Pinned Down in the Trenches? Revisiting environmental archaeology

Terry O'Connor

Cite this as: O'Connor, T. 2019 Pinned Down in the Trenches? Revisiting environmental archaeology, Internet Archaeology 53.

'Nonetheless, a dichotomy between environment on the one hand and culture on the other is a basic one.' (Reitz and Shackley 2012, 2)

1. Environmental Archaeology: a search for identity

This article arose out of the session at TAG 2015, though it also draws on previous TAG sessions and consequent publications, and on some of the more off-the-wall ideas in the closing chapter of O'Connor and Evans (2005). The fact that we are still discussing the same questions and ruminating on the theme of 'whither environmental archaeology?' is significant but not reassuring. Much of the discussion in the TAG 2015 session revolved around whether, and in what discernible ways, environmental archaeology had moved on in the preceding decade, and whether any coherent theoretical paradigm for the discipline had emerged. Very little of that discussion asked whether environmental archaeology actually needs its own distinctive theoretical paradigm or it might be better off without one, as suggested by Ken Thomas (2001, 58). Something of the philosophical challenge that faces anyone looking for an explicit theoretical basis for environmental archaeology is nicely demonstrated by one of the better textbooks on the subject. Reitz and Shackley (2012, 6-7) manage to devote 1.5 interesting and thoughtful pages to the topic in a 516-page volume (0.3%). And even so, the heading is 'Theories in Environmental Archaeology', not 'Theories of …'. This article is a discursive essay, a trying-out of ideas around the meaning and purpose of environmental archaeology, and the question of whether or not it needs to concern itself with philosophical conceptualisation.

At the heart of the original discussion was the fracture that was identified as existing between archaeologists who work on artefactual evidence, which I take here to include buildings and earthworks, and those who study biological and geological remains (paraphrasing Albarella 2001, 3-13). Does this fracture still exist, expressed as consistent differences in the preconceptions and objectives that we bring to our research? From some of the TAG 2015 presentations, I suspect that it does and that it is not susceptible to closure any time soon. There will be many reasons for this. I will start with one in particular, not because it has necessarily had most impact, but because it points up a difference in thinking in different corners of archaeology. Over the last couple of decades, archaeology has embraced agency (Dobres and Robb 2000; Robb 2010), often to good effect though sometimes with an enthusiasm that has stretched its applicability (Crandall and Martin 2014; Jordan 2008). The point was to focus on individual capacity for action in the formation of the archaeological record, in a deliberate contradistinction to what were seen as the normalising generalisations of Processualism, with which the environmental archaeology of the 1970s and 80s seemed to be irredeemably associated, and to which this article later returns. An agency-centred paradigm ought not to be antithetical to environmental archaeology; there is agency in the threshing of emmer just as there is in the decoration of a pot. However, when dealing with the material evidence of past pedogenesis or ruderal weeds or crop-raiding rodents, we have to step outside considerations of human agency to incorporate 'natural' ecosystem processes such as weathering and trophic cascades. Although some, such as Brown (2002), have tried to incorporate human agency into environmental archaeology, it is a general weakness of agency approaches in archaeology that they struggle to accommodate 'natural' processes other than as something external and deterministic, or to involve other species in an active mode. The more fundamentalist of us might propose that the weeds and mice have agency of their own (O'Connor 2016; 2018), though this seems to be a minority view as yet. If we move beyond the constructed worlds of artefacts and social systems, application of the theoretical perspectives that have dominated archaeological thought over the last 20 years becomes seriously problematic. The material foci of environmental archaeology — plants, animals, soils, fungi, climate and so on — will be manifest in the archaeological record both directly through their own ecological roles and indirectly through their effects on human activities. Structures, artefacts, settlement patterns and their cultural ilk are the consequences of human agency. An agency-based approach to archaeology thus immediately creates a dichotomy between environmental factors affecting human activity and artefacts sensu lato resulting from them. As a result, albeit with occasional honourable exceptions, 'cultural' and 'environmental' archaeologies have kept their entrenched positions, glowering at each other across no-man's land, with occasional outbreaks of sniping.

