Or: “If you want something you’ve never had, you have to be willing to do something you’ve never done before”
Lets break with tradition by skipping either a pessimistic climate “data dump” (as Jobbe Wijnen has referred to it in an earlier post on this platform; Archeologen als Change Agents – 2.10.23), or a call to arms. These would likely be skipped by most readers in any case not because they are unimportant but because their messages have largely already been heard and internalized.
This is not a cynical start, but rather an optimistic one. Archaeological engagement with sustainability issues has skyrocketed in the past several years. Call after call for archaeologists to leverage their skills as bridge builders, systems thinkers, and providers of long-term perspectives has been issued (Armitage and Guldi 2017; Boivin & Cowther 2021; Burke et al. 2021; Hodder 2018; Kerr 2020; Kohler & Rockman 2020; Lane 2015; Reed & Ryan 2019; Rockman & Hritz 2020; Smith 2021, for a few of the most passionate) – and heard! This platform, Archaeologists4Future, is evidence of the strong desire of some archaeologists to become “change agents” (also a term from Jobbe’s earlier post), as well as a valuable forum and repository. I look forward to following its development, and so should anyone with a holistic attitude towards solving sustainability challenges.
Sufficient numbers of archaeologists now seem aligned with these aspirations that we should also perhaps begin putting more serious thought into what comes next. For, despite the “call to arms” having been widely accepted, there remains a great scarcity of productive and practical outputs for archaeologists to join their work directly to climate and sustainability initiatives. As a discipline, it seems clear that the engine is revving, and the wheels are beginning to spin, but the rubber has not yet met the road.
“As a discipline, it seems clear that the engine is revving, and the wheels are beginning to spin, but the rubber has not yet met the road…The joining of archaeology and sustainability has so far been an awkward courtship.”
One of the most tangible impacts of this, I would suggest, is on individuals who feel passionately that they be active participants in arguably humanity’s greatest undertaking since… who better to finish that sentence, and to understand its magnitude, than an audience of archaeologists? For such individuals, a lack of outlets can be a great source of unfulfillment.
But why have we so far failed to get “get in gear,” and find traction leveraging our work in practical ways? The joining of archaeology and sustainability has so far been an awkward courtship. Despite years of blushing glances, neither side has yet found a way to ask the other out formally. Despite this, the attraction is certainly palpable- we recognize that the essential elements of archaeology and sustainability are fundamentally complementary, such as the long-term focus on ecological problems, two-way cultural/climatic interchange, and the macroscopic effects of individual decision-making played out over generations.
For these reasons, there have been isolated, but meaningful, points of engagement from both sides. Two of the most tantalizing have been addresses by Prof. Johan Rockström to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in 2017 (Rockström 2017), or by Sir David Attenborough to the WEF and COP 26 delegations (Attenborough 2019). Rockström states that “The Holocene is the only equilibrium state that we know of that can support our modern world”, and is a state definitively linked to our “civilizational journey.”
Attenborough strikes a similar note, stating that: “In the space of a single lifetime… the Holocene has ended. The “Garden of Eden” is no more… The only conditions that modern humans have ever known are changing, and changing fast.” Attenborough also makes specific reference to the utility of these macroperspectives as catalysts for collective climate action: “if people can truly understand what is at stake (the end of the Holocene), they will give permission for businesses and governments to get on with practical solutions.”
Pleas of urgency to some of the most influential groups in the world, both rely on arguments fundamentally based on two pillars 1) what the earth has done in the past, and insights generated from fields we typically associate with the front lines of climate understanding, such as geology, climatology etc. and 2) what people on the earth have done in the past: archaeology.
We may not like precisely how these statements are framed (e.g. civilizational journey), or even still debate the exact meaning of Anthropocene etc. but the point is that two of the most deeply credentialed, universally respected, and influential sustainability activists of our time have placed our work at the heart of their own worldviews and action plans – and in front of the WEF and COP delegations no less! How’s that for a call to action?
