“Some Reflections on Heritage and Archaeology in the Anthropocene”

Solli, B., M. Burström, E. Domanska, M. Edgeworth, A. González-Ruibal, C. Holtorf, G. Lucas, T. Oestigaard, L. Smith and C. Witmore. 2011. Norwegian Archaeological Review. Vol. 44, No. 1, pp. 40-88.
Are we now living in a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene? Geo-scientists discuss whether there is a need for a new concept covering the last 250 years’ immense human impact on the earth. How are we going to understand and define ‘heritage’ and archaeology in a rapidly changing global environment? The ‘linguistic turn’ in humanities and social sciences has had a huge impact on both archaeology and heritage studies since c. 1980. A critique is raised against the anti-essentialist view that heritage is constructed, not discovered. Furthermore, the paper discusses the legacy of ‘the linguistic turn’, post-processualism and environmental archaeology. [Author’s Abstract]

The Anthropocene model rests on the assertion that humans have become geological agents of change at the planetary scale. When engaged as a conceptual problem, however, the Anthropocene unsettles the long-lived dichotomies between nature and culture, past and present, and local and global (just to name a few).  As described by Zev Trachtenberg, a focus on habitability in the Anthropocene foregrounds the relational aspects of anthropogenic alterations.  In particular, Trachtenberg notes that “We recognize the recursiveness of habitation when we recognize that habitability is its product, not its precondition. That is, a place is made suitable for living by the activities of its inhabitants.”

While the Anthropocene is often considered to be a recent phenomenon attributable to a unique modernity (I will address this issue in a subsequent post), such recursiveness requires that we also consider history. What constitutes habitability is dependent upon prior intentional and unintentional human modification of the environment at multiple temporal and spatial scales, and the diverse and often contradictory social experiences, cultural values, and biological processes that are entangled with landscapes. Because it focuses on past habitabilities, the discipline of archaeology (a sub-discipline of Anthropology in North America) can naturally contribute to the Anthropocene dialogue. In this and subsequent contributions I will address what is the role of the past in the Anthropocene.  In particular, I will consider how empirical and theoretical insights from archaeology can aid in the interrogation of modern dichotomies, and can illuminate the varying significance of human interventions in the world.

The practice of archaeology is predicated on the fact that humans modified landscapes to the extent that traces of such alterations (expressed as objects, structures, environmental proxies, biological communities, and so on) remain to be studied. The substantial database of past habitation that archaeologists have cultivated enables the examination of ancient modes of social organization, cultural practices, ontological frameworks, and environmental interactions. By extension, the very persistence of the archaeological record today necessitates that we reconcile the ways in which ancient landscape modifications were significant to communities in the ancient past, our contemporary present, and the future. That is, the past (however construed) is a fundamental component of identity formation and the ongoing production of habitability.

The translation of discoveries into explanatory frameworks is central to the archaeological enterprise. This article by Britt Solli, and additional insightful comments by nine authors, is relevant for the central tensions that are exposed in documenting the past in the context of the Anthropocene. Solli is inspired by the global scale of the Anthropocene and its potential impact on archaeologists’ ability to write relevant “scientific narratives about the past” (p. 42). Of particular concern are the ways in which anthropogenic climate change will impact cultural resources, instigate diasporas and other social ruptures, and potentially curtail access to tangible cultural heritage (which is one basis for making place habitable through associated memory and tradition). Given the scale of the Anthropocene, and potential widespread impacts, Solli questions the utility of so-called constructivist perspectives that situate heritage as culturally produced, malleable, and changing in social significance depending on context. Citing the potential for so many cultural resources to be lost, she argues instead that there should be certain values that are universal. These qualities are manifested materially in the archaeological record (an example is the site of Stonehenge: unique in its construction and impact on the landscape). Places or monuments deemed valuable should be preserved to write future essential narratives because, she writes, “In the Anthropocene I think it is vital for the humankind as a species that the notion of a common human heritage survives” (p. 47).