2. Whose environment is it anyway?

The term 'environment' is problematic from the outset, a convenient term that we apply to a highly complex, layered reality (discussed in O'Connor 2013, 13-24). People and social systems form a major part of the 'environment' of any human population, so 'environmental archaeology' could subsume any archaeological evidence of social interactions or status ranking or buildings, the 'environment' in which people in the past often lived. Much of the human environment is constructed, and is as much of an artefact as a pot or a villa. What we tend to mean in the context of 'environmental archaeology' is those aspects of the past human environment that, although amended and modified by human agency, were not primarily constructed by people. That narrowing of definition is maintained and strengthened by archaeological practice, in which there is usually a taxonomy that differentiates 'finds' (i.e. artefacts) from 'environmental evidence' (i.e. bones, seeds, shells, soil samples), and therefore has to shift human remains off into their own hermetic specialism. The positioning of 'environmental archaeology' on one side of the fracture that Albarella (2001) identified begins in the trenches and is, to a large extent, initiated and maintained by its practitioners, not because they necessarily see any particular merit in it but because of the conventional structuring of field archaeology practice, research conferences and publication routes. Thus if one were to propose a volume of papers on the environmental archaeology of the British Neolithic, the inclusion of a paper on the production and distribution of Grooved Ware would raise a few eyebrows, despite the important role played in the later Neolithic human environment by that tedious ceramic (Thomas 2010). In the 1970s and early 1980s, those of us working in environmental archaeology in the UK parked our (sieving) tanks on the lawn of rescue archaeology and in so doing ensured that a particular and theoretically unhelpful definition of 'environmental archaeology' would keep us out of the main theoretical debates for years to come. Environmental archaeology became something that was done rather than thought about and conceptualised, a practice rather than a way of understanding the human past.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, an issue that emerged during discussion at TAG 2015 was a division within environmental archaeology between those whose preoccupation is with the practice of the discipline, the means of studying the past human environment, and those who are more concerned to develop a theoretical framework through which to articulate an understanding of the interactions of past people and their biophysical environment. That division is usefully discussed by Driver (2001, 43-54) and by Thomas (2001, 55-58), with rather differing views on whether a theoretical perspective is even appropriate for environmental archaeology. I write having seen the discipline from both ends: my career began in the time-deficient, sample-based world of rescue archaeology and only caught up with theoretical debates much later on (if at all!). TAG 2015 papers reflected that same differentiation, with quite a different tone being set by contributors based (largely) in commercial field archaeology and those of us whose research careers are less dependent on the next set of samples or pile of bones. One could simply define 'environmental archaeology' as a set of techniques directed towards elucidation of the past human environment, without being too explicit about the forms of evidence (i.e. bones, shells, seeds, soils, lithics, ceramics, epigraphy?) to be included in that remit. Maybe that is definition enough? Perhaps we should simply define environmental archaeology by the way that it is enacted rather than the way it is thought about, and we need never trouble TAG again? Tempting though that is, I would argue that it would be a serious mistake.