Nevertheless, the integration of archaeology and sustainability has so far failed to kindle into a sustained and productive relationship. At the macro-scale, our fields are extremely compatible, but this compatibility seems to dissipate at the scale of the day to day, the scale that concerns spreadsheets, budgets, grant applications etc. – the scale of the practical. For individuals, the enthusiasm borne of the big picture fades in the face of the mundane, perhaps leaving a sense of futility behind. Overcoming the practicality barrier, therefore, is a challenge that will require our deliberate effort.
So let’s get practical – How do we take this relationship to the next level, get archaeology in gear, and begin thinking and producing in a truly, seamlessly multidisciplinary way?
“A place for sustained, intense interaction that is mutually transformative, both in terms of ideas and skillsets… a two-way conduit for ideas and personnel, much of which is informal or running below the surface”
Multidisciplinarity is not a meeting but a blending of disciplines, and this requires a place for the kind of sustained, intense interaction that is mutually transformative, both in terms of ideas and skillsets. I refer to this forum as a “pipeline,”: a two-way conduit for ideas and personnel, much of which is informal or running below the surface. This last part is important because a pipeline is as much about people as it is about idea or disciplines, and it is with individual people that it must start.
Belief in the necessity of this pipeline is in many ways a direct reflection of my experience as an archaeologists working “across the aisle.” In the course of and following my archaeology degrees, I have worked as a permaculture farm worker, an aquaponics technician, an agroforestry organizer in Uganda, a volunteer adviser on nature-based climate mitigation, and now as a partnership manager at The Ocean Cleanup, an NGO that develops tech to remove plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. However, in my mind, this never ceased to be archaeology, as these topics were natural extensions of the things I studied through traditional archaeological research. My methods of inquiry changed, but my mindset did not.
Institutional inertia requires long pivot times – How can we as individual archeologists begin build this pipeline now, and pave the way for institutions to follow?
Step 1. Identify and accept nodes of connection
Archaeologists who feel drawn to work on climate and sustainability seem largely compelled by two primary motivators. The first is a desire to help, which needs little explanation. A second, not to be dismissed, is that sustainability topics are simply so interesting – particularly where they begin to overlap with our own subjects.
I would guess that any archaeologist reading this has noted an area of sustainability discourse, activism, or action that strikes a chord because of the archaeological work that they already do. Perhaps from a positive perspective, with breakthroughs and challenges striking you as crucial data in a four-dimensional model of human ecology. Perhaps insights from your specific field are already being used (or abused). Or perhaps you feel an overwhelming desire to shout at your television or computer screen as you view reports of sustainability gridlock that is clearly arbitrary, or poorly framed, from a long-term perspective.
For me, the link was clear between my work on ancient agriculture and efforts to reform modern day agriculture. However, a significant challenge for me was to accept that these interests could be an extension of archaeological inquiry, not a diversion. This is also a sentiment that has been expressed by Dr Mans Schepers on this forum, who suggested that the closer their work became integrated with other life sciences, the less it was perceived as “archaeology” by their colleagues. (Hoe Ik (Weer) Archeoloog Werd – 6.11.2023)
I have come to feel strongly that seeing the world through the lens of an archaeologist shouldn’t determine what you look at, but how you perceive it.
Step 2: Get involved
Commit to exploring where you feel called, and begin getting your hands dirty. For me this was literal, but getting involved doesn’t need to mean finding a job in a different field, or even necessarily volunteering (particularly in areas where there may be high expertise barriers to direct involvement). It means to be proactive about engaging, especially with people with whom your paths would not ordinarily have crossed. It also means regularly arranging scenarios in which you find yourself our of your depth, and “failing” in a safe environment.
One of the most important aspects of this stage is being exposed to sufficient subject granularity (micro-focus) to enable acquisition of “language” (lingo) and day-to-day skills. As in any cross-cultural exchange, acquiring these can be tremendous step to addressing experts in other fields on their own terms, and eventually building a shared language.
Bridging steps one and two can feel daunting. As an agricultural researcher, this was a relatively easy transition, but I’m convinced that this bridge exists for everyone. My thesis supervisor, Dr. Maikel Kuijpers, as a researcher of craft and material innovation, has brought to archaeology into extraordinary play on modern material science, for example.
