempe, Arizona (28 Sept – 2 Oct)

This year the (European) Conference on Complex System is going global (by loosing the ‘E’) and moving to the Tempe, Arizona (28 Sept – 2 Oct). It is also the most archaeo/anthropo/history-filled edition yet. The satellite sessions include:

Complexity and Human Past: Unleashing the Potential of Archaeology and Related Disciplines

The Cultural Evolution of Technology: Evidence, Hypothesis and Theory

Evolution of Ancient Maya Society as a Complex System

Complexity History, Complexity for History and History for Complexity

Plus there is a good selection of social science focused sessions which should be of interest to archaeologists. Follow this link for more details. The abstract deadline is TODAY so get it in there asap.

We’re Digital Humanities!

Looking at the stats page the other day, I noticed some traffic coming from an unfamiliar source:


Following the link, it turns out we’ve been nominated for an award! From the Digital Humanities community! Apparently they do that sort of thing! From the website:

Digital Humanities Awards are a set of annual awards where the public is able to nominate resources for the recognition of talent and expertise in the digital humanities community.

We’ve been nominated under the “Best DH Blog Post or Series of Posts” category. Luckily for us, nominees need only be “(vaguely)” in the realm of Digital Humanities, which is pretty much how we’ve always thought of ourselves. We’re certainly honored to be considered, and there are a lot of really interesting projects up here that are worth having a look at:

All of the nominees are listed here. Ballots close 28 February 2015, so be sure to vote for your favorite vaguely Digital Humanities project!

Special Interest Group – Complex Systems Simulation

We have proposed the creation of a Special Interest Group in Complex Systems Simulation under the auspices of the CAA (Computing Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology). The proposal has been accepted for consideration by the CAA Steering Committee and will be voted on at the next Annual General Meeting during the CAA conference in Siena. The aim of the group is to provide a platform for present and future researchers in the domain of complex system simulation. In particular we will strive to:

* provide continuity to the sessions and workshops concerned with computational modelling at the annual CAA conference and beyond,
* organise, coordinate and inform all interested members of other events related to complexity science and simulation,
* organise events aimed at training future modellers and the general archaeological audience,
* promote good practice in computational modelling,
* in the long term, bring simulation and other complexity science methods into mainstream archaeological practice.

These points, as well as further logistical details of the day-to-day activities of the Special Interest Group (including its steering committee) will be discussed at a roundtable meeting at the CAA 2015 in Siena.

In the meantime, if you are interested in participating in the roundtable, would like to be added to the mailing list, think your research group/independently organised event/blog etc may benefit from association with the group or simply would like to keep in touch, let us know! You can comment under this post or just drop me an email: i.romanowska @ ! 

TransMonDyn in Pullman, WA

A week of exciting simulation work will be presented in Pullman, WA by the TransMonDyn team November 10th to the 14th! TransMonDyn is an ambitious French project that aims to model human settlement dynamics and major transitions worldwide. These transitions include the spread of different languages in Africa, game theoretic approaches to Romanization, network analysis, and hosts of other fantastic research! Find out more about TransMonDyn here!

Complexity Explorer! MOOC classes opening 9/29

Photo of Joshua Garland, Assistant for Nonlinear Dynamics: Mathematical and Computational Approaches course. Joshua will patiently answer any questions you have in this course.

What would you say if I told you you could learn all about Complexity science, even the difficult bits like mathematical modeling, from Santa Fe Institute faculty without having to leave your living room? The Massive Open Online Course (or MOOC) produced by SFI in tandem with the Templeton Foundation provides just that. While MOOCs have had relative degrees of success, the SFI MOOC has high rankings and has been highly successful. Here’s a short preview on our thoughts on these great courses.

First, the website for the MOOC is

There are three courses offered this fall: Introduction to Complexity, Nonlinear Dynamics, and Mathematics for Complex Systems.

Introduction to Complexity is taught by Melanie Mitchell, professor at Portland State. Professor Mitchell is a fantastic lecturer, and transfers her passion to teaching seamlessly into the online format. Unlike old-style online lecture (a talking head at a screen), Professor Mitchell uses multimeadia, multiple shots, and doesn’t just lecture at the screen but sometimes even walks around with the camera. Mitchell says that she has now moved all of her lectures for her live courses at PSU to the online format–her students watch the lectures as homework, and then use classtime to do projects. Her students enjoy it, and it clears class up for discussion. Also, this tells you the high quality of the lectures–she’s using the exact same ones for the MOOC.

Nonlinear Dynamics: Mathematical and Computational Approaches is being taught by Liz Bradley, from the department of Computer Science at CU Boulder. Aiding her will be Joshua Garland (who, incidentally, was my TA at the Santa Fe Institute’s summer school). Liz is an engaging lecturer, and while this is her first time teaching this course, it is sure to elucidate how to model nonlinear dynamics, be exciting, and helpful for all of us trying to understand complex processes. These are complex topics, but she lectured while I was at the SFI summer school, and her lectures were always easy to follow.  The bonus is the infinite patience of Joshua Garland, who, I am sure, will answer all the questions from boggled students with the same patience he answered my questions at SFI.