Although definition-by-practice has the merit of clarity, it carries the risk that a project manager seeking financial savings can too easily excise from a research design those procedures that are not so closely integrated with the field and post-excavation archaeology as to be impossible to chop. Conventional environmental archaeology is relatively expensive. If sampling and bulk-sieving protocols are going on, at least a few excavation staff are taken away from digging and recording. In post-ex, in order to make the best of that on-site investment, a project may have to pay for many hours of work by specialist researchers. There is another big downside that has not been clearly acknowledged in environmental archaeology. When on site, participating in the excavation of archaeological features and deposits, we may become aware that this or that sediment visibly contains fragments of bone or shell or black traces that may be charred plant macrofossils, and that laboratory analysis may well coax pollen or other microfossils out of it, not to mention the potential for particle size and other sediment analyses. In the 1970s and 80s, environmental archaeology was still learning just what might survive in different sediments and how to recover and record those fossils. Sampling was usually opportunistic, and a site that manifestly had good preservation of 'the environmental evidence' in most sediments was likely to be heavily sampled, whatever the depositional context. It has taken us a long time to get beyond the impulse to sample because there is something to sample and to accept that it may be more productive to the project as a whole not to over-sample the site. Although that learning process goes on, we should be past the basics by now and less inclined to sample 'because it's there'. Asking 'What is the question to which these bones/shells/etc. may be the answer?' should be an essential part of excavation practice, not something that we do months or years later when confronted with an over-abundance of steadily-deteriorating stored material. An attempt was recently made to introduce a screening procedure for animal bones on the Hungate excavation in York (Rainsford et al. 2014). Although necessitated by severe storage exigencies, this procedure was also informed by the question posed above. If a particular bone assemblage did not clearly have a part to play in investigating site formation and human activity on that site, and did not have attributes of any biogeographical importance, the presumption was that it would not be retained. That retention strategy was in part a pragmatic response to the high financial and other resource costs of storing bulk materials over the long term, and in part a theoretically-driven assessment of the research materials that would make most contribution to addressing the interactions of people and other animals in the time and space sampled by the site. Such a strategy should not be difficult or controversial, only requiring a priori research questions that can be articulated with the surviving fossil material on site, the questions in turn deriving from some over-arching theorising framework. However, when the value of a subsequent post-excavation contract, and hence the future employment of a specialist, hang on making the case for further study of this or that material, it is easy to see how the potential recovery of a large assemblage of stuff drives the research agenda, rather than the other way round. One of the questions posed for TAG 2015 was whether environmental archaeology is '… rich on data, short on theory and epistemology?'. If the starting point is to maximise the product from commercial excavations, we will certainly be rich in data. A better question might be whether richness of data is the same as richness of information. A consequence of the commercial structuring of archaeology in much of Europe and North America has been a pressure to justify post-excavation research on 'environmental' evidence that derives from the trench upwards rather than downwards from an over-arching research paradigm. This is why I argue that we need some form of theoretical basis, some conceptualisation of what it is that environmental archaeology exists to achieve and elucidate. Without it, there is a real danger that the chief objective of the discipline becomes finding reasons to continue to employ environmental archaeologists. That should be a highly desirable outcome, a consequence, not an existential directive.