A researcher of trade or colonization, for another example, will likely find much of interest in current practices and conflicts surrounding Fairtrade and other agricultural standards (such as organic, Demeter, Rodale, etc.) From there, its only a short jump to blockchain, and before they know it, that researcher is embedded in a truly seamless multidisciplinary network. And tell me that wouldn’t be the premise of a brilliant thesis or paper! Or far better yet, a completely different medium geared towards experts in other fields, or the public.
Step 3: Exploit outsider status
The major impediment to climate action is not necessarily technology, but what the IPCC has referred to as “soft barriers”- skepticism, polarization, cognitive bias, and the narratives we build about where we’ve come from, and therefore what our futures must be. Sustainability efforts at every level are hampered not just by complexity, but ideological gridlock, and competing perceptions of what more sustainable systems may look like. As in any polarizing field, adherents can develop a form tunnel vision that precludes systems-thinking. This is often mainly a problem of perspective, as these camps dissolve or transform when viewed from a more macro-perspective.
In such situations, an archaeologist’s unorthodox angle can be a true asset, allowing them to sidestep ideological pigeonholing, and find a broad audience in conversations where others are drowned out. Use this outsider status as vehicle to find thorny sustainability problems and challenge their assumptions. Dig, probe, ask why, and do it using the language and in-depth granular knowledge acquired in Step 2.
Product + Market = Value Proposition
Archaeology is one of the sustainability sector’s black sheep – a niche that can be exploited if we are entrepreneurial. One important maxim of entrepreneurship is Product + Market = Value Proposition. Currently, archaeologists have a product, but little understanding of the market and therefore a weakened value proposition. Steps 2 & 3 can be thought of as a process of market research, refining the product accordingly, and developing an informed value proposition.
At this stage, one of the most important questions that must be answered is: who is our market? Policy makers are an important recipient, but entrepreneurs, businesses, and NGO’s have in some areas have far outpaced governments in the fields of sustainability and climate innovation. They are essential members of the pipeline.
Entrepreneurship is implicated with monetization, which is not something we necessarily wish to do with the past, but its deeper meanings apply, in terms of identifying niches, proactivity, and building the space. We are not building a business, but we do need to approach this as if we are undertaking a venture.
A pipeline will require a certain number of individuals who operate as specialist knowledge brokers, whose role is to maintain the pipeline, and prepare the way for others. To fill this role, these individuals must have a degree of fluency in both the languages of archaeology and sustainability, and its many dialects. I represent a somewhat extreme case of the nascent pipeline in action, and now see my primary role as a knowledge-broker between the two disciplines.
But what will a strong pipeline lead to, and what might practical engagement be precisely? Archaeological advisors to ecology, conservation, and circular economy organizations, archaeologists on the IPCC, investment advisors, eco-archaeological consultancy business models? I have no idea… perhaps all of the above. But answering this question will be a continuously emergent effort undertaken by those active in the pipeline. Debating the answer now would be to put the cart before the horse – we have not yet actively explored what may be possible.
For a window into my own journey of implementing the steps above:
Attenborough, D. (2019). The Garden of Eden is No More. Presentation to the World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum.
Boivin, N. & Cowther, A. (2021). Mobilizing the past to shape a better Anthropocene. Nature Ecology and Evolution 5, 273-284.
Burke, A., Peros, M. C., Wren, C. D., Pausata, F. S. R., Riel-Salvatore, J., Moine, O., … Boisard, S. (2021). The archaeology of climate change: The case for cultural diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 118(30), 1.
Hodder, I. (2018), Where are We Heading: The Evolution of Humans and Things, Yale University Press.
Kohler, T., & Rockman, M. (2020). The IPCC: A Primer for Archaeologists. American Antiquity, 85(4), 627-651.
Lane, P. J. (2015). Archaeology in the age of the anthropocene: a critical assessment of its scope and societal contributions. Journal of Field Archaeology, 40(5), 485–498.
Reed, K. & Ryan, P(2019). Lessons from the past and future of food. World Archaeology 51(1), 1-16.
Rockman, M., & Hritz, C. (2020). Expanding use of archaeology in climate change response by changing its social environment. PNAS, 117(15), 8295-8305.
Rockström, J. (2017). Beyond the Anthropocene: Presentation to The World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum.