Hardly a day seems to pass at the archaeology department at Sheffield, when I don't hear some attempt at witty repartee between one of the so called 'theory' students and one of the 'lab-based' students. On sight of a white smock or crucible of dark vitreous matter, the 'theorists' can be heard to murmur 'Science' in tones of feigned awe, while the 'scientists' often greet exchanges in which such terms as 'inhabitation' and 'transformation' are dropped with 'Well, that's Theory; I wouldn't understand', smiling sheepishly but in self-knowledge. Each contingent seems to acknowledge the value of what the other does: many of the students oriented toward social theory accept as fact the conclusions of their environmentally or technologically oriented colleagues, and many lab-based students seem to regard 'interpretation' as that part of the research process which is left after the difficult work of teasing useful data out of fragmentary material has been done. They even seem to need each other. Still, each group seems content in its ways, and hard methodological and interpretative questions rarely arise between them. Thus the ritual -- or better, the game -- of mutual identification through disjuncture continues.
The department is divided between two buildings, only one containing the laboratories for the analysis of bone, seed, pollen, ceramic, glass, and other materials. The lab-based and theory students have, in general, segregated themselves appropriately, though this was not, I'm sure, the intention of the designers. Obviously, this segregation does not make communication any easier. I am sure, nonetheless that the divide between the 'scientists' and the 'theorists', in terms of their research, is not peculiar to Sheffield but is a widespread phenomenon with deeper roots. One has only to look at how little mixing is found in the academic literature. Yet, at the beginning of the decade, Shanks and Tilley, two stars of post-processualism, wrote in 'Archaeology into the 1990s' that one of the elements of 'any progressive archaeology' should be 'fresh consideration of the ecological context and economic practices' (1992: 260). Of all the points in their 'programme for the 1990s', involving the critical examination of 'sensuous practice', this seems to have been heeded the least by their fans. An answer seems to have come first from the environmental specialists -- who are often identified as 'processualists' -- if we can judge from the contents of the recently launched Environmental Archaeology: The Journal of Human Palaeocology.
First some description and an apology. Two issues/volumes of Environmental Archaeology have been published to date, both in 1998. The new journal is produced by the Association for Environmental Archaeology (AEA) and printed by Oxbow Books, and it replaces Circaea, the previous journal of the AEA. Environmental Archaeology is well edited, laid out, and produced -- though some authors had to sully the first issue with an alliterative title, the sort that irritates me but which seems to be popular in certain academic circles ('Fuel, fodder and faeces ...' in this case). There is also the problem of a corrigendum slip in volume 2. Glynis Jones of the University of Sheffield is the Co-ordinating Editor.
Not only is the title of the new journal intelligible to the non-Latinists among us, but the subtitle also bodes of a scope which will broadly treat human-environment relations. Unfortunately, it is more difficult than usual, given only two issues, to foretell how the discussion in this journal will play out, since volume 1 is essentially the proceedings of the session 'The Archaeology of Fodder' at the AEA's meeting in 1995. This session seems to have been dominated by scholars working at the University of Sheffield, or closely associated with its environmental archaeology programme: seven of the fifteen articles this first issue involve authors from Sheffield. Nevertheless, there are clear signs in Environmental Archaeology of an ecumenical attitude, if not actual content, and of promising new directions in human palaeoecology.
I will not attempt to scrutinise the methodology and inferential validity of each article in the two volumes; I haven't the technical expertise in any one of the many topics covered, let alone in all of them. A highly analytical review might be expected in a specialist journal, but assemblage is not such a publication. I am sorry if I disappoint some of my colleagues, to whose hearts the material discussed within the pages of Environmental Archaeology is close. I can only hope they will read the journal and give me their expert opinion. Instead, I wish to concentrate on a few issues raised in the articles in Environmental Archaeology which I think may be entry points for building bridges between lab and library, if you will, and for meeting Shanks and Tilley's programmatic challenge by exploring the social implications of these issues.
Volume 2 -- apparently the first issue of the regular series -- contains Terry O'Connor's 'Environmental archaeology: a matter of definition', a stimulating and hopeful article, which usefully sums up current debates in environmental archaeology (loosely defined) and which emphasises the complex interaction of human societies with the non-human world. To begin, O'Connor notes that there has been an historical division in environmental archaeology between a British school devoted to biological evidence and an American school concerned mainly with physical aspects of the environment. He suggests that the dichotomous thinking that has resulted may be wrongheaded: are not soil processes, for example, both 'biotic' and 'abiotic'? He notes the shortcomings of relatively early works, such Birks and Birks Quaternary Palaeoecology (1980). which was 'descriptive, opportunistic in methodology, uniformitarian in philosophy, and bedevilled by complex, incomplete data' (p. 2); and he applauds the recent, more theoretically minded works which have emphasised human interaction with the environment, as opposed to simple environmental reconstruction or simplistic 'selection pressures'. He proffers a model of 'long-term, gradual environmental change' that is 'akin to Braudel's longue durée' (p. 3) -- change which people may not have perceived as such in their lifetime but some of the small-scale effects of which they may have responded to according to their own understandings. (At this point, I am also reminded of the geographer David Harvey's sketch of different scales of both 'political-economic' and 'social-ecological' relations in Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference (1997); Harvey's writings about modern societies may, I think, have some application to the pre-modern past.) I would think that post-processualists would welcome the alternative provided to simplistic stimulus-response models, which has room for human knowledge, agency, and choice, but I have yet to see a positive response concerning the classes of evidence in question. I do take issue with one point O'Connor makes in conclusion: his suggestion that perhaps environmental archaeologists should not worry about the definition of their discipline seems to represent a retreat from criticism and theory and into the unaccountability that has long vitiated academic cloisters. However, he makes up for his error in large measure by stating that he has persistently argued that archaeologists should always consider their common 'ends', rather than getting lost in proliferating 'means'.