3. One theory to bind them all

So what is that singular research paradigm? The big challenge that confronts us is that interaction with the biophysical environment and construction of the social environment are traits that are absolutely characteristic of our species, with complex recursive feedbacks between the biophysical and social realms. If we seek theoretical models for environmental archaeology that avoid being culture-specific, then we have to concentrate on what it is that unites all human populations and makes our species distinctive. Characterisations such as 'Man (sic) the Tool-Maker' have been shown to be inadequate. Tool-making has long since been abandoned as a defining human trait: crows and capuchin monkeys make tools. From a naïve environmentalist perspective, the human propensity for modifying our habitat might seem to be characteristic of our species, but even this is something that we share with termites, coral polyps and dry rot fungi. In an earlier work, Evans and I argued that the construction of different ecological niches in different environments was something characteristically human (O'Connor and Evans 2005, 246-50). Niche construction paradigms have proved their worth in biology (Odling-Smee et al. 1996) though their application in archaeology has been regrettably slow and cautious (Laland and O'Brien 2010; Smith 2015 for honourable exceptions). People are niche constructors par excellence, taking the Class 1 or Eltonian definition of the term (O'Connor and Evans 2005, 20). Faced with the challenge of a new and quite different biophysical environment, people will adapt socially, technologically and ecologically to construct a new niche that is better adapted to that new environment. Note that this is not the same thing as modifying a habitat to make it more congenial. Habitat is about a physical place and its attributes: niche is about what a species does within that habitat. Many animals modify their habitat and some adapt their niche. Humans integrate those two things more intensively and extensively than any other species, finding a way of making a living in every terrestrial biome. One of the strengths of this perspective is that it acknowledges that people have been a major selection pressure on other biotas, but also that the adaptation of human populations to a wide range of habitats and niches has imposed selection pressures on humanity, not only on the long timescales of the Pleistocene but more recently and currently (Leach et al. 2003; Chiao and Blizinsky 2010). That attribute of our species ought to be at the heart of archaeological investigations, and certainly at the heart of anything that calls itself 'environmental archaeology'. However, our niche construction is about more than soils and biota, and must include artefacts, structures, language, cuisine, mating systems, social rank and more besides. Our conventional definitions of 'environmental archaeology', driven from the trenches, prevents that degree of integration and so prevents us from investigating the human past in a particularly productive and holistic way. Of the contributions at TAG TAG 2015, Jess Pearson's discussion of human remains, figurines and grave goods came closest to making that integration[LINK?], though some traditionalists might even question whether human remains constitute part of the evidence base of 'environmental archaeology' in the first place. It is a quirk of our discipline's history that we aim to study past human interaction with the biophysical environment while sub-contracting study of the humans themselves to a different group of researchers whose research is typically presented at their own subject-specific conferences and in their own specialised literature. This issue was usefully discussed by Joanna Sofaer Derevenski (2001, 113-33), and may be another regrettable development from the trenches. When human bones are encountered on excavations, they are given separate treatment, in part for legal and ethical reasons. The separation of human remains from those of the rest of the biota thus begins on site and tends to persist through subsequent research.

A different view of the subject comes from dealing with the public. One of the unintended yet desirable consequences of the professionalisation of field archaeology has been the increased profile of public archaeology: projects and events that are outward-facing and that involve the public as active players in the work (i.e. they have agency!), not just as passive viewers of the results. Quite apart from the positive social benefits of public archaeology, it provides a valuable perspective on archaeology's perennial culture/environment navel-gazing. In my experience, members of the public, including amateur archaeology groups, are far less concerned about this distinction than are many professionals and academics. Crucially, that lack of concern is not for any want of understanding: it is usually because the public do not see the distinction as useful or interesting. They are willing and able to engage with the archaeological record regardless of the categorisations that we choose to make within it. There are obvious practical problems in getting a local archaeology group involved in pollen analysis, for example, though even this can be achieved given ingenuity (Brown et al. 2014). However, bones and shells do not necessarily require microscopes, and can be sorted, grouped and discussed in just the same way as pottery or lithics. My own experience has been that the macro-scale of what we might call environmental archaeology lends itself very well to active public engagement, and the enthusiasm of that engagement teaches us something important about pragmatic vernacular understanding of terms such as 'culture' and 'environment'. Archaeology groups outside academia and the commercial field often show a more coherent holistic grasp of landscape and the human role in shaping and responding to it than most of us 'professionals'.

