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catastrophe theorySYNONYMS OR RELATED TERMS: catastrophism

CATEGORY: term; related field

DEFINITION: A mathematical theory and branch of geometry which demonstrates ways in which a system can undergo sudden large changes as one or more of the variables that control it are continuously changed. I.e., the theory explains change through a succession of sudden catastrophes. A small change in one variable can produce a sudden discontinuity in another. Archaeologists use the theory to show how sudden changes can stem from comparatively small variations. It has been used to explain the dramatic change in settlement patterns and the collapse of Maya and Mycenaean civilizations by comparatively small changes without there being large causes such as invasions or natural disaster.
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modelCATEGORY: technique

DEFINITION: A devices used by archaeologists to aid the interpretation of data; models consist of hypothetical reconstructions of dynamic processes partly based on material remains and partly testing the validity of interpretations of material culture. They are idealized representations of the real world, used to demonstrate a simplified version of some of its characteristics. Models vary in complexity and can be physical representations or literary descriptions. It might be a physical model of a site or landscape to explain some feature of its function or organization; such models at full scale are well known in experimental archaeology. A simple model might be a map showing, for example, the distribution of sites in a region or a scatter diagram showing the relationship between two measured variables. Models need not be based on specific archaeological data, but can be derived from a number of sources: invented data can be generated by computer simulation; geometrical and mathematical models can also be used, such as central place theory or the rank-size rule in the study of regional settlement, or catastrophe theory in the study of cultural collapse. General systems theory can also be a source of systems models designed to show a simplified version of the working of a complex social or economic organization. The term model can also be used in a less specific sense for any general mode of thought in which archaeological research is conducted, for example descriptive, historical, or ecological. Models may also be diachronic or synchronic. The concept of formulating a model, testing it and refining it, is frequently applied in a non-mathematical way and this is the way in which it is most often used in archaeology. In this sense it is either synonymous with 'hypothesis' or refers to a number of interlocking hypotheses.