Other works in Environmental Archaeology continue the themes laid out by O'Connor. The journal's title on volume 1 is misleading, as the editors admit, since it consists almost entirely of historic and ethnographic studies, and is therefore not strictly 'palaeoecological'. Almost all the studies in both volumes are restricted to Europe, and great many come from the Mediterranean basin. I hope that in future issues more territory may be covered. However, what the articles lack in geographic variety, they make up for in quality. The studies served up are not simply lab reports or extended analogies. Almost all the major contributions consider, in some framework, strategic options in subsistence, agrarian ideologies (past and present), the varying nature of the archaeological evidence even within so circumscribed a region, and the need to debunk 'uniformitarian' assumptions. Indeed, as is stated in the front of volume 1, the fact that '[o]ne of the defining characteristics of Old World farming is the interdependence between crop and livestock husbandry' demands consideration of the such subtleties and complexities.
Here are a few examples from both volumes. Palmer's article on the use of fodder in northern Jordan emphasises 'the factors that influence farmers in the choice of crops they cultivate and in the way they manage them ...' and concludes that farmers in the area must constantly make choices in order to 'balance' investments in labour, land, task differentiation, and productivity, among other things. While the rhetoric may seem like systems theory, only the most simple-minded could fail to see that all these choices must be mediated through social structures. Williamson's 'Fodder crops and the "Agricultural Revolution" in England, 1700-1850' makes the important argument that the urbanisation that came with the Industrial Revolution would not have been viable without agricultural intensification, which in turn required a change in exploitation of biological resources, producing, inter alia, fodder for the over-wintering of livestock. Although he doesn't state as much, this agricultural intensification eventually led to the wholesale 'industrialisation' of agriculture, and to begin to undo the social and ecological havoc wreaked its inheritors in modern agri-business, we must pay greater heed to the rural-urban interdependency which is the central theme of his work. Forbes questions the 'separatist ideology' that maintains a distinction between grazing land and foraging land in northern Europe (an ideology encapsulated in the English nursery rhyme 'Little boy blue'). His case study from Greece shows how, under certain conditions, the two are 'enmeshed', stressing the differences between the evidence in northern Europe and that in Greece and arguing, along with Halstead (1987), against uniformitarian assumptions about 'traditional' agricultural practices. Brothwell's theoretical tract on the relevance of the concept of environmental stress (access to resources, climatic conditions, degree of confinement, disease, etc.) to human palaeoecology revisits anthropological literature of the first half of the twentieth century. His article seems to me to have much to offer long-term projects in historic archaeology, in particular, which might want to take into account the wide range of deleterious 'externalities', as the economists call them, brought on by agricultural intensification, industrialisation, and rapid urbanisation in the last few hundred years.
Of course, as in any journal, not all the articles in Environmental Archaeologyare provocative. Some are strictly studies in comparative methodologies, while others, in the face of ambiguous evidence of an experiment or a hypothetical formation process, seem unable to present a plausible contextual inference. Food and fodder, for example, needn't only be distinguished by the mechanisms by which they are sorted or by unquestionable evidence of cooking; food in any society is highly symbolic and consequently is associated with various kinds of material culture, even if their species character is 'flexible'. Perhaps some environmental specialists don't think such explanations are within their disciplinary purview.
As some of us are painfully aware, both sides in the processualist/post-processualist debate have made straw persons of each other's work. The caricature of the environmental archaeologist as a stuck-in-the-mud determinist, obsessed with natural selection and the rhythms of geological time may have been funny for a while, but its best-before date has passed. As Paul Halstead said in his interview for this issue of assemblage, 'the notion that nature determines culture had long since ceased to be a necessary precondition for identifying a bone' by the time he was completing his undergraduate degree. Yet, many critical social theorists in archaeology act as if they will pollute themselves if they cross the subdisciplinary boundary and handle geophysical and biological evidence -- if they start playing the identity game by different rules. How will they reply to the overture to dialogue presented by Environmental Archaeology, whatever its failings may be? Will they respond in kind, or will they simply mutter 'Science...'?
Birks, H.J.B. and H.H. Birks. 1980. Quaternary Palaeoecology. London: Edward Arnold.
Halstead, P. 1987. Traditional and ancient rural economy in Mediterranean Europe: plus ça change? Journal of Hellenic Studies 107: 77-87.
Harvey, D. 1997. Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.
Shanks M. and C. Tilley. 1992. Appendix: Archaeology into the 1990s. Re- Constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice, 2nd edn. pp. 247- 65.
Copyright © M.F. Lane 1998
Copyright © assemblage 1998