‘Humming with crossfire – short on cover…’? Revisiting and reflecting on ‘environmental archaeology: meaning and purpose’

Posted on July 13, 2016


Your weekly dose of archaeology videos from conferences, the last TAG session:

Session Abstract: 

It is now nearly a decade and a half since the publication of Environmental Archaeology: Meaning and Purpose (edited by Albarella 2001), itself based on a TAG session held at the University of Birmingham in 1998. One of the core concerns of the session was the perception that: “….there is still a profound fracture existing between archaeologists dealing with the artefactural [sic] evidence and those engaged in the study of biological and geological remains” (Albarella 2001, introduction). This session aims to re-visit some of the debates and questions that were raised in the publication and will consider if and how environmental archaeology has progressed in a theoretical context over the last 15 years. Bringing together a diversity of theoretical, scientific, and field considerations will allow a reexamination of the following questions:

Environmental archaeology – a laissez-faire approach

Every year I teach an undergraduate module called ‘Environmental Archaeology’. Every year I open my first lecture with a rant about how dreadful the module is, that it has no place on the curriculum and that I will never teach it again. I have said that every year for the last decade.
As a concept Environmental Archaeology is surely both problematic and useful but, beyond the first lecture of my undergraduate module, it is something I think very little about. I have never picked up, let alone read, Albarella (2001) Environmental archaeology: meaning and purpose (sounds tedious!). But having agreed to speak in this session, I probably ought to. Indeed, I am curious to take the time to consider whether I – as someone who started in commercial ‘Environmental Archaeology’ and now, scarily, trains others to do likewise – am part of the problem. Who knows? It’ll be fun to find out…

Naomi SYKES (University of Nottingham)

Who cares about bones? The relevance of social zooarchaeology to wider archaeology

Within the last 15 years, substantial theoretical progress has been made within the area of zooarchaeology. The significance of animal remains has begun to be considered beyond simply their contribution to human diet, bringing rise to a new aspect of zooarchaeology: social zooarchaeology. This attempts to understand the entirety of social relations between humans and animals, and how both parties were influenced by these relationships. Although the area is emergent, the advances are promising and moving along the right track.
However, as with other areas of environmental archaeology, zooarchaeology still maintains a separation from wider archaeology. Yet animals mean much more to people than just diet. They are linked to identity, social status, human views of the natural world and even attitudes towards human beings. Therefore, this separation is to the detriment of both zooarchaeology and wider archaeology.
This paper will consider the value of social zooarchaeology when considering wider archaeological questions and themes, using my own MA and early PhD work on the relationships between humans and dogs in Roman Britain as a case study. How greater integration may be achieved, and why it matters, will be discussed.

Lauren BELLIS (University of Leicester)

Geoarchaeology: a framework for cultural heritage often ignored

The dovetailing of cultural archaeological and geological datasets can be traced back to the observations of early antiquarians, who spent time in the field developing an intimate understanding of landscape. However, since those early studies and despite the development of a plethora of science-based techniques that have allowed archaeologists to unravel the detail of landscape histories at ever increasing resolutions, geoarchaeology, the discipline that usually provides a framework to underpin the application of these techniques, is often still considered a specialist activity on the fringes of landscape analysis and terrain evaluation. Based on over 20 years’ experience of working across the academic and commercial sectors, this paper will explore the reasons for the apparent isolation of geoarchaeology in the UK and consider how it should fit within the broader framework of archaeology taught in Universities, but also applied professionally in the commercial sector.

Andy J. HOWARD (Landscape Research & Management and University of Durham)

Beyond extractive practice: bioarchaeology, geoarchaeology and human palaeoecology for the people

Too much of the work we might class as environmental archaeology can be characterised as extractive and linear. Samples of interest may be taken from a locality, but the results are seldom shared with people who may have an interest in that locality (beyond the dig director and readers of the subsequent publication), nor is the opportunity given to wider stakeholders to ask questions of the samples and find out about the things that interest them. This paper argues that, to borrow the language of sustainability, a more circular and reciprocal approach, founded on wider community engagement, is in our best interest. Results of two surveys are presented. The first asked community archaeology groups in the UK about their experiences with experts in biological remains and archaeological soils and sediments. The second asked some of those very experts about their experiences of community engagement and co-creation, both in the UK and on international projects. Springing from this, an agenda is then presented for a more inclusive, and more sustainable, bioarchaeology, geoarchaeology and human palaeoecology.

Matt LAW (Bath Spa University)

Commercial environmental archaeology: back in the dark ages or a potential agent of change?

