Historical Archaeology in a Changed Climate

The effects of a changed global climate are proving to be the largest and most daunting challenge facing the Earth’s inhabitants. Rapidly melting Arctic ice, the increased ferocity of ever more frequent storms, coastal flooding, vanishing islands, thousands of stranded walruses, and intensifying conflict over limited resources are all disruptive signs that we need to reconsider and even remake how we live on this planet. But our engagement, politics, and diplomacy are not producing the required outcomes as shown by a growing list of failed international climate agreements, foot dragging governments and industries, and less-than-effective pubic actions.

Nevertheless, there is a growing awareness of the scale of the crisis and broad scientific consensus that humans have been instrumental in bringing on these changes. Academic societies like Geological Society of America others have begun to use Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer’s term, the Anthropocene, to describe this new age of Earth’s history in which human kind has become akin to a geological force in shaping the Earth’s climate. Whereas other climatological epochs were shaped by volcanic activity, tectonics, meteorites, and other non-human forces, the Anthropocene was brought on by the actions of people. Scholars like Paul Dukes and Dipesh Chakrabarty date the age as beginning sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, whereas William Ruddiman sets the start with the development of agriculture, but in any event,but in any event, we have left the Holocene whose conditions shaped life for nearly 12,000 years and are now somewhere new. The idea of the Anthropocene moves the discussion away from climate change as something in the future and makes it instead the epoch we now inhabit. Environmental damage can be slowed, but damage done cannot be undone—we now live in a climatological reality very different from what we as a species faced only a few short centuries ago. This means that we have to rethink much of how we live on our planet.

As the scale of our new reality slowly dawns on a denial-prone population more and more fields of endeavor are asking what they can do to address and manage changes as significant as the ones before us? A few academic societies have formed task forces designed to ask what a given discipline has to say about our changed climate, how must it practice differently in light of change and to be of use in a changed reality? Given historical archaeology’s natural interests in landscape, preservation, cultural resource management, and sustainability, and the unique challenges the field faces, the time is right for a historical-archaeology-specific discussion about what a changed climate means for archaeology and archaeologists.

Toward that end, SHA 2015 will have the first face-to-face meeting of an interest group dedicated to dealing with the many field-related issues emerging from a changed climate. The group will meet in the Madrona Room from 12:00 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, January 10. Other similar interest groups and task forces have crafted white papers, outlined best practices, and sought out new avenues for scholarly inquiry—our meeting will help define how we best see our role and activity while hopefully starting a wider conversation about the role of archaeology in the Anthropocene. Please feel free to contact me or email me at plevy@usf.edu with your ideas and let me know if you are interested in participating in this discussion. See you in Seattle.

Why historical archaeology should pay attention to the Occupy movement

Occupy and its offspring have brought issues that are of intrinsic interest to our discipline into the public consciousness in profound ways. I suggest that historical archaeologists have much to learn through a careful study of how Occupy has framed these issues, and much we could do to further advance them in the public mind.

History and issues

Occupy began with a series of meetings between small working groups and veteran political organizers in late summer 2011, culminating in a planned march and gathering in New York’s Zuccotti Park on September 17. After a series of increasingly public actions drew (generally negative) media attention, the movement spread organically to other large (and eventually, small) cities across the United States. By late October, groups that took the Occupy label had spread around the globe–the German “Blockupy,” for instance. Following both evictions and intentional withdrawal from public spaces in most cities during the winter, small actions resumed in Spring 2012, but more significantly, a number of issue-oriented movements in the spirit of Occupy have replaced long-term, place-based encampments. These include such diverse things as “Occupy the Police,” “Occupy Anthropology,” “Occupy Sandy” (a reference to the hurricane that struck the Northeastern U.S. in October 2012), and the “Rolling Jubilee” anti-debt movement. (For brief histories of Occupy, see the Al Jazeera English-produced Fault Lines documentary History of an Occupation, and A History of Occupy (Earle 2012), from which I have drawn most of the above summary.)

