Environmental Archaeology Research Paper

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1. Description

As a result of historical and cultural differences in the development of the field, what is called environmental archaeology in English, Spanish, and Italian is known in other languages as the equivalent of ecological archaeology or archaeology of the milieu. Because of the underlying differences in perspective and the absence of a coherent theoretical, methodological, or technical framework, it is a ‘field of studies’ rather than a ‘discipline.’ Its focus could be defined as: ‘the study of the past of our terrestrial milieu, its relationship to humans, and the latter’s relationship to their environment.’

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Recent reference works omit the concept (Mignon 1993) or define it as ‘a broad range of specialized studies in archaeology that pertain to prehistoric human-environment interactions’ (Michaels 1996). These studies apply methods from the natural and life sciences to the study of past environments and the ways people exploited and changed them. Depending on the application or the discipline of origin, they are commonly divided into the following.

Geoarchaeology includes geomorphology, archaeopedology, and archaeometry (the application of geophysical prospection methods to archaeology) as well as (sometimes) isotopic dating and characterization methods, and the rapidly expanding field of soil micromorphology of ancient sites and landscapes. Among the archaeobotanical methods one finds palynology, macroscopic and microscopic analyses of charcoal, fruits, or seeds, and the study of fossil plant crystals ( phytoliths). The latter is growing in importance as it does not depend on the preservation of organic materials.

The study of ancient animal remains is the preserve of archaeozoology (or zooarchaeology), which identifies the animals, determines their age and sex, reconstructs their population dynamics, etc. to better understand their significance to prehistoric people. In this domain, isotope analyses have recently added a dimension.

Finally, bioarchaeology deals with humankind: human growth and growth deficiencies, activity levels, nutrition, parasites, illnesses, and much more. In the latter three of these fields, DNA studies promise to open new avenues.

In the meantime, the essential unity of environmental archaeology (as opposed to the disciplinary diversity of the approaches to it) is gradually being recognized (Reitz et al. 1996). The tardiness of that development and the difficulties it encounters are rooted in its intellectual origins.

2. The Roots And Early Development Of Environmental Archaeology

Since the fourteenth century the natural sciences have flourished by focusing on issues concerning closed systems, in which independent, irreversible changes have played a negligible role. They successfully encroached on many areas which for centuries had been considered outside their remit, creating an opposition to the historical disciplines (Evernden 1992). By the mid-nineteenth century, they had fundamentally changed our worldview to the point that, in everyday life, ‘nature’ was increasingly preferred over ‘tradition’ or ‘the past’ to explain self-evident observations (Girard 1990). As the then dominant schools of thought dealing with the long term, ‘natural history’ and Kulturgeschichte illustrate the fundamental dilemma of environmental archaeology.

‘Natural history’ is the forerunner of evolutionary biology; in both one first explains the observed functioning of physical or biological systems in terms of rigorously derived laws or general principles, and then attempts to reconstruct their possible antecedent states (Jonas 1982). In the absence of an accepted explanatory theory, early nineteenth-century natural historians either assumed that God created things as they are, or avoided the problem altogether by focusing on systematics rather than origins. J.-B. de Lamarck (1744–1829) is an exception, accepting intragenerational changes but not their inheritance (1802, 1809). For the Kulturgeschichte school, past and present are part of an irreversible, complex process, and writing history involves simplifying it through a continued back and forth between the observed past and the present in which one interprets. The nonrecurrent event is considered an essential aspect of human behavior, and the historian is concerned with the impacts of chance as well as of the role of individuals. A fundamental refusal of the positivist position dominant in the natural sciences underpins these ideas. W. Dilthey (1833–1911) summarized it as follows: ‘We explain nature, we understand humanity’ (Dilthey 1988).

