Map of part of the Lower Mississippi meander belt (Fisk 1944, United States Army Corps of Engineers)
Flowing water, like air, tends to be regarded as immaterial. Anything that is fluid, anything that flows, is not usually counted as material culture, no matter how culturally shaped and manipulated it might be. Once accepted as archaeological matter in its own right, however – once incorporated into the archaeologist’s way of seeing – flowing water and other kinds of material flow can radically transform the perception of past landscapes, adding another dimension to archaeological interpretation.
The following manifesto for archaeology of flow is an extract from a new book on the archaeology of rivers and other flows of materials. It argues that rivers – the ‘dark matter’ of landscape archaeology – are just as susceptible to archaeological and historical analysis as more solid parts of landscapes are.
To mark the first Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory (CHAT) conference to take place outside of the British Isles, the 2011 conference theme will explore people and things in motion in both the historical and contemporary pasts. From the movement of billions of peoples and things across the world’s oceans to the proliferation of multi-national corporations and brands, the last five hundred years have brought about the birth of a truly globalized world. We expect that some presenters will emphasize what they see as the positive aspects of global movements, e.g., the emergence of new social groups, materials, and technologies, while others will examine the negative effects of globalization, such as the destruction of cultures and heritages, exploitation of resources, and slavery and forced migration.
The CHAT Conference at the University of Aberdeen, November 12th-14th, 2010
Union Square from the Citadel, Aberdeen. Photo taken by Lyn Mcleod and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.
The Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory Conference (CHAT for short) takes a different guise wherever it goes. This year it was held in the granite-grey, invigorating city of Aberdeen in northern Scotland, taking ‘North’ itself as its theme. As Tim Ingold put it in his keynote address, it consisted of ‘conversations from the North: scholars of many disciplines and inhabitants of many places in dialogue with one another, with animals and plants, and with the land’.
Figure 1. ‘Metropolis Globe New York’ by Werner Kunz, distributed under a Creative Commons licence from http://www.flickr.com/photos/werkunz/3545012600/
This paper briefly summarises recent discussions of the anthropocene by geologists, biochemists, climatologists, and other scientists. It goes on to argue that archaeologists should engage with these issues too.
The scenario: a team of specialists are discovering artifacts from the past and attempting to establish their mode of origin. Tool-marks and other traces of human action come into view. Artificial patterns emerge and take shape from the material field that has just been worked, standing out as figures against a natural background. With experience it becomes possible to tell artifacts apart from similar-looking natural objects or features. A skilled practitioner can work out what kind of past human action gave rise to them and what sort of tools were being used at the time.
Is this a description of archaeological excavation?
No. There are other archaeologies, other archaeologists (though they may not style themselves as such). They inhabit worlds parallel to our own, dealing for the most part with different kinds of substances and materials, using different equipment, in different environments or sites of discovery. This article deals with one of those parallel worlds, where a kind of archaeology is routinely practiced; this is the world of the scientific laboratory.
(Photo by dpape, 2009. Creative Commons Licence. http://www.flickr.com/photos/dpape/4057926815/).
Installation of ‘Na Fáná Fuachtmhar’, a new sculpture by Kevin O’Dwyer, artist in residence at the Sixth World Archaeological Congress at University College Dublin. With an excerpt from UCD Scholarcast: Archaeologies of Art.
‘Na Fáná Fuachtmhar’ was inspired by the incised chevron motifs found inside the Megalithic Passage Tomb at Fourknocks, Co. Meath. The chevron motif, a symbol common to many cultures throughout the world dating from the Neolithic period, is suggestive of the W-shaped constellation, Cassiopeia, which would have been visible through the passage tomb between 3000BC and 2500BC. Na Fáná Fuachtmhar incorporates this ancient symbol into a series of strong architectural forms as a contemporary play on the great standing stones found in Neolithic settlements throughout Europe. The sculpture celebrates the interrelationship between art and archaeology explored during the Sixth World Archaeology Conference at University College Dublin in 2008.
- Ian Russell (www.iarchitectures.com)
The first time I TAed an archaeology class, we began by having our students draw a picture of an archaeologist. The result was predictable: a pile of comically bad drawings of Indiana Jones, leavened with a few nerdy-looking academic characters. That semester, we went on a mission to wipe this image out of our students’ minds, and replace it with the silhouettes of Lewis Binford and Ian Hodder.
The ghost of Indy is hard to stamp out. Everywhere archaeologists gather, we complain about how archaeology is portrayed in pop culture: it’s sensationalistic, cheesy, misleading, schlocky! It gives people the wrong impression of what archaeology is.
This last existential verb is the source of our trouble. We archaeologists know what archaeology is, and refuse to let anyone define it except us. But the cat has always been out of the bag: archaeology has cast a giant shadow on the public imagination from the moment it first emerged as a profession. And the nature of shadows is to distort, and shift, and show us what we want to see. On that note, I offer you two propositions about the discipline.
1) In the popular imagination, archaeology is a form of science fiction.
2) Archaeologists should embrace this, and start writing science fiction that promotes their vision of the past and agenda for the present.
You heard that right: for most people, archaeology is just a flavor of science fiction. And that’s not a bad thing. If this has made your head start rotating and shooting deadly laser beams, take a deep breath before reading further.
A review of ‘The Earth after us: what legacy will humans leave in the rocks?’ by Jan Zalasiewicz. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 2008.
The view of the Earth from the Moon on the front of the book seems both familiar and strange at the same time. The blue jewel of a planet is recognisably ‘home’, only a few decades since space travel first made such a perspective possible. But look again and an important difference is noticed. The continents are the wrong shape, and in the wrong configuration. Is this a view of our planet in the distant past? No, this is the Earth as it is imagined to be 100 million years into the future.
Geologist Jan Zalasiewicz invites the reader to take a step in the scientific imagination far greater than that involved in looking at the Earth from the Moon. For the challenge taken up by the book is to look back at human civilization from a vantage point in time long after the human species itself has disappeared, through observations made by alien beings visiting the planet for the first time. Seeking to understand the geological strata encountered, the alien scientists soon realise that something significant happened 100 million years ago, comparable to the meteorite strike that wiped out the dinosaurs even further back in the Earth’s past. Even before they discover it, they deduce the existence of an event horizon, separating two major geological epochs – an event that triggered massive climate change and extinctions of species evident in strata from later periods. Following a trail of clues, they discover the Human Event Stratum.
The Human Event Stratum may vary from a thin sliver to several metres in thickness, sandwiched between layers of sandstone and shale. Parts of it will have been destroyed by erosion or other geological processes. It is mostly buried, hundreds of metres under the ground, but in places it has been pushed up or exposed by geological forces to outbreak on the surface. Ever wondered what will survive, millions of years hence, of our railway networks, skyscrapers, motorways and rubbish dumps? What about trains and cars, or smaller artefacts like mobile phones and ballpoint pens? Such are the questions which the book poses. In this review I consider briefly some of the implications this book has for contemporary archaeology.
This paper starts with the question: can rivers usefully be studied as artifacts?
The question may raise an eyebrow or two. For the most part rivers tend to be regarded as more or less natural features of a landscape or townscape. Even in the midst of towns – bordered by buildings on both sides – rivers are often taken to represent ‘the natural’ or ‘the wild’ or ‘the environmental’. They tend to fall within the subject domain of the hydrologist or sedimentologist. In archaeology, rivers and palaeo-channels (traces of former river courses) are susceptible to a barrage of scientific techniques, not so much to the cultural theories applied to other more conventional kinds of artifact.