Occupy has always been a big-tent movement, both in terms of its membership and of the issues its activists raise (Earle 2012). This is a hallmark of consensus-based groups. Two themes stand out to me as fundamental to most of those who continue to organize under the Occupy banner: A focus on community formation and reproduction, especially in the interstices of the state; and an accessible, critical analysis of the social implications of global capitalism. In other words, “How do we validate intentional, interest-based social ties between people?” and “How do we demonstrate the ill effects of profit and exploitative labor on the daily lives of people in our communities?” Community-formation and reproduction, and the effects of capitalism, are significant parts of the research agendas of many of us working in this field (Matthews 2010), and Occupy has helped prime the public to be receptive to capitalism-centered theory and praxis (McGuire 2008) in ways that we have rarely seen.

Implications

The interests of Occupy and historical archaeology align in ways that go beyond our shared intellectual concern with daily lives and global forces. We are part of what Occupy has constructed as “the 99 percent,” whether we work in academic settings that are increasingly under neoliberal assault (Agger 2004), in the public sector that is being squeezed under the weight of flawed austerity policies, or in cultural resource management with its rigid profit motive and accompanying class structure (McGuire 2008). Occupy’s concerns are our concerns, writ both large and small, in the communities in which we live and work.

Moreover, both Occupy and historical archaeology attempt to make manifest (sensu González-Ruibal 2008) that which is hidden. For the former, it is how such things as the machinations of global political economy impact communities struggling with, say, disaster recovery. For us, making manifest is our stock in trade, encompassing everything from excavation and documentary research to publications and talks aimed at, as the saying goes, “giving voice to the voiceless.” Occupy and its offspring challenge us to go beyond simply revealing what is hidden, to the realm of praxis. Occupy Sandy, for instance, continues to organize help and build community through mutual aid work in New York and New Jersey neighborhoods where state and federal aid have not met the need. As of this writing, the Rolling Jubilee has bought and forgiven over $11 million in medical debt. Both of these examples demonstrate action that arose after careful study of a specific social problem, one that has its genesis in largely hidden forces but directly impacts real lives in real communities. That action in turn works to critique the system that nurtures and sustains the problem itself.

In short, Occupy demonstrates praxis–a dialectic of analysis, critique, and action. Our field excels at summoning new knowledge from its hiding places, but knowledge and critique without action is of questionable utility. An Occupy-inspired historical archaeology would rest on all three legs of praxis. So what might some examples look like in practice?

Occupying historical archaeology

In short, it would be an archaeology that seeks out the hidden lives disrupted by capitalism, by non-local politics, by market relations (Matthews 2010: 14), by government policies that prioritize austerity over people’s well-being (Buchli and Lucas 2001).

These disrupted lives are all around us, in our own communities. They’re being lived by perhaps thousands of homeless in the storm sewers beneath Las Vegas, as well as in a network of self-dug (and quickly demolished by police) tunnels in Kansas City. They’re being lived by people being sent to jail for unpaid debts. They’re being lived by people forced into tent cities in some of the wealthiest regions of the United States.

This would be an archaeology that is multidisciplinary, multi-sited, and politically engaged. It would be one that begins in the present but does not necessarily end there.

There are examples. These themes run through much work on the so-called “contemporary past.” They hum throughout Jason De León’s work on the Undocumented Migrant Project. And they are brought out vividly in the work of Rachael Kiddey and her team on homelessness in Bristol, which enlists the homeless in a reflexive archaeology aimed at understanding the material and social causes and experiences of living on the streets (Kiddey and Schofield 2011).

None of the above, to my knowledge, position themselves as aligned with Occupy–nor do I suggest that they, or anyone else, must. But they’re generating knowledge and critique and action that fall directly in line with the key themes that Occupy and its offspring are raising. A sense of nearness and solidarity with the people being studied is key (“we are the 99 percent”). Action that flows from praxis must be collective action involving the people who live under the weight of the social problem in question, otherwise it could be co-opted to reinforce alienation.