Solli suggests that the emphasis on essential qualities may also be a means to overcome the western and rational nature-culture divide. Drawing broadly on posthumanism, and accepting humans as geological agents, she posits that humans, other things, and forms of life are better understood as networked and mutually constituting (and in this regard Solli’s formulation contains some parallels to Niche Construction Theory). Solli concludes with three recommendations for archaeology in the future: (1) engage in research into long-term human-environmental interactions (deep histories); (2) construct expert, but reflexive narratives, and (3) “archaeology should be the discipline “where species and cultures meet,” and where the ideas, theories and materials of the humanities, social and natural sciences meet.”

There is much that is thought provoking, and no doubt troubling to some, in Solli’s arguments (see the included comments). Does the planet-wide connectivity of human impacts—and the potential for widespread climate-induced change—necessitate universal values or explanations? Whose history is preserved is certainly a question of ethics and social justice, and it is unlikely that the effects of the Anthropocene will be equally distributed. Leaving aside the issue of whether or not archaeologists should be engaged in heritage production (Dawdy 2009), research can provide significant insight into the strategies that enabled habitability in the past. Indeed, examination of past resilience and vulnerability is often cited as one of archaeology’s strengths. Stuart Manning has even argued that archaeology should be considered a strategic asset: “archeology offers an education in patterns, possibilities and challenges that the U.S. should value and exploit for its future.” We might also ask whether the construction of “expert” historical narratives (based on essential qualities) may reproduce the very categories and dichotomies that our research is intended to subvert. While monuments and other constructions may provide a sense of history, and justify future actions, there are alternative (and more subtle) ways in which landscapes have been made habitable (and which do not fit dominant narratives) that could be of equal import.

Finally, as González-Ruibal notes in his comments: “By looking at deep history, we run the risk of naturalizing what is anything but natural.” Taken in an extremely long view, the Anthropocene appears as an inevitable consequence of human activity in the world. Yet, it is an open ended question as to whether our present “modernity” is a necessary product of a universal collective past, or only one privileged example from an assemblage of many different kinds of past and present human habitation. At the very least, the persistence of the archaeological record suggests that the past is a necessary condition of habitation.

Dawdy, Shannon Lee. 2009. Millennial archaeology. Locating the discipline in the age of insecurity. Archaeological Dialogues Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 131-142. Dawdy evaluates the purpose of archaeology, and argues that its products may be better used in the service of comparisons for present and future concerns.

5 thoughts on ““Some Reflections on Heritage and Archaeology in the Anthropocene”

  1. Right off the bat Asa’s post accomplished one of the goals of this blog for me–I didn’t know the Solli piece, and would likely never have encountered it–and it opened up a whole set of issues that had never occurred to me, as well as new angles on topics I’ve viewed in other contexts.

    But let me focus on two fairly specific ideas the post (and article) raise relevant to the light Archeology as a discipline can shed on habitability. I write pretty impressionistically, and I’d love to refine/develop (reject?) these ideas in light of comments.

    First, as Asa points out with the link to the Manning op-ed, Archeology can be taken to study the ways past societies inhabited their physical settings, hence can provide a catalogue of successful and unsuccessful practices of habitation–especially strategies for coping with environmental change. This prompts the thought that, by generalizing across enough cases, we might be able to derive some general theory of habitation–which in turn might reveal some more-or-less invariant criteria of habitability. I take it, however, that a strong current of thinking, both within Archeology and outside of it, would be resistant to this kind of “essentializing” move–indeed the broad topic is something Solli deals with, and Asa mentions.

    Further, the notion that there might be a general theory of habitation, based in historical experience but applicable to the Anthropocene, presumes a fundamental continuity from deep time through the present. But, as González-Ruibal suggests in his response to Solli, it may be that the Anthropocene marks a kind of discontinuity, which occurred around 1750 or 1800, caused by either or both industrialization and the emergence of capitalism. Perhaps–and indeed I look at this as an open question–the quantitative increase in human capacity to alter the physical environment creates a qualitative shift in the character of habitation, so that it is not really possible to understand habitability under modern (industrial/capitalist) conditions with reference to habitability under pre-modern conditions. I should say I would like it to be the case that there is enough continuity to make lessons drawn from the “paleo-Anthropocene” relevant to dilemmas we face today–but it seems reasonable to treat this as an open question.

