Afterword: Environmental Archaeology - connection and communication

Suzi Richer

West Lakes, National Trust, The Lodge, Nether Wasdale, Seascale, CA20 1ET, UK / Richer Environmental / Department of Archaeology & York Institute for Tropical Ecosystems, Department of Environment and Geography, University of York, UK. Email:

Cite this as: Richer, S. 2019 Environmental Archaeology - connection and communication, Internet Archaeology 53.

As I started to write this an email came in from Kevin Walsh, my old PhD supervisor, and he asked “Do you remember the 'cartoon' reconstructions you did for your thesis?”. I created those reconstructions over 10 year ago, but I can clearly remember the many, many, hours spent looking at my newly created pollen diagrams, then looking at the archaeological reports, then looking at the radiocarbon dates and then, finally, trying to bring these all together into a series of images or 'cartoons', to create something that was not only understandable to my examiners, but also to me (Figure 1). Looking back, it came down to first connecting different types of data and then the communication of that data and its interpretation (Richer 2009). That communication was only ever intended for a restricted, discipline-specific audience. Since then, a lot of my work has taken me into a world, one in which more thought about how we make our work accessible to other audiences is needed, and the same themes of connection and communication keep cropping up, as they also have done throughout this issue.

Figure 1
Figure 1: Interpretation of the potential mid-late Bronze Age landscape at Lauzanier, Alpes-de-Haute Provence, France (reproduced from Richer 2009). The data/sources behind the sites, activites, vegetation and climate can be found in Richer (2009).

Gathering from the outside

Archaeology is a subject that draws on many different disciplines, and as part of that, environmental archaeology is no different. Arguably, this is also what keeps our thinking fresh, in that we do not get 'stuck in a groove' and it encourages us to make new connections. Various articles in this issue illustrate from where current thinking draws its inspiration: O'Connor suggests there is a role for niche construction paradigms, whereas Kavanagh and Bates examine how oral history and myths can be understood alongside scientific geoarchaeological narratives. Hoaen draws on literature and human geography to look at how we define 'wild' and 'wilderness' in relation to the history of an archaeological site. Lodwick discusses the 'affect' of plants on people along with other ways of thinking about the relationships between people and plants. While archaeology has certainly borrowed from a diverse range of other disciplines, environmental archaeology has perhaps stayed closer to the subjects it is traditionally allied to, e.g. biology, geology, zoology, botany. Refreshingly, the articles mentioned above illustrate that environmental archaeologists seem to be 'casting their nets' more widely in terms of where and how connections are made between data and interpretation.

Looking within

Turning our gaze in on ourselves, what has affected our practice of environmental archaeology and how is it likely to change in the future? Howard suggests the majority of environmental archaeological work is undertaken in the developer-led sector and Pearson questions how tight budgets within such projects pinch at both time and the potential for exploring new avenues of thought. This leads me to ask whether theory is still primarily something that is only explicitly articulated in the domain of academia? Pearson advocates closer links and understanding between the sectors, a theme that has been explored elsewhere (e.g. Campbell et al. 2018), but are we still talking past one another? Interestingly, all of those involved in this issue either work (or have worked) in at least two of the main sectors for environmental archaeology: curatorial, academic, or developer-led, which suggests that there is perhaps more (or the potential for more) connection and communication across the sectors than we sometimes recognise.

Both Pearson and Howard draw our attention to the ever-increasing amount of data that we are accumulating, primarily within the developer-led sector. Effective curation is a vital first step before connection and communication - otherwise how do we know what we have, let alone its potential for others, whether these others are other specialists or those beyond our disciplines? Much of the data we create is curated by Historic Environment Record offices and organisations such as the Archaeology Data Service, but the visibility of reports and records specifically related to environmental archaeology is patchy within both repositories. This leads Howard to highlight the need for greater quality control of the data being produced, and in turn, the belief that this would allow the data to be of a standard whereby it could then move outside the discipline to contribute to globally significant issues.

Moving outside of our traditional audiences

The data cannot 'move' by itself, it requires us to move it and a desire to take it outside of the discipline. When we do start to look beyond our normal audiences we are required to think more laterally about how we communicate our data. Lodwick discusses how we need to make archaeobotanical data more accessible to non-archaeologists, which means thinking about how we represent our data - are such representations fit for purpose? Following on from Howard's claim that environmental archaeology is relevant to global issues, Lodwick and Richer et al. expand on roles that environmental archaeology can play. Richer et al. argue this in relation to sustainable development, but stress the need to define the audience and the importance of co-design with them. The theme of co-design is echoed in Law's paper in which he suggests that environmental archaeology needs to move from being 'extractive and linear' to 'more circular and reciprocal', where the stakeholders become integral to the whole process. The stakeholders in question are community groups.

Issues of engagement, social and political relevance, interpretation and visualisation of data have all been recurring themes of recent Association for Environmental Archaeology conferences: e.g. Cork 2019 'Environmental Archaeology: Practice, Society, Politics', Edinburgh 2017 'Grand Challenge Agendas in Environmental Archaeology' and Leicester 2017, suggesting that we are perhaps shifting from an intrinsic environmental archaeology to an extrinsic one.

In Gearey's editorial, the term 'environmental archaeology' is suggested to only be useful as a shorthand for a set of techniques. I'm inclined to agree. It has been argued by Howard that most environmental archaeology occurs within the developer-led sector, where is it one set of techniques/type of evidence that is used within post-excavation, in much the same way that the term/study of 'finds' is used. Within this arena, it is useful; it is also useful if we want to preserve the skills for future generations and to define more rigorous guidelines for how this stage of post-excavation is undertaken. However, beyond that, when we start to look outside of archaeology to other sectors, we increasingly need to create engagement with other audiences and to do that we need to have points of connection where that particular audience can identify with the subject. A sub-discipline with its own jargon is not well suited for this. As environmental archaeology matures, I believe we should be able to keep the term inside the world of archaeology and use it to for describing a set of techniques, ensuring that we are operating at the highest professional standards and that there is longevity to the skills within it. However, we should also know that when we are talking to people outside of the discipline we need to rethink how best to communicate, and this means accepting that the term 'environmental archaeology' may have limited value with other (or non-archaeological) audiences.


Campbell, G. V., Barnett, C., Carruthers, W., Pearson, L., Pelling, R. and Smith, D. N. 2018 'Changing perspectives: exploring ways and means of collaborating in environmental archaeology' in E. Pişkin, M. Bartkowiak, and A. Marciniak (eds) Environmental archaeology: current theoretical and methodological approaches, Springer.

Hoaen, A. 2019 Wildness: Conceptualising the wild in contemporary environmental archaeology, Internet Archaeology 53.

Howard, A.J. 2019 Environmental Archaeology, Progress and Challenges, Internet Archaeology 53.

Kavanagh, K.E. and Bates, M.R. 2019 Semantics of the Sea — Stories and Science along the Celtic Seaboard, Internet Archaeology 53.

Law, M. 2019 Beyond Extractive Practice: Bioarchaeology, Geoarchaeology and Human Palaeoecology for the People, Internet Archaeology 53.

Lodwick, L. 2019 Agendas for Archaeobotany in the 21st Century: data, dissemination and new directions, Internet Archaeology 53.

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

Pearson, E. 2019 Commercial Environmental Archaeology: are we back in the dark ages or is environmental archaeology a potential agent of change?, Internet Archaeology 53.

Richer, S. 2009 From pollen to people: the interaction between people and their environment in the mid to high-altitudes of the Southern French Alps, PhD thesis, University of York.

Richer, S., Stump, D. and Marchant, R. 2019 Archaeology has no Relevance, Internet Archaeology 53.


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