I remember the 1998 conference and couldn’t fail to appreciate the ‘humming of cross-fire’ and definitely felt like running for cover myself. Quite apart from the discussion of whether we should call ourselves environmental archaeologists, the accusation that we were ‘rich on data, short on theory and epistemology’ still sticks in my mind. Has anything changed? My feeling is that most would say that the way that environmental archaeologists working in the commercial field interpret data hasn’t greatly changed, even if some sub-specialisms have grown (geoarchaeology, for instance). We will reference local and regional ‘research frameworks’, which have materialised in that time, but the discussion section of a report written in 1998 will look very similar to one written now. There will be very little reference to ‘resilience theory’, ‘epistemology’ and other such terms, but that doesn’t necessarily mean such concepts have been entirely overlooked. It is more that there isn’t a cohesive and funded approach to updating the way that we interpret data. There are many any reasons why the working environment of the commercial sector isn’t conducive to grappling with new theoretical developments and new interpretive
approaches. Does that mean we are back in the dark ages? If that means we are on the back foot in one aspect, then we are on the front foot in others. That we are part of a sector that has been generating ‘big data’ for decades is an advantage. New interpretations need data, and we are getting much better at making a large body of data and grey literature easily accessible. It is a formidable research resource. The material archive is growing in museums on which new methods and approaches can be tested. New fieldwork is continually being used to re-assess how we protect archaeological sites and excavate or investigate new ones, and the difference is that this arises from a cohesive and funded approach. Much of this re-assessment has been carried out by those working in the commercial sector, with some joint working with the university sector and community groups. Aggregate Levy funding arising from quarrying, Landscape Partnership funds, Heritage England National Heritage Protection Plan (now Action Plan) and increasingly Heritage Lottery funds for community projects are just some examples of funders of this work. However, if we are to investigate future sites in ways that address new concepts and furthers research, then a greater degree of joint working with a broader research community working would be valuable. Theory and data need to be co-dependant.

Liz PEARSON (Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service)

Following my own path: middle ground social zooarchaeology

Perhaps it is age, perhaps it is the company I keep, but I look on nature vs culture, science vs anti-science, functional vs ritual, processual vs post-processual dichotomies as a thing of the past. Let me be clear, I do not doubt their existence, or that both camps still exist but rather to me, and many other archaeologists, such arguments are no longer relevant. Such dichotomies do not appear to hold sway over 21st century graduates with a foot in both processual and post-processual camps. The rise in ‘social zooarchaeology’ as a term highlights this trend and I would define my own research in these terms – theoretically informed environmental archaeology – using what I individually consider to be the best of both worlds.
An example of this is the consideration of animal burials and emotion. Many may view emotion as unrecoverable, not suitable for objective analysis, but there is a growing trend within archaeology to consider emotion, especially within prehistoric archaeology. As Peterson (2013) has rightly pointed out for funerary archaeology, whilst the processes are well understood, the emotional damage of grief and loss are often omitted. It is relevant that we ask whether we can explore aspects such as emotion, and in particular grief, in the zooarchaeological record. Humans grieve for animals and many modern day pets are subject to ceremonies we undertake, highlighting the emotional connection many feel. But is this just part of a modern day mind set? In exploring a zooarchaeology of emotion using animal burials, a possible approach is to consider points of contact between humans and the animal corpse. For example, does the careful manipulation of a cat inside a tile cist at Silchester, or the placement of a dog inside an Iron Age pit, reflect emotion? Is it possible some of the animal burials we see were driven by emotion and mourning?
In exploring a zooarchaeology of emotion this paper may fail, but in returning to the session’s themes, that does not matter. What does matter is that as environmental archaeologists we unashamedly engage with such debates, that we try different theories and approaches. Some may work, some may fail, but despite the ‘cross fire’, it is in the middle ground where we get to experiment and move the discipline forward.

James MORRIS (University of Central Lancashire)

Peterson, R. (2013) Social memory and ritual performance. Journal of Social Archaeology. 13. 266-283

Environmental archaeology: theorising the ‘wild’ in contemporary archaeology

This paper grows out of research I have been carrying out on the archaeology of nature reserves and wild spaces. The belief has grown, especially in conservation and archaeological circles, that the UK landscape we see is largely cultural in origin and that human activity is central to the maintenance of biodiversity, both in the past and the present.
I want to critically assess this perspective. In this paper I want to explore places that are unmanaged what we might call the ‘Wild’. The ‘Wild’ has been little considered in current archaeological theory, but I would argue it forms an important part of both contemporary and past environments. I think we need to broaden our approach to the ‘Wild’ and think about how societies and individuals would have interacted with environments away from their farms and fields. I would like to stimulate a discussion rooted in ecological philosophy taking readings from Thoreau and other philosophers of wilderness such as Woods to examine what a theory of the ‘Wild’ might be and how we might start to consider it in our archaeological reconstructions.

Andrew HOAEN (University of Worcester)


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