    Finally, the notion of heritage helps open up a dimension of habitability I had not thought much about–and about which, as Asa observes, Archeology has lots to say. I’ll refer to it, generically, as the dimension of meaning–which I provisionally take to subsume both heritage and identity. Here’s a quick stab at a connection. Though the habitability approach (as I imagine it) is rooted in a broadly biological approach to human life, of course it is at the same time committed to observing what is specific to human life–i.e. what is characteristic of human practices of habitation. Obviously, evidence of culture in other species notwithstanding, what characterizes human habitation is cultural, so that, specifically, transformations of the landscape to make it more habitable are invested with meaning (which might encode that underlying purpose–but might go beyond it).

    But further, I want to say that the standards of habitability a society holds, which motivate the transformations of the landscape it carries out to make it more habitable, are infused with (as philosophers like to say) a conception of the good life: a vision of a mode of life that guides the manipulation of the physical environment so as to afford that way of living. Obviously, again, the conception of the good life is essentially a matter of culture–in particular, it involves identity, in that the mode of life to be afforded by the habitat shaped by society’s efforts is life as a member of that society. (I imagine that heritage figures here as a historical dimension of identity.) Thus, an account of habitability has to recognize that making a place habitable is always to make it the habitat of some given culture–to make it a location where it can live as it envisions as good. So habitability cannot be understood simply in terms of the affordance of basic organic functioning–it must also be understood in terms of the affordance of what is meaningful to the inhabitants, in terms of their understanding of a good human life.

    • Zev brings up two interesting points regarding the historical dimensions of habitability, namely the ability to distill the fundamentals of habitability and address the role of historical interpretation/meaning for communities. Regarding the first issue, there is no doubt great value in comparison and investigating multiple time scales of human habitation. Archaeology, then, provides one avenue of exploring the short and long-term unintended outcomes of different habitation strategies. There are, of course, a number of potential problems (not the least of which being the reconciliation of the kinds of data that are preserved, I’ll save that for another post). For example, over long time scales, the trend is to condense human habitability to a geological process punctuated by prime movers. Traditionally, studies have tended to locate deep histories in human-ecological relationships. It is often the case that either the earliest examples of human society, or those that are least like modern capitalist organizations, are reduced to biological imperatives in expert narratives. I’m not arguing that the biological dimensions of habitability are not important. All of the recent research on the microbiome, for example, implicate inherently dialectical relationships between humans and their environmental interventions. Furthermore, how humans categorize and enculturate the world has impacts on resource distribution and ecological structure: a loss of language diversity has been cited as a potential reason for a loss in ecological diversity: http://www.pri.org/stories/2014-07-15/when-languages-die-ecosystems-often-die-them. It is just that by emphasizing the biological dimension we potentially run the risk of reifying the nature-culture dichotomy as a historical problem: namely, that the roots of our current dilemma are situated in a fundamental human strategy. Zev, I think rightly so, places human experience and meaning centrally in the mix of habitability.

      At the same time, a very presentist perspective (i.e. Anthropocene starting at ca. 1800, with its roots in medieval globalism) loses sight of the historical and spatial variability in what habitability may have meant to communities. And furthermore, it potentially obscures alternative ways of being, ones that are often overlooked by focusing on the most socially/economically dominant societies, or most materially evident practices (i.e. monuments such as Stonehenge versus wide-scale but low visibility “fire stick farming”). Likewise at risk of being lost is that what makes habitability a viable strategy for one community may be disastrous or antithetical to another.

      As regards heritage, I think it has long played an important role in habitability. One of my own interests is to explore how different modes of historical consciousness in the past and present have afforded different responses to, or understandings of “environmental” change. As Stephen noted in his post, conceptions of origins—and thus time horizons—are often moderated through religious doctrine. A number of recent studies have also examined how communities today are reconciling their own heritage in the form of historically-informed experiences (traditions of dwelling, resource exploitation, origin narratives, and the like) with contemporary realities and projected futures:
      • On the perceived economic and environmental impacts of sea level rise in North Carolina: http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2014/04/30/humans-are-part-of-nature-too/
      • “Rethinking Home” project examines how communities mobilize heritage in the face of climate change: http://www.amnh.org/our-research/anthropology/projects/rethinking-home/blog/creative-approach-to-climate-change

      • A thought, and a question . . .

