Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Anthropocene, the nonhuman and the solar system are grand challenges for archaeology

What are the grand challenges for archaeology? Last year, a group of mostly US researchers (Kintigh et al 2014) published the results of a survey conducted in order to find out. The result was a series of general research areas and specific questions, most of which are core issues in what we do, but with some inevitable blind spots and holes.

Here's a few that resonate with me in terms of my own research in space archaeology (thanks to Publishing Archaeology for extracting them from the paper in a nice list):

  •  Why and how do social inequalities emerge, grow, persist, and diminish, and with what consequences?
  • How do humans occupy extreme environments, and what cultural and biological adaptations emerged as a result?
  • How have human activities shaped Earth’s biological and physical systems, and when did humans become dominant drivers of these systems?
  • How do spatial and material reconfigurations of landscapes and experiential fields affect societal development?

Archaeology blogger Doug Rocks-Macqueen thinks there's quite a bit more to be said on these grand challenges. He's asked his fellow bloggers to respond in what ever way they choose, and that's a challenge I can't refuse (bursts into song a la Gilbert and Sullivan).

Challenges are often something that we let others define for us. Something I've gradually learnt over the last decade of being an academic (I was a heritage consultant before, and actually during, this time as well), is to trust my voice.  Part of this is allowing deeply buried or incoherent thoughts to rise to the surface and be given shape. Another part of it is turning things you think you're stupid for not understanding properly upside down and making them into questions or problems to be investigated. So I've delved into my brain to work out what I really think, and this is what emerged.

Put actual people back into the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a challenge, because despite the brilliant Matt Edgeworth being on the Anthropocene Working Group, there doesn't seem to be a great deal of awareness among that community that there is already a discipline devoted to human-environment interactions in the past. Kintigh et al (2014:15-16) say:
Despite producing key data, archaeologists have largely been left out of this discussion. This is a major limitation, since archaeology, drawing on cross-disciplinary tools capable of tracking the increasingly dominant role of humans in Earth systems, brings a deep-time perspective that stands to make significant contributions to understanding how humans have shaped the Earth.
I even read one paper in which the author coined the term 'technofossil' for objects made of contemporary materials. Dude, they're just artefacts, and not always the most durable ones in human history at that. And in my observation there's little understanding of taphonomy in terms of how archaeological data is derived ....

We can't leave this one to the geologists and earth systems scientists. We need to make ourselves visible and relevant to this debate. What I think this means is synthesising archaeological data at a planetary scale in a way we've rarely done before. Imagine if we calculated the total weight of stone removed from original contexts and moved into others after being knapped, quarried, sculpted, built, used, discarded, from the Pleistocene to the present! In effect, we need to act as planetary archaeologists visiting from elsewhere.

And in this, the fine-grained detail you only get from intensive analysis of a site or an artefact type is still absolutely critical. It is the cumulative effect of living people carrying out individual actions in accordance with their worldview which creates the Anthropocene. As archaeologists, this is at the core of what we do everyday: meshing individual agency with broad scale patterns through time and space.

In some ways I kind of resent being drawn in to the debate on the Anthropocene. Part of me wants to resist trends and buzzwords, as hard as that is to do sometimes. But there is no doubt that this is shaping up to be the big theme of the next decade across all the sciences and humanities, and we need to be leading it, not following.

Last year Matt Edgeworth edited a forum section in the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology on The Archaeology of the Anthropocene. I recommend it to you.

Make humans the environment for other objects and things

Another big challenge is almost the polar opposite of the Anthropocene, which makes human actions central. As archaeologists, we're pretty focused on humans, because that is what differentiates us from geologists and palaeontologists, after all. But everyone else, it seems, is leaving humans behind. Animals, plants, microbes, and the inanimate are all being drawn out of the background into the foreground. The very definition of what it is to be human is being reshaped by looking at the human body as a microbial biome and considering its continuity with what we previously considered external to it. Then there are cyborgs, robots, AIs, artilects, hyperobjects, superobjects, posthumanism and transhumanism. It's just not fashionable to look at the human body as a coherent entity or unit of analysis any more.