Beginning in the 1850s, new approaches emerge. Charles Darwin (1809–82) explains (1859) long-term ‘natural’ change by arguing that the first living beings could have been much simpler than the present ones. Distinguishing ontogenetic from phylogenetic evolution allows him to explain the past and the present of all species by invoking ‘variation’ and ‘natural selection,’ mechanisms operating at the metalevel of the long-term existence of species, rather than at that of the individual and/or the single generation. Moreover, the theory of evolution breaks the iron grip of reversibility and/or replicability on explanation, and facilitates the reintroduction of historical explanation in the realm of nature. At roughly the same time, sociologists such as E. Durkheim (1893, 1895), building on the work of G. Vico (1668–1744), C.-L. de Montesquieu (1689–1755), M.-J. de Condorcet (1743–94), and A. Comte (1798–1857), argued for the importance of the study of the social and functional dynamics of societies, while anthropologists such as E. B. Tylor (1871, 1878) and L. H. Morgan (1877) argued for a universal pattern of development of all societies. Their ‘social evolution’ introduced ‘naturalist’ elements into the study of ‘culture,’ breaking with the Kulturgeschichte school.

Emerging in this climate, between the humanities and the natural sciences, prehistoric archaeology and environmental studies constituted an ambiguous middle ground because they dealt with phenomena which change qualitatively and irreversibly during the period of observation, and with the interface between people and their natural environment. Neither fit the mechanistic approach of the natural sciences because these exclude the study of qualitative change, nor did they fit the historical approach, which focuses on the human, nonrecurrent, aspects of behavior. Like ‘natural history,’ prehistoric archaeology reconstructs a past that moves from the simple to the complex, and in order to write it, simplifies the complex present. It involves description of the transformation of processes (in which neither chance nor idiosyncrasies play a part). This contrasts with classical, medieval, and later archaeology in Europe, as well as the archaeology of the great civilizations, which have evolved in the historical realm. To this day, these two archaeologies operate very differently.

In 1866 E. Haeckel defined his ‘new science of ecology,’ as ‘the science of the relationships of the organism with its environment, including all conditions of existence in the widest sense’ (Haeckel 1866). He does not include humankind in it—in effect, he defines ‘environment’ in much the same way as ‘nature’ was defined a few centuries earlier, as ‘non-organism.’ Darwin on the other hand reconfigured Lamarck’s concept of ‘environment’ as ‘the conditions of natural selection,’ and included mankind in his ‘web of life.’ Thus, the distant past and the environment both became objectifiable and separable, fit to be studied by rigorous, ‘scientific’ methods within a ‘naturalist’ concert of disciplines, but dealing with humanity as well as the nonhuman natural world. It is thus no surprise that environmental archaeology enters the arena of the archaeological disciplines as the handmaiden of prehistory.

The study of the natural environment of prehistoric man developed first in those parts of Europe in which traditional ‘classical’ or ‘literary’ archaeology was the least dominant: Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Northern Germany, Switzerland, and the UK. The first known formal association between prehistoric archaeology and the biological sciences is the so-called ‘Danish Royal Commission for Research on Shell Middens’ instituted in 1848, which included the leading people of the day, such as J. J. A. Worsaae, J. Steenstrup, and J. vs. Forchhammer. This is part of a blossoming interest in past environments in the nineteenth century, in which geology played an important part, as exemplified by G. de Geer’s (1858–1943) work on varve chronology in Sweden, and E. J. Lennart von Post’s work on prehistoric palynology (1884–1951). In Switzerland, A. Morlot followed in these footsteps when the first lakeshore dwellings were excavated in the 1850s and 1860s (1861).

In The Netherlands, at about the same time, paleogeographers seem to have been convinced that landscapes reflect processes in which natural and human dynamics both play an important part. In 1920, a plant physiologist (A. E. van Giffen) was appointed to a chair in archaeology at the newly founded Biologisch-Archaeologisch Instituut of the University of Groningen, with the aim of doing integrated research on the origins and history of the Dutch coastal system. He notably stimulated archaeozoological and later palynological research, and instituted a university degree (at MA and Ph.D. level) in environmental archaeology just after World War II.

In the area of archaeological pollen analysis, the next steps were set by German scholars working in the moors in the northern part of their country (Bertsch, Reinerth). Their efforts eventually led to the foundation, around 1960, of the influential Institut fur Kustenforschung in Wilhelmshafen (north Germany) by W. Haarnagel. But already before the war UK (H. Godwin 1933) and Scandinavian (Joh. Iversen) scientists had enlarged the temporal and spatial scope of palynological research.