4. New techniques are means, not ends

Since the TAG 1998 session that became the Albarella (2001) book, a number of analytical procedures have become widely applied in archaeology, not least to what might conventionally have been thought of as 'environmental evidence'. Lipid and protein analysis of residues in and on ceramics have extended our understanding of ancient diet beyond lists of potential foodstuffs and into aspects of cuisine (Craig et al. 2015). One weakness of this research to date has been the tendency for it to be driven by the analysts rather than the field archaeologists. As whizzy techniques become more routine, their raison d'être matures from 'Wow!' to 'Why?'. Environmental archaeology went through this process in the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, we were excited that uncharred plant macrofossils could survive in excellent condition in waterlogged urban deposits (Hall et al. 1983). By the end of it, we were asking whether the fact that medieval people ate elderberries was actually interesting, and more concerned to understand the context in which those elderberries were consumed. Now biomolecular archaeology may be entering that second stage, and this is just the time for environmental archaeology to be setting the research agendas that can now be answered. Analysis of bone stable isotopes and dental calculus allow us to ask about the diets of individual people (Redfern et al. 2010; Reitsema 2013). Sedimentary DNA allows us to populate a past landscape regardless of macrofossil deposition or survival, and to detect organisms such as fungi that have conventionally been elusive (Giguet-Covex et al. 2014; Thomsen and Willerslev 2015). I do not see these analytical developments as a potential cause of disciplinary fragmentation: quite the opposite. What they are is both a great opportunity to diversify our investigative capabilities and a major challenge to environmental archaeology's willingness to develop mutualistic relationships with our lab-rat colleagues. In fact, that is a two-way challenge. Just as it is reductive and intellectually stultifying to define one's research by a particular category of 'environmental evidence' ('I work on charred macrofossils'), so it should also be for process-driven analytical work ('I do stable isotopes'). The new techniques are just a continuation of something that has gone on in archaeology for a century or more, beginning with macro-scale evidence such as bones and shells, later adding micro-scale evidence such as pollen and diatoms, and now molecular- and atomic-scale evidence. Each of those scales of evidence complements, not replaces, the others and all of them are evidence of human niche construction and engagement with the biophysical environment.

If, as seemed to be the case at TAG2015, we cannot satisfactorily define and theorise environmental archaeology, then is it time to quietly pack the term away into a stout box and place it in archaeology's crowded loft alongside invasion hypotheses and diffusionism? We could simply fold environmental archaeology into archaeology and stop making the distinction. Although this is very tempting, and I might have strongly urged it at one time, I am not persuaded that it would be a good idea given the current theoretical trends in archaeology. To be blunt, some threads within theoretical archaeology are now so far away with the fairies that our firmly grounded, evidence-based discipline needs to keep itself distinct. This is not to ignore other perspectives or to shut down their discussion, but to keep environmental archaeology rooted in its evidential basis. All archaeology is about investigating the surviving evidence of human niche construction. Environmental archaeology focuses on those aspects of niche construction that were achieved by recruitment and amendment of the biotic and abiotic environment rather than by de novo construction of artefacts and social systems. By taking that definition or something like it, environmental archaeology can be goal-orientated, not process orientated, defined by objectives not by practice, and thus far better positioned to gain maximum advantage from the new investigative techniques and interpretative paradigms that are now available to us.

If we are no nearer to resolving the underlying philosophical questions, it may mean that we are posing the wrong questions in the first place. Re-examining the problem from a different angle, we can define the aims of environmental archaeology with a fairly high degree of consensus; as suggested above, we aim to investigate the construction of the human niche in the environmental circumstances of a past time and place. The objectives that enable us to attain that aim will differ a little from project to project, but are essentially about the targeted and rigorous acquisition of new data against which existing and newly conceived propositions can be assessed. Does that require us to be environmental determinists? Absolutely not: niche construction factors in the social environment of the human population, its history and its beliefs, just as much as it includes the external biophysical environment (Eriksson 2014). Does it require us to be logical positivists, even scientists? Yes, absolutely, because rigorous use of evidence is all that stands between environmental archaeology and story-telling. I do not mean by this that there is one 'truth' to be told about the past, only that there are multiple potential narratives from which can emerge multiple working hypotheses, each of which can then be tested against the evidence in order to winnow out those narratives that are not consistent with the current evidence. The hypothetico-deductive method has two big advantages. The first is that it encourages, even necessitates, creativity. Without creative thinking, it is almost impossible to generate the postulates that become the testable hypotheses. Somewhat counter to the general stereotype, most scientists are highly creative people (Bartholomew 1982). The second advantage is that hypothetico-deductive thinking directs us towards disproof: we aim to define the evidence that would disprove our creative idea, rather than cherry-picking the scraps of data that fortuitously lend support to our flimsy confabulation. Over the years, environmental archaeology, as practised, has been too inclined to take an empirical, inductive approach. Samples were processed, data were collected, apparent 'patterns' were discerned in those data and broad inferences were drawn. Having played a part in that process, I am embarrassed to note how much it resembles fortune-telling by reading tea-leaves. Unfortunately, both for the discipline and for its practitioners, the commercial model of field archaeology favours such empiricism, and the curators who specify the fieldwork seem too often to lack a genuine research orientation. This may be in part because of some ambiguity regarding the end-user for whose benefit the investigation is being commissioned. If environmental archaeology is not seen to have a coherent disciplinary identity and research paradigm, the end-user may be seen as the project director, who needs the lists of bones and seeds to contribute to writing up her site. If environmental archaeology is to extract the maximum of research value from the commercial sector, we have to present an identity that curators and project funders will recognise as having value and significance beyond the individual field project.