        Question first–I wasn’t clear what you mean by the phrase “condense human habitability to a geological process punctuated by prime movers.” Can you elaborate? Are humans the prime movers? Particularly powerful humans (i.e. social leaders)? Or are the prime movers powerful natural events–like glaciation, or volcanic eruptions?

        Thought: the link on North Carolina made me think of a newspaper story I saw recently about the controversy there. Cases like this certainly put in relief the idea that habitability is an accomplishment–future habitation of coastal zones is going to demand a pretty active effort to maintain their habitability! And the maneuvers of the skeptics indicate what an effort that might be. But in relation to your point: it made me think of the complex role of heritage in the choice about whether or not to continue to inhabit a place. Does the meaning of a place (including commercial meaning) motivate extra effort (rational or irrational) to remain there? Or might it motivate a deliberate withdrawal (or, in effect, going down with the ship)?

      • Zev: to clarify “prime movers,” I may have better stated that in taking a long-term perspective, the long duree if you will, can lead to a focus on the secondary products of habitation such as demographic change, habitat transformation, social structure (and attendant categories of social leaders). While all are important components of the story, taken out of context they can appear as akin to geological processes which are devoid of human experience. This is also an issue with the resolution of the archaeological record, and the visibility of events. For example, what may appear to have been a rapid transformation (correlated, perhaps, to sea level rise or an identified geological event), may on further analysis have been much more protracted. At the same time, what appears to be a long-term event (say, the movement out of one region into another) may in fact have been rapid. The point is we need to be careful of assuming any particular kind of transformation only occurs on one time scale.

        With respect to meaning and strategic planning, there is much to be considered there. I suspect that we will see an array of responses, and the controversies we are seeing now reflect different perspectives on what experienced change means for the future, and what solutions/compromises we are willing to make. My colleague Ken Sassaman has been working with concepts of alternative futures: “Futurologists Look Back” http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11759-012-9205-0 (sorry, full text behind a paywall). One point he makes is that communities in the past have not simply experienced environmental change, but also deployed different strategies to interfere with change (by moving settlements, or having narratives about landscape movements that would make communities less vulnerable). I’ll be taking this topic up in a future post. In a somewhat related vein, Shannon Dawdy (drawing in part on disaster literature) has examined how communities reconstitute themselves in the aftermath of disaster (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1525/aa.2006.108.4.719/abstract). She focuses on post-Katrina New Orleans and considers how disasters and subsequent recovery can “reveal the specific local logic of culture-nature relations,” but also reveal perceived vulnerabilities and planned for futures. In either case, meaning attached/experienced in place will likely be impediment to, or provide justification for, staying or moving.

  2. There’s a lot to digest here. I read the article and skimmed the nine responses to it. My response is that I have no doubt that archaeology has a huge role to play in discussions of the Anthropocene, not just because of archaeology’s deeper temporal scope but also because of its attention to material rather than just textual remains. I was confused, though, by what Solli was advocating in terms of heritage and its valuation. Part of this confusion stems from my lack of familiarity with heritage studies, but I also think it reflects some ambiguities in the argument. Solli repeatedly invokes a constructivist/essentialist dichotomy and suggests that we keep sight of the essential value of certain forms of heritage. But then the approach she ultimately advocates, as Asa points out, seems to rest on posthumanist scholarship that explicitly rejects the constructivist/essentialist dichotomy. So perhaps, then, the problem isn’t excessive constructivism, as she claims, but the persistence of the said dichotomy. Asa, what are your thoughts on this? Does the specter of this dichotomy haunt heritage studies (or archaeology) in unhelpful ways?
    Perhaps even more interesting/urgent is the practical question—regardless of whether heritage value is essential, constructed, or assembled—of who decides how preservation resources are allocated in the Anthropocene. I am grateful to you, Asa (and to Solli), for prompting me to ponder this question more consciously.

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