In the UK, partly following in the footsteps of V. G. Childe (1928, 1929), J. G. D. Clark (1939, 1940), C. Vita Finzi (1969), E. Higgs (1972), and others gave the field an enormous impetus in the 1950s through to the 1970s under the name economic archaeology— emphasizing geology and archaeozoology. From the late 1960s, ideas of the Cambridge school of ‘new geography’ were introduced in UK (environmental) archaeology, initially by D. L. Clarke (1968).

In the USA the first attempts at studying environmental matters were again related to shell-middens (E. W. Gifford 1916). J. Steward (1937, 1955) and L. White (1949, 1975) are early but very influential protagonists of the idea that the environment greatly influences, if not determines, the core aspects of any culture, and proposed the combined, comparative study of culture and the environment. W. Wedel (1941) and E. Haury (1950) provided early stimuli through their fieldwork in other parts (the Great Plains and the Southwest, respectively). The expeditions organized by Braidwood in the 1950s and 1960s (Braidwood and Willey 1962) to various early prehistoric sites in the Near East constituted an important step because they brought specialists in all the necessary disciplines together in the field, disseminated the environmental approach to near eastern archaeologists all over the world, and provided training to ‘stars’ of the next generation (e.g., R. McC. Adams, K. V. Flannery). K. Butzer’s work is an important turning point (1965, 1971) because of its breadth and interdisciplinary perspective, integrating not only the environmental disciplines but also geography, for example (1982).

3. Oppositions Between Nature And Culture, Past And Present Are At The Core Of The Discipline

As a result of the context in which it was born, and notwithstanding the exponential increase in the number of its practitioners during the last 30 years of the twentieth century, and the increasingly direct confrontation of the modern world with environmental problems, environmental archaeology has had difficulty in defining its identity by resolving the dichotomies which underpin it: ‘nature–culture’ and ‘past–present.’

Until well into the 1970s, most environmental archaeologists viewed humans as reacting to (adapting and exploiting) the conditions set by the dynamics of nature. Then, partially under the impact of the ‘green’ movement, awareness grew of human impact on the environment, particularly in the area of climate, vegetation, and animal life. As the focus in environmental studies in general shifted to sustainability, a new perspective emerged. People were henceforth also seen as proactive, albeit generally in a destructive sense. The difference can be illustrated by looking at the distinction, in French, between le milieu, that is, that which human groups are in the midst of, and l’en ironnement, that which surrounds human groups. Although in both cases, the focus is on what surrounds human beings, in the former the perspective is human. Nature’s cohesion, its unknown aspects, its strangeness, and force are amplified, whilst the confusion and the handicaps of humanity are accentuated; change is attributed to nature, and people have no choice but to adapt to it.

In the latter case, the perspective is nonhuman: the cohesion and strength of nature are diminished, while the same properties are accentuated in humanity. The known aspects of nature seem to be more important, and it thus seems more controllable and loses its dangerous appearance. Humanity, in this perspective, is viewed as the source of change: people create their environment.

More recently, recognition is growing that both these points of view are essentially anthropocentric. Humans should be seen as ‘just another unique species’ (Foley 1987), and one cannot separate social dynamics from natural ones, even though different approaches are used to investigate them. McGlade (1995) thus argues: ‘there is no natural (sub-)system, there is no social (sub-)system, there are only socio-natural interactions.’ These interactions are driven by different kinds of dynamics within and between the two realms. Inanimate dynamics concern only energy and matter, whilst among plants and animals the role of information is limited. Within the life span of individual organisms, it is confined to stimulus-response and behavioral optimization, while over longer periods genetic transmission may induce structural changes. Only among human beings does the exchange of information regularly result in structural changes within an individual’s lifetime. And although human impact on the environment is as immediate as that of other species, the human reaction to environmental change requires that a society becomes aware of environmental problems before it can respond to them (Luhman 1985). That requires a conjunction of both environmental and social dynamics, and interaction between these dynamics takes the form of resonance, rather than direct cause and effect. But bridging the gap also involves different ways of linking past and present. Ecologists have for some time been aware of this (e.g., Martinez Alier 1990), but had not really developed that angle until some adopted the complex systems approach, which offers a very tempting perspective to anyone striving to integrate the natural, life, and social sciences with the humanities:

(a) It conceptualizes problems in both natural and social dynamics in a language which is independent from any of the disciplines.

