Environmental Archaeology in the Anthropocene

Environmental Archaeology in the Anthropocene

A PEC speaker series organised by Amanda Gaggioli (JIAAW) and R. Sandy Hunter (Anthropology)

Since the introduction of the concept in the early 2000s, ‘the Anthropocene’—denoting an era of totalizing anthropogenic transformation of earth’s systems at a global scale—has increasingly focused debate in the environmental social sciences. Researchers debate when the Anthropocene began (varying from 10,000 years ago with the onset of agriculture to the mid-20th century coinciding the ‘Great Acceleration’), and also the political valences of widespread adoption of the term. Archaeologists in particular have challenged the indoctrination of the Anthropocene as a geological age as it overlooks the deep history of persistent human impacts on the environment. Archaeologists have demonstrated such contingencies of human-environment relationships across time and space. However, a challenge in communicating environmental archaeology to debates over the Anthropocene and broader environmental politics is misconstruing current and recent global scales of anthropogenic global transformation as an inevitable part of ‘human nature.’ This challenge results from the Anthropocene concept’s recasting of a dominant ontology of humans as apart from or separate and outside ‘nature,’ even as it also emphasizes the historicity of the non-human world. In light of these broad debates and challenges, this speaker series for spring 2023 asks a more particular question: how should the discipline of environmental archaeology, which traditionally focuses on spatially and temporally contingent dynamics of human relationships with the environment, attend to the political urgencies brought on by perspectives like the Anthropocene and its derivatives (e.g., pyrocene, capitalocene, plantationocene), or alternative formulations like “world ecology” that are by definition planetary in scope? In proposing this workshop series, we ask participants to consider how research at the intersection of the environment, society, and archaeology might recuperate a perspective that emphasizes local and spatially contingent human-environment relationships, while simultaneously speaking to conversations at a global scale. Our concerns extend beyond scales of analysis. We are also interested in how environmental archaeology—a discipline that by definition illuminates relationships between environment and society in the past—might be responsive to contemporary crises, including of biodiversity loss, global heating, and pollution of air and water–phenomena that are global in scope but experienced in highly unequal ways along intersections of race, class, gender, and latitude.


Lecture 1: Local Ecological Knowledge and Imperial Demands in Agricultural Practice

John M. Marston, Boston University

February 24, 2023, 4-6.30pm, RI Hall 108

Agriculture mediates human interactions with environments and provides the primary avenue through which human societies adapt to environmental change, primarily at the local level through lived experience and inheritance of ecological knowledge. Such adaptations are constrained, however, by both economic pressures and histories of environmental change, which render certain agricultural strategies desirable and others unproductive. Here I illustrate one narrative of long-term agricultural and environmental change over the course of successive imperial periods, the Hittite through Roman empires, at the site of Gordion in central Anatolia. The application of two distinct theoretical perspectives, niche construction and resilience thinking, to a rich body of environmental archaeological data helps us trace long-term entanglements between people and landscapes. I explore how these theoretical perspectives conflict, as well as complement one another, in reconstructing environmental change in the past. I conclude with the implications of such studies for a broader understanding of global environmental change in the Anthropocene.


Lecture 2: Haunted Landscapes: The Archeology of Slow Violence and Slow Activism

Haeden E. Stewart, UMass Amherst

Tuesday, March 14th, 4:00-6:30 pm, Urban Environment Laboratory 106

We are living through an era that has been described as “the apotheosis of waste” (Hecht 2018), a globe brimming with greenhouse gasses, mountains of tailings, lagoons of pig-shit, and hangars of acidic sludge. The massive scale and persistence of industrial waste has deformed the globe over the last two centuries. Drawing from archaeological work on two (post)industrial landscapes in Western North America, I argue that the slow violence in the persistence effects of industrial waste on communities that live in its shadow is best thought of as a haunting: a latent presence that is affectively potent and materially effective. Life in these devastated landscapes is defined by exploitation and exposure, but also uncanny and insidious forces. Attending to this haunting is not a romanticization of waste’s persistence, but rather a call for a different kind of method and mode of attention towards both the effects of slow violence and the local tactics of survival within these haunted landscapes.


Lecture 3: Beyond 'Lessons from the Past': Mobilizing Archaeology to Improve Climate Models

Kathleen Morrison

April 25, 2023, 4:00-6:30pm, RI Hall 108