Thinking Through Archaeology and the Environmental Humanities

Posted on April 19, 2017


It’s Wednesday, so another batch of conference videos. These videos are from a session at the recent TAG conference:

Session Information

‘At its most basic, environmental humanities work has always challenged the idea that nature or the environment simply “is”. Environmental humanities suggest rather…that human ideas, meanings and values are connected in some important way to the shape that the “environment out there” assumes’ (Neimanis et al 2015)

The emerging field of environmental humanities seeks to bridge disciplinary divides between the arts, humanities, and social and natural sciences. It questions the separation between humanity and nature, and draws from Western, Eastern and indigenous ways of knowing and experiencing the environment to address environmental issues such as climate change, sustainability and conservation.
Many of these concerns have been (and are being) explored by archaeologists across the world and speak to ongoing theoretical and methodological debates within the discipline. Despite this seemingly apparent crossover, archaeology within the UK has remained largely independent from the environmental humanities. Indeed outside of Scandinavia, it could be argued that there has been little formal engagement between archaeologists and research in the environmental humanities.
This session seeks to explore some of the points of intersection between archaeology and the environmental humanities agenda, and to foster collaborations beyond the field of archaeology.

We welcome papers that address the following themes and questions:

• How can archaeology contribute to the field of environmental humanities?
• As archaeologists can we get at ‘human ideas, meanings and values’ concerning the environment in the past?
• How do our own ‘ideas, meanings and values’ in the present day, in turn shape what we do as archaeologists and our subsequent narratives of human-environment relations in the past?
• Related to the above, given that critical theoretical reflection is a central tenet of EH, is a consideration of archaeological praxis an essential first step in this process?

Ben Gearey, University College Cork; Matt Law, Bath Spa University and L-P: Archaeology; and Suzi Richer, University of York

Palaeoparasitology and histories of environmental justice Matt Law, Bath Spa University and L – P : Archaeology

The potential of palaeoecological studies to inform conservation biology has been well explored (e.g. Rick and Lockwood 2013; papers in Lauwerier and Plug 2003). The environmental humanities question the model of conservation that places nature outside of the human, however, and recognises the environment as a social phenomenon, with human-natural relations occurring on a spectrum. Environmental justice argues that, in separating humans from nature, other forms of conservation have been blind to human issues of class, race and gender, and have overlooked nuances of human-natural relations.
This paper seeks to establish palaeoparasitology as a science that has the potential to provide time depth to arguments of environmental justice. Parasites demonstrate that the barrier between human bodies and nature are permeable or perhaps even illusive. Infections may be acquired through diet and/or particular environmental conditions, and their evidence (especially the ova of parasitic worms) have a long history of study from archaeological contexts. Evidence from these studies is reviewed to identify and explore historical inequalities and to consider what this might mean for the environmental humanities’ approach to environmental justice.

Towards an ecocritical palaeoecology Ben Gearey, University College Cork, and Suzi Richer, University of York

“Ecocriticism explores the ways in which we imagine and portray the relationship between humans and the environment in all areas of cultural production, from Wordsworth …to Google Earth.” (Garrard 2012, frontispiece)

The session seeks to explore how archaeology can contribute to the field of the environmental humanities. Taking archaeology in its broadest definition to include palaeoecology, we aim to sketch the outlines of an ‘ecocritical palaeoecology’. Ecocritical studies focus on the relationship between the cultural origins of and responses to, current global ecological and environmental problems and crises. In its reading of texts, ecocriticism takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies. In this paper we consider the potential role of palaeoecology within ecocritical thought, in particular how an ecocritical approach to the practice of palaeoecology itself. Specifically, how are specific ideas and representations of ‘past ecosystems’ and their relationship to human and non-human actors, created and sustained through palaeoecological work and study? What is the relationship of palaeoecology with the politics of debates such as ecosystem degradation and ‘past human impact on the environment’ Heise (2006) has drawn attention to the lack of a comprehensive model for linking contemporary perspectives and developments in ecology to ecocritical work and thought. Thus, one of our aims may be regarded as part of a broader project to form active disciplinary connections between (palaeo) ecology, ecocriticism and the Environmental Humanities.
Heise, U.K. 2006. The Hitchhikers Guide to Ecocriticism. Proceedings of the Modern Language Association 121, 2, 503-516.
Garrard, G. 2004. Ecocriticism: An Introduction. London: Routledge.

Going beyond the safari: the potential role of the Environmental Humanities in sub-Saharan Africa Suzi Richer, University of York,; Rob Marchant, University of York; Daryl Stump, University of York; Carol Lang, University of York; Cruz Ferro Vazquez, University of York; Michael Wilson, Loughborough University; and Jo Dacombe, Freelance Artist, Leicester

“We no longer live in a natural world – there is virtually no part of the environment that we left unchanged” – NERC, ‘Our Vision’

In contrast to NERC’s vision, a disconnect exists between the perception of people outside of sub-Saharan Africa – of open peopleless savannahs populated with the ‘Big Five Game Animals’ – and the diverse reality. To perceive the environment as separate from the people who live there perpetuates a lack of effective engagement with broader environmental issues and future grand challenges facing the world. The potential ripple effects of environmental change and population growth in Africa will increasingly be felt locally on livelihoods and globally in terms of food security and economic instability. The globally ratified Paris Agreement (COP21) and the UN Sustainable Development Goals demand engagement by an informed civil society if the goals are to be fulfilled: therefore resolving this disconnect is paramount.
The environmental humanities seeks to bridge disciplinary divides and the separation between humanity and nature, it can potentially provide a pivotal role in bringing together disparate data and insights to inform a common counternarrative to what currently exists around a notion of ‘Africa’. This paper explores how we can present and use insights from archaeological and palaeoecological projects in eastern Africa, in a public arena, to begin to challenge these current perceptions. This directly addresses Hutching’s (2014, 214) call ‘to move beyond ecocriticism to ecoaction…actively spreading counternarratives’.
Hutchings, R. 2014. ‘Understanding of and Vision for the Environmental Humanities’, Environmental Humanities 4:213-220

Conceptualizing Human-Mountain Relations in the Ancient Andes Darryl Wilkinson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge

In the Andes, indigenous terms for mountains (wamani, apu etc.) typically translate to something like “lord”, “king” or “judge”. And colonial narratives about mountains often describe them as sentient beings; in other words as entities who could speak, make prophecies, pay taxes and even be executed for treason. Basically then, they represented a kind of social elite – beings who were no less a part of Andean communities as anyone else. Traditional archaeological approaches to human-environment relations have, as yet, demonstrated a limited capacity to deal with such radically different worlds. At best, Andean mountains are relegated to the realm of religion (often called “mountain worship”) as a way of keeping them separate from “real” aspects of human-environment relations – like water management, mining and agriculture. In this paper, I argue that not only do such approaches fail to understand indigenous accounts of their world, but actually impede our ability to interpret archaeological data correctly. I present archaeological landscape survey data from the Andean cloud forests, relating to Inka efforts to mass-produce coca leaf, as a case-study in this respect. Rather than see such activities as an effort at agricultural intensification, to extract more resources from an asocial environment, I instead suggest that Inka landscape manipulations can only be understood as part of a project for turning mountains into a disciplined and loyal workforce.

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