5. A few last thoughts

What is to be done? Will we still be mulling over the same issues in another decade or two? Surely not, if we can agree on a few fairly uncontroversial principles. First, environmental archaeology is occasionally processual: we have to engage with ecosystem processes and all that implies even if we reject processualist approaches to studying human social behaviour. Some archaeologists may prefer to think that processualism is over and so call themselves 'post-processualist', and that is their right. But processualism is often a useful perspective in environmental archaeology and we would be foolish to discard it on the grounds of fashion rather than utility. Second, following from that, environmental archaeology does not need to follow every current trend in theoretical archaeology. Third, environmental archaeology is a science, based on hypothesis testing and evidence, not on rhetoric and argument from authority. That last point is an important one. One of the most regrettable trends in archaeology over the last couple of decades has been the proliferation of a form of argument that relies on uncontested quotations from Big Names: 'As Hamm-Strasse has told us …; Legerdemain argues that …'. It is true that some eminent scientists have traded on their eminence to deflect criticism of their ideas, but giving priority to the material evidence and its rigorous testing and questioning opens up the discussion to anyone who is prepared to undertake that process (Ku et al. 2014). More to the point, the assertions of the eminent can be overturned by anyone who can assemble the necessary evidence. Archaeology as a whole should reject, or at the very least regard with grave suspicion, the practice of argument from authority. As Meaghan O'Keefe cogently argues, 'Rhetorical use of citation is a means of indirectly reaffirming authority while avoiding the appearance of argument. It is therefore an especially useful strategy for people and institutions with compromised public images' (O'Keefe 2015). I offer that sentence as an example of a rhetorical device that should be avoided.

To conclude, if that is possible, environmental archaeology is a discipline that favours evidence over authority, understands that data only become evidence when engaged with a research question, and is defined by aims and objectives, not by practices. None of that is so controversial as to require some schism with 'cultural' archaeology, unless archaeology as a whole abandons its attachment to evidence and the material record and becomes a branch of theology or performance art. Our evidence-based approach and ecological paradigm strikes a chord with the public and enables environmental archaeology to act as a valuable ambassador for archaeology beyond the academy. Listening to TAG 2015 sessions wrestling with Heidegger's dasein concept, one thought 'Yes, in Barnsley they speak of little else'. The new technical developments within archaeological science are bringing complex questions in environmental archaeology within our reach, and also have great public visibility and recognition. The irony for environmental archaeology is that our discipline is at its most effectively visible on site, yet our tendency to be defined by practical methods has sometimes obstructed the development of new research directions. We are pinned down in the trenches, figuratively and literally, rather than using field and laboratory work as the means of testing and probing new research questions. The structure of commercial archaeology is partly to blame, but that working context will not change unless a strong case is made for changing it. Environmental archaeology needs a theoretical paradigm, something to give a coherence and a self-image to the discipline, a high concept to which our empirical research can be referred back for validation and testing. Perhaps, too, environmental archaeology needs the self-confidence to argue its case and a willingness to carry that argument throughout the academic community and beyond it to the public.


Cite this as: O'Connor, T. 2019 Pinned Down in the Trenches? Revisiting environmental archaeology, Internet Archaeology 53.

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