The last class is Mathematics for Complex Systems and will be taught by a variety of star lecturers, most (if not all) of them having given lectures at the Santa Fe Institute Complex Systems Summer School. It seems that you can either attend all of those lectures, or just pick and choose which of the lectures you want to attend.  I plan on taking this one to beef up some of my weaker mathematics skills.

Taking a MOOC is similar to auditing a course: you don’t have to take the exams if you don’t want to. You “attend” what you want by watching the videos in your own time. No, you don’t get a grade for taking them (though you can get a certificate for finishing if you take all of the tests). And what if you get lost? You email the professor and they reply, or you can use the discussion boards to work things out with fellow students.

Each lecture has a different prerequisite, but, as you won’t be turning in  homework per se, you can at least watch the videos and see if you’re lost even if you don’t have the required math background.

These courses provide a way for you to be exposed to the top minds in complexity science, get the required background knowledge needed, expand your thoughts, and get you on track for the required math for modeling complex systems.

Enroll in the courses and join me in the discussion boards as we all learn complexity together!

(And Professor Mitchell would love it if you’d take the survey at the end of the course so she can continue collecting data on student experience).

Enroll now here:

Baby Boom and the Old Bailey: Two New Data Mining Studies

Photo from

Here at simulating complexity most of us know Tim Kohler for his pioneering work on the Village Ecodynamics Project, one of the first major agent-based modeling projects in archaeology. In a new study in PNAS, “Long and spatially variable Neolithic Demographic Transition in the North American Southwest,” Kohler and Reese shift from simulation to real archaeological data analysis.

This article has been highly cited in the news (here, here, and here to name a few) mostly due to its enticing moral: there was a huge baby boom in the Southwest, it was unsustainable, and thus there was a mortality crash. This can be extrapolated to where we are today. If the Southwest couldn’t handle that many people, how many can our fragile Earth handle?

But the most applicable part of their study for this blog is the data mining aspect of the article. Reese literally spent 2+ years pouring over the grey literature to compile data on skeletons from the area, classifying their ages, sex, and various other data. Then these data were entered into a giant spreadsheet, where they were subject to the analyses that yielded the results.

Many archaeological projects are looking at large datasets and trying to find patterns in the noise. This paper is just one of many that is making use of the vast amounts of data out there and finding ways to synthesize massive reports. Gathering this data requires hours of work that is often times by hand.

In another study in PNAS “The civilizing process in London’s Old Bailey,” (also written about in the media here and here among others) Klingenstein, Hitchcock and DeDeo analyzed 150 years of legal documents from the Old Bailey in England. They find that through time there is a differentiation between violent and nonviolent crime, which reflects changes in societal perception of crime. With so many documents, standard methods of pouring through gray literature by hand would have been impossible. Instead, they invent techniques for a computer to read the documents and classify different words to different types of crimes. This study is not an archaeological study, but shows how historical documents can be used to find patterns in a noisy system.

Both of these studies demonstrate how our way of thinking of data is changing. Archaeologists used to focus on one site or one time period. These two studies demonstrate how creative thinking, quantitative knowledge, and some approaches from complexity science can help us find patterns in gigantic datasets. I recommend reading both studies, as they may help inspire you to think about some of your big data sets, and how you can approach them.

Stefani’s current project has been featured in the Scientific American blog! If you want even more details check out her blogpost about it, here.

Is the universe a simulation?

A recent NY Times op-ed reintroduces the philosophical concept of the simulation hypothesis: the idea that the universe we live in is an elaborate computer simulation.

This is kind of based on the idea that mathematics has rules that, while expressed in a human-derived conceptual language, exist in a plane unto themselves. This concept has been explored by folks like Eugene Wigner, but the simulation hypothesis is still certifiably fringe from what I can tell. It would hold that these rules are what controls our simulated existence, and that each time we learn something about them, we’re pulling back the curtain just a little more.

The op-ed featured some recent mathematical research into this topic, which is looking for “observable consequences” of being in a simulation (the fringy-ness should be apparent in the opening to the conclusion: “In this work, we have taken seriously the possibility..”). These folks are saying “if the simulation were a simulation like this (in this case, a latticed hypercube of time-space), we should be able to detect how that world was set up using physical assessments of certain known phenomena (in this case, high energy cosmic rays). They conclude that as long as there is some limit to the resources available to the simulators, there must be ways of detecting the spacing within the lattice. Other research has focused on detecting this through changes in gravity around black holes in universes of different dimensions. It is interesting to me that the solutions proposed by these researchers, at least as described here, follow a method similar to that of Grimm et al.’s pattern-oriented modeling.

Working in simulation brings up plenty of epistemological issues regarding scientific representation. I think some of the most important of these for archaeologists are those which deal with relationship between a modelled entity and its real counterpart, and the nature and validity of computational “experiments”. Of course, that all becomes more or less moot if we are only part of a simulation ourselves. But what has me puzzled on this existential level concerns the more general role of simulation. Simulations are usually models, or ways of representing the interacting variables within a more complex system. They’ve been described elsewhere as “tools to think with”, a feature of the upcoming workshop at the CAA. But if our universe is a simulation, in the sense of a model, then what more complex phenomenon is our universe a model of?

Photo credit:  Sergey Galyonkin via Wikimedia Commons