I suggest that our field has the ability to bring unique knowledge, analysis, and methods to bear on revealing present-day lives and experiences of people pushed to the margins. This would be useful knowledge and critique to activists who cross-cut social lines, united by class interests, and experienced in organizing community-based aid and consciousness-raising. Occupy is pointing us toward an object, and it welcomes new sources of willing bodies and minds. Are we willing to listen, study, and act?

References

Buchli, Victor, and Gavin Lucas
2001  The Archaeology of Alienation: A Late Twentieth-Century British Council House. In Archaeologies of the Contemporary Past, Victor Buchli and Gavin Lucas, editors, pp. 158-168. Routledge, London.

Earle, Ethan
2012  A Brief History of Occupy Wall Street. Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, New York.

González-Ruibal, Alfredo
2008  Time To Destroy: An Archaeology of Supermodernity. Current Anthropology 49(2): 247-279.

Kiddey, Rachael, and John Schofield
2011  Embrace the Margins: Adventures in Archaeology and Homelessness. Public Archaeology 10(1): 4-22.

Matthews, Christopher N.
2010  The Archaeology of American Capitalism. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

McGuire, Randall H.
2008  Archaeology as Political Action. University of California Press, Berkeley.

All Images are by Jessica Lehrman from the Occupy Wall Street Flickr Archive and are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial.

Open Minds, Clearer Signals – Metal Detectorist and Archaeologist Cooperation Takes Another Step

The following post discusses the first metal detecting workshop open to the general public, directed by the Montpelier Archaeology Department this Spring. The post was co-authored by Dr. Matthew Reeves, Director of Archaeology and Landscape Restoration at the Montpelier Foundation, and Scott Clark, a member of the metal detecting community and participant in the 2013 workshop. Mr. Clark lives in Kentucky and holds a BS in Computer Science from Southern Illinois University, and blogs about metal detecting at http://detecting.us, where you can read about his experience at the workshop. You can read about Dr. Reeves’ previous metal detecting workshop with metal detector dealers from Minelab here.

Participants Peter Roder and Krisztina Roder surveying the front lawn of Montpelier with archaeologist Samantha Henderson. This survey is intended to locate the early 19th century carriage road as well as other sites located on the front lawn for future preservation and study.

In mid March, the Montpelier Archaeology Department completed the first public archaeology program at Montpelier that was open to the general metal detecting public. This program pairs metal detectorists with trained Montpelier archaeology staff to conduct gridded metal detector surveys across a section of the 2700-acre property to locate and identify archaeological sites. This survey work is combined with lectures regarding what archaeology can reveal of sites, human activity, and how it meets the goals of a historic site such as Montpelier. On one level, the purpose of this program is to locate historic sites so they can be preserved. It just so happens that controlled and gridded metal detector surveys are one of the most efficient means of finding a range of sites from ephemeral slave quarters, to barns, and sites characteristically missed by standard shovel test pit surveys.

While these outcomes are realized and form the backbone of the week’s activities, this is not all that we are after with these programs. One of the most important and inspirational outcomes is the dialogue from two different groups teaming up together to engage in scientific research. One of the most important part of the week’s events was getting across not just the “how” of archaeological survey, but the “why”…and it is the why that some of the most challenging and inspiring conversations developed.

As the week progressed, provenance and context began to frame conversations which had previously been artifact-centric. It became clearer that once detectorists have insight into the broader hypothesis of a project, the sooner they became immensely productive allies in achieving its goals. They expressed the importance of feeling the years they’ve spent mastering their hobby was being respected by the professionals beyond only a field technician’s role.

Participant Fred Delise showing off nail he recovered from an 18th century activity area. Participants learn how to identify nails and their significance for dating and interpreting archaeological sites.

The knowledge flowed many directions. The detectorists’ expressions when presented the full richness of nail dating techniques was equaled only by those of the archaeologists as they learned how dating shotgun shells could tell you when a wooded area was likely open fields! When the excitement of archaeology is transferred to a group labeled as pot hunters and looters, the fallacy of a one-size fits all for metal-detectorist community is revealed.