(b) It studies interaction between phenomena at different spatiotemporal scales by viewing macroscopic,

apparently stable phenomena as the result of unstable interactions between microscopic entities.

(c) It reformulates natural dynamics from an irreversible temporal perspective by dealing with both process and event within the same approach, and placing each in the context of the other, thus relativizing them and facilitating description of historical processes in ‘natural science’ terms and vice versa

(d) Its dynamic descriptions of apparent structures introduce the notion that any structure operates in a field of tension and can be viewed as a flow, thus bridging the gap between pattern and process, and linking structures dynamically to their environment.

(e) By highlighting the metastability of many apparently stable patterns and structures, and the nonlinear character of many processes, it deals with chance and necessity, continuity and change, tradition and innovation, from one and the same perspective, thus moving away from our traditional bias in favor of stability, and our focus on investigating change.

(f ) It invites us to rethink the relationship between cause and effect in all disciplines, because the effect of a change in a state variable depends to a very great extent on the state of the entire system at that moment, so that similar causes can have different results, and different causes similar results.

4. The Challenge

Surmounting the ‘nature–culture’ and ‘past–present’ oppositions seems to be coming within reach (and why not, as many other cultures have never created the oppositions in the first place, cf. Descola 1994?). But achieving it requires that environmental archaeology gains its own place under the sun in the ‘concert of disciplines’ by addressing questions which are central to the long-term relationship of people with their environment, and thus reflect the interests of ecologists, historians, geographers, and others as well. For example:

(a) Many purely ecological issues which demand a very long time frame to deal with them effectively, but for which historical or instrumental data are only available for at most a hundred years or so. Paleoclimatology operates at a global scale, for example, but the effects of climate differ between regions, and need to be investigated with techniques in which environmental archaeologists excel. Moreover, there are such issues as the long-term evolution of biodiversity(Odgaard1999), biologicalsuccessions, species interactions (Lawton 1999), etc. In such areas, ecology’s origins as a natural science have often limited observation to short-term dynamics, and have confined explanation to a search for universals without consideration of individual events. And what about the long-term evolution of scalar interactions?

 (b) Issues concerning human–environmental coevolution (Thompson 1999). Observing the behavior of human populations in a particular area over 10,000 years, for example, highlights the growing interdependency between the species involved and its effects on the resilience of that system (van der Leeuw 1998). Such studies therefore have an original contribution to make to present-day questions about ‘sustainability.’ Similarly, a long-term perspective on the relationship between changes in the natural dynamics and in human resource exploitation, technology, and spatial organization helps us to understand different landscapes (Naveh 1998). That in turn enables us to look at a much wider range of possible socionatural states of resilience than we would otherwise.

(c) At the human end of the spectrum, we will need to stand back and develop better overall ideas on such topics as (i) the dynamics responsible for long-term human evolution; (ii) the genesis of human societies; (iii) the way human biological and social evolution have slowly transformed our environment and in many cases made it dependent on its interaction with society; and (iv) the dynamics by which humans have over time, dealt with their need to subsist in that environment. Here archaeology has made considerable advances, but the coevolutionary aspects which are the particular domain of environmental archaeology have not kept pace.

(d) To create a viable future, we need to find new ways to articulate the different kinds of socionatural components in a landscape dynamic. As Di Castri (1997) has argued, the way the world is changing demands of ecologists that they move toward studying systems in which human beings dominate. This is exactly where environmental archaeologists are stronger than most ‘pure’ ecologists. Playing a role in such a reorientation of ecology, combining strands in ecology such as landscape ecology and restoration ecology with new movements in archaeology such as historical ecology, seems a very worthwhile challenge.


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