Re-connecting Cultural and Environmental Records: Towards a New Consensus?

Organisers Ben Gearey (University of Birmingham) and Paul Garwood (University of Birmingham)

Equipped only with the practical skills and epistemology of the natural sciences, the environmental archaeologist comes to conclusions about human activity which are naïve in the extreme: thus prehistoric Britain becomes peopled with pastoralists, slash and burn swiddeners, or whatever commonsense rationalisation of the evidence comes to hand.” (Thomas, 1990: 4)

It is over twenty years since the above paper was published, a bold critique of the position of environmental archaeology with respect to its ‘parent discipline’ of archaeology. In this paper Julian Thomas outlined how environmental archaeology was, in general, failing to stay in touch with contemporary debates and theoretical developments within the ‘mainstream’ of archaeology such as the increasing impact of post-structuralism, hermeneutics, Marxism and associated calls for a “politically committed and interpretative archaeology…” Where Environmental Archaeology had any explicit theoretical stance at all, this was regarded as closer to the increasingly vilified ‘New Archaeology’ and hence separate from the ‘parent discipline’ to the extent that it represented a “…crisis for archaeology as a whole.” (Thomas 1990: 2). It was hypothesised that this had arisen in part from ‘scientism’, or the increasing emphasis on the importance of scientific knowledge within broader social and academic contexts. One of the central premises of the paper is: “…how is it possible to investigate a proxy record of people exploiting an environment, like a pollen diagram, without knowledge of concepts like that of social relations of production, or an awareness of fields like time geography? 

Whilst this position does not necessarily reflect the dominant attitude to ‘scientific’ archaeology during the 1990’s (e.g. Bintliff 1991), the ‘environment-culture’ issue certainly remained open to debate in subsequent years (e.g. Edwards and Sadler 1999 and papers therein, Tipping et al. 2004). Recently it has been observed that there has been a ‘re-awakening’ of what has been referred to as ‘neo-environmentally deterministic’ studies in archaeology (Brown 2008). Certainly there have been more attempts to explicitly incorporate data from environmental archaeology into considerations of prehistoric cultural change (e.g. Bonsall et al. 2002, Schulting 2010, Garrow and Sturt 2011, Turney and Brown 2007). This period has also seen technical developments such as the work of the POLLANDCAL network (e.g. Fyfe 2006) and Bayesian chronological modelling which are permitting palaeoenvironmental records to achieve greater spatial and temporal precision (e.g. Gearey et al. 2009), offering ‘formal’ approaches to linking different records. In this session we invite papers that consider the current relationship between ‘environmental’ and ‘social’ archaeologies. To what extent are current approaches to palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data allowing a more nuanced exploration of the inter-relationship between past cultures and environments? Or is the epistemological basis of environmental archaeology, broadly defined, something which must de facto lead to ‘environmentally deterministic’ interpretations of the archaeological record? Can we begin to outline future possibilities for constructive debate and discussion regarding the link between our understanding of the social realm in the past and environmental patterns and processes such as vegetation, climate change and sea level rise? Do we need a new paradigm to incorporate such themes? Or are the aims, methods and approaches of social/cultural and environmental archaeologies ultimately irreconcilable?

Bintliff, J. 1991. Post-modernism, rhetoric and scholasticism at TAG: the current state of British archaeological theory. Antiquity 65, 274-278.
Bonsall, C., Macklin, M.G., Andersen, D.E. and Payton, R.W. Climate change and the adoption of agriculture in north-west Europe. European Journal of Archaeology 5, 1, 9-23.
Brown, A. P. 2008. Geoarchaeology, the four dimensional fluvial matrix and climatic causality. Geomorphology 101, 278-297.
Edwards, K.J. and Sadler, J. 1999.  Striving for an environment-human consensus. Quaternary Proceedings 7, v-vii.
Fyfe, R. 2006. GIS and the application of a model of pollen deposition and dispersal: a new approach to testing landscape hypotheses using the POLLANDCAL models. Journal of Archaeological Science 33, 483-493.
Garrow, D. and Sturt, F. 2011. Grey waters bright with Neolithic Argonauts? Maritime connections and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition within the ‘western seaways’ of Britain 5000-3500 BC. Antiquity 85, 59-72.
Gearey, B.R., Marshall, P. and Hamilton, D. 2009. Correlating archaeological and palaeoenvironmental records using a Bayesian approach: a case study from Sutton Common, South Yorkshire, England. Journal of Archaeological Science 36, 1477-1487.
Schulting, R. 2010. Holocene environmental change and the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in north-west Europe: revisiting two models. Environmental Archaeology 15, 2, 160-172.
Thomas, J. 1990. Silent running: the ills of environmental archaeology. Scottish Archaeological Review 7, 2-6.
Tipping, R., Haggart, A., Milburn, P. and Thomas, J. 2004. Landscape perception in the early Bronze Age: henge construction at Picts Knowe, southern Scotland: a palaeoecological perspective. In E.Carver & O.Delong (eds) Modern Views – Ancient Lands. BAR 377. Oxford: Archaeopress, 41-51.
Turney, C. S. M. and Brown, H. 2007. Catastrophic early Holocene sea level rise, human migration and the Neolithic transition in Europe. Quaternary Science Reviews 26, 2036-2041.

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