Participant Jim Wirth excavating a metal detector hit accompanied by archaeologist Jimena Resendiz during survey of a wooded portion of the Montpelier property. While this particular woodlot was originally intended for a selective forestry cut, the number of archaeological sites we have located through metal detector survey has marked it for preservation.

The detectorists had come to Montpelier to better understand the methodology and language of archaeology and, in many cases to improve dialogue with professionals at home. The most common question asked was how they could get local archaeologists to consider employing metal detecting at their site. This was not so that the detectorists could extract artifacts, but so that they could meaningfully contribute in site discovery, survey and other systematic examinations of sites. In essence, these folks want to become engaged with the archaeology groups, they just don’t know how.

What the Montpelier team hopes to achieve through its programs is to show how metal detectorists and archaeologists can begin to work together in a meaningful manner and through a range of scientific endevours. Metal detector technology combined with an intimate knowledge of the machine from decades of use is a very powerful tool that can be harnessed as a reliable remote sensing technique. When engaged as a member of a research team, metal detectorists learn what makes archaeologist so passionate about recovering artifacts in their proper context—and studying the wider range of material culture from nails to bricks.

By bringing more metal detectorists into the archaeology fold, the profession can begin to take advantage of the millions of detectorists who spend weekends and holidays researching history, locating sites and scanning the ground with a metal detector.

While archaeologists will likely not be able to engage the detectorists who see metal detecting as a way to locate and sell artifacts (with these folks being in the minority of the detecting community), engagement with the others, while preserving research schemes, could bring important benefits. For example, a new generation of detectorists may be ready to go “digital” while participating on archaeological sites as we saw with the group at Montpelier. These detectorists were happy to do “virtual artifact collecting” via their digital camera to be later shared with friends online rather than take the objects home. Some took photos in-situ, others while holding them, and some during preservation in the lab. Excitement grew while context was preserved, and the story (of the find, as well as the archaeological effort) was spread to their network of friends.

During the program, participants spend a day at the archaeology site to learn how we recover artifacts. In this shot, archaeologist Jeanne Higbee trains Tom Ratel in the art of unit excavation. This particular site is a quarter for field slaves that we are excavating as part of a four-year NEH study of the enslaved community at Montpelier. This site was defined by metal detector surveys conducted during a similar program held in 2012.

This line of interaction goes much further than moralizing to metal detectorists regarding the evils of using a shovel to dig artifacts from a site with no regard for provenience. Archaeologists need to communicate to metal detectorists the value of their work and how it can be used to expand understanding of the past in a relevant and meaningful manner. This means stepping outside of peer-based discussions and engaging with the public. This is especially relevant for historical archaeologists as our sites often have no visible set of cultural resources that that the public will witness as being disturbed by sticking a shovel into the ground, and even if they saw the artifacts, the items recovered would not present a convincing case for preservation for the untrained eye. Archaeologists have the obligation to show the relevance of the discipline in our understanding the larger narrative of history.

With metal detectorists, archaeologists have a potential set of allies (and even advocates) who are already share a passion for searching for ephemeral sites and using the finds to connect with the past. When presented with the range of information via a systematic study of a site, rather than being unimpressed, metal detectorists are brimming with questions and interest, uncovering adjacent possibilities that can lead to innovations we may not have yet imagined.

Finding common ground between detectorists and archaeologists also has the potential side effect of archaeology gaining more resonance with the general public. Detectorists come from all walks of life and all ages and are present in just about every community. The public (including lawmakers and, often, reporters) are often captivated by the individual artifacts we (both archaeologists and metal detectorists) uncover – and perceive it as saving history. Associations and understanding between our groups could spread the “how” and “why” of what we do even further, clarifying how there’s more to save than just artifacts, but the sites from which they came. When we can do this effectively, our discipline and quest for preservation of sites will begin to be taken more seriously by legislators and the general public.

Interested in doing your own workshop at your institution? Dr. Reeves has made his workshop manual available for download here. 

This project was held in conjunction with the National Trust for Historic Preservation (see their blog on this program) and Minelab Americas.