So where does that leave archaeology? We've done more than our fair share of theorising about the interaction between humans and material stuff, with perspectives ranging from environmental determinism to phenomenology and taking in actor-network theory, social theory and a myriad more along the way. (Some argue that archaeologists have always been bower birds and have never formulated truly original theories about the world of objects. In some ways, I tend to agree). We've questioned the meanings of the human body and the boundaries between the 'cultural' and the 'natural'. But will we be stranded in an intellectual backwater as the human is completely bypassed?

Maybe not. I think our contribution to these frameworks lies in inverting our lens and looking at the experience of a mountain, a microbe, a mammoth, a melaleuca as human bodies, actions and technologies interact with it. Let's swap subject and object, or situate both in a flat or object-oriented ontology. How did the life of a flea change when hominins lost most of their body hair? How does the daily or annual life of a flowering plant change when Neanderthal people move into Shanidar Cave?  I'm not talking about use, or impact, or adaptation.  Perhaps the human body is still the unit of analysis, just from the perspective of something else.

Matrioshka Brain, by Steve Bowers
Orion's Arm Universe Project
My own engagement with this challenge at present is looking at materials and structures like degenerate matter and Matrioshka Brains, both far beyond the human scale of existence. I'm interested in what the future holds if we start from the premise that we have always been adapted to large scale networks mediated by material culture - in the words of Andy Clark, 'natural born cyborgs'. Despite dire warnings about AIs who are going to destroy humanity, I don't see why we have to be gloomy all the time. This is just a deficit in imagination. Sometimes it's nice to focus on creativity and transformation. Perhaps that's one reason why we're archaeologists.

Take the solar system perspective

There's no mention of space in Kintigh et al's survey, which is a little disappointing. I'd like to think we'd made a bigger impact than that. But how can space not be a grand challenge?

This is not about going to the Moon or Mars in order to do space archaeology. But archaeologists know all about colonisation, contact, impacts on the environment, adaptation, social life and things. We've seen how population growth and technology change have played out on Earth. Whether your vision of space is dystopian or utopian, we can't go blindly onto other planets without considering the deep history of sentient life on our own. This is archaeology's greatest strength in my view: different futures can't be imagined without understanding the diversity of the past.

I think archaeologists have an important role to play in shaping the discourses around space exploration. The usual rationales trotted out are riddled with 19th century ideas about progress and curiosity and exploration and growth, some drawing very explicitly on assumed human imperatives to colonise and explore. In other words, there's a particular (masculine) version of behavioural modernity that is co-opted to justify the current models of space occupation. Needless to say, I hate that stuff almost as much as I hate evolutionary psychology, which is quite a bit actually.

At this point, however, the two challenges outlined above come to be part of the same question. Really, we should be taking the perspective that Earth is just one of the planets colonised by life at this point in time, and contextualise ourselves within a whole solar system. If there is anything living on other planets, then perhaps they will have their own 'cene'. We can't judge the scale of the Anthropocene in isolation after all. So we need to develop concepts to frame humans a part of a much bigger system than just one planet. Continuities and discontinuities are important here, and we need to be wary of drawing the lines in all the wrong places.

Elsewhere I've argued that a constant gravity is assumed for terrestrial archaeology, and for space archaeology we have to stop considering it as "normal" and recognise that it's just one gravitational regime to which culture is adapted. This is not an entirely new idea: the seeds of it were present in the 19th century (think Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and Otis Mason Tufton). I think one of the challenges of space archaeology is how it makes us look back on Earth, and I don't mean as a pale blue dot, a blue marble, a spaceship, Gaia or the so-called 'overview effect'. Call me unromantic but I want a more robust and nuanced philosophy of existence in the cosmos.


When I started writing, I didn't know this would be where I'd end up. To be honest, parts of it come as a surprise to me, but in a good way. So it seems I've set some challenges for myself here; I hope this discussion may provide some inspiration for others too.

See you in orbit.

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