“Humming with cross-fire and short on cover”

Seren Griffiths

School of Forensic and Applied Sciences, Maudland Building, University of Central Lancashire. Email:

Cite this as: Griffiths, S. 2019 “Humming with cross-fire and short on cover,” Internet Archaeology 53.

The purpose of the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) session, from which this theme is produced, was to examine the context of practice of 'Environmental Archaeology' in 2015. The session took place 15 years after a key environmental volume was produced by Umberto Albarella (2001a) from another TAG session in Birmingham. We took the title for our session from Terry O'Connor's paper in that edited volume (2001, 40; this issue), which articulated the then common belief that '…there is still a profound fracture existing between archaeologists dealing with the artefactural [sic] evidence and those engaged in the study of biological and geological remains' (Albarella 2001b, 4). Since the publication of that volume, many of these key themes have retained relevance, and additional methodologies have suggested new theoretical approaches (cf. Albarella 2018). Recalling the papers in the Albarella volume (2001a) and reviewing the articles presented here, it is possible to identify key similarities and differences. Albarella (2001b) noted that the structure of archaeology, with all its sub-disciplines, owed more to academic status than specific nature of these related pursuits. This is intractably linked to the history of archaeological thought and practice; the ways in which environmental archaeology relates to the rest of archaeology and society generally, clearly owes more to the history of the discipline, than to the physical remains of the human past.

Archaeology (in Britain and elsewhere) came of age in the 20th century through the establishment of disciplinary legitimacy. This process started immediately before the First World War and developed through the codification of methods (e.g. Daniel 1950), the establishment of national heritage policy (e.g. the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act), the creation of academic posts (e.g. Rowley-Conwy 1999), the establishing of leading academics in their individual careers, the creation of 'boundaries' in terms of legitimate debate (e.g. Hawkes 1954).

Since the development of the discipline in the academies (Stout 2008, 17-35), subsequent theoretical debates — including the so-called 'theory wars' of the late 20th century in the aftermath of which the Albarella (2001a) volume was produced (cf. Shanks 2009) — can be defined at their broadest as: how archaeologists demarcate the acceptable limits of disciplinary knowledge, and the proper subjects of archaeological enquiry, what might be called 'the archaeological record' (Patrik 1985). Occurring at the same time as these beatings of the disciplinary bounds was a trajectory of 'professionalization' which arguably represents the overarching narrative of the history of archaeology across the 20th century. It saw not only the continuation of practices from the first quarter of the century — further legitimation through the burgeoning of positions in academia and government — but also the ever-increasing reification and subdivision of specialisms, and increasingly global bureaucratisation of historic environment policy and statuses (including, for example, the United Nations World Heritage Site recognition from 1972 onwards). It was against this context of specialization and professionalization that several articles in the volume, including those by K. Thomas (2001) and Albarella (2001b), discussed the schisms between 'biological' and 'cultural' archaeologists. If anything, this rate of reification and specialisation within academia accelerated in the subsequent years, and might be seen to include the development of ever more specialised theoretical approaches (cf. O'Connor, this issue).

Fashions in archaeological approaches, though undoubtedly situated in wider histories of intellectual thought (e.g. Sherratt 1996, 142), continue to regulate acceptable limits of disciplinary knowledge and subjects of enquiry. Another continuity with the original volume might be seen in the ways in which people working within archaeology find their practice and intellectual outputs organised hierarchically. This can be directly linked to the power structures underlying archaeological practice. Such power structures can be understood in terms of how archaeology is funded, who determines research priorities, who creates narratives and in which formats, how providers of archaeological 'services' are integrated into projects, and how specialists in fieldwork, in post-excavation and in project management are recruited, trained and employed.

At the heart of these power structures are emphases on value — understood in the terms of economic power to control the production of narrative — and the highly structured ways in which archaeology is often undertaken in the field, lab or elsewhere (cf. Eddisford and Morgan 2019). As part of these hierarchical processes, there is a perception of the skills and interests appropriate to different practitioners at different stages in their careers. In some cases, a practitioner's worth is often elided with their position within these hierarchies, so that, for example, environmental archaeologists (or other specialists seen as adjunct to the traditional 'primary' archaeological aim of excavation) may find themselves referred to as 'service providers'. The intersection of hierarchy, control of the production of received archaeological narratives, as well as the identities of different practitioners continues to be at the heart of archaeological practice as a whole (cf. Albarella 2001b).

The intellectually situated context of archaeological knowledge production, in hierarchical and professionally circumscribed settings, represents a significant line of continuity between the 2001 papers and those presented here. There are however two critical distinctions: the range of media with which environmental archaeologist work, and the rate of change in these media.

Many of the articles in this issue expose the lazy cliché of environmental archaeology defined as a narrow field concerned with a range of 'ecofactual proxies' and little 'human interest'. What unites them is the wide-ranging context of an often creative discipline. This includes an emphasis on the political, situated and nuanced context of practice (Howard, this issue; Pearson, this issue; Lodwick, this issue), and in the creative, people-centred poetics of practice (Hoaen, this issue; Kavanagh and Bates, this issue; Law, this issue; J. Thomas 2000). This issue demonstrates environmental archaeology as fully integrated into contemporary research.

Beyond this, these articles have a dynamism which seems to owe much to digital media now available to researchers. This marks a clear distinction from the 2001 volume. Digital technologies, for all their ills, have the potential to allow researchers who might have once been regarded as 'service providers' or who have been traditionally disenfranchised from controlling narratives, to engage with wider audiences and to publicise their work. Digital technology provides direct routes for self-actualisation (e.g. in the production of journals such as Open Quaternary).

This then is where the discipline, as reflected in this volume, seems to be - a series of wide-ranging, integrated interests, methods and approaches, employing creative and dynamic methods. The wider disciplinary constraints of narrative and hierarchy persist, but new technology may allow openness and self-actualisation for researchers as well as opportunities to reinforce status. In archaeology generally, where research aims and priorities are often disproportionately influenced by the output from academic rather than professional archaeologists, digital technology offers new tools which can be manipulated to reinforce academic status rather than the research potential of a project, method or approach. Two examples come to mind. In an academic discipline which focuses on 'big data' as a necessarily crude instrument, there is a danger that interpretations will be arrived at without the necessary nuance for people, place and practices in historically-specific times (Griffiths et al. 2019); there is a danger for the argument by 'Grand Narrative' in this context. Secondly, if opening up and democratising the research landscape through digital methods has its advantages, it also has the potential to create a landscape so lush with content that specialists actually retreat into even narrower sub-disciplines, thus reducing interdisciplinarity. This population proliferation may serve no guarantee for the quality of the disciplinary development either, with the same hierarchies being played out digitally rather than in limited print journals. Reports of the death of 'Environmental Archaeology' have been greatly exaggerated (cf. K. Thomas 2001), but with a new set of challenges in this century, it remains to be seen if the discipline as a whole can move beyond its inheritance from the last.


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