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date: 18 May 2021

(p. xvii) Introduction: The Construction of the Present through the Reconstruction of the Past

(p. xvii) Introduction

The Construction of the Present through the Reconstruction of the Past

Setting the Scene

The seed for this volume was planted with the editors’ organizing of a session on Applied Archaeology and Historical Ecology: Archaeological Approaches to the Definition and Application of Historic Resource Exploitation Strategies at the Sixth World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in Dublin, in July 2008. The starting point for the session was the observation that attempts by government agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to intervene in the operation of local resource exploitation strategies are frequently motivated by reference to historical arguments. For instance, conservationists may present landscapes as virgin territory unaffected by local populations, while proponents of the extension or reapplication of indigenous knowledge (IK) tend to emphasize the longevity and environmental sustainability of local cultivation techniques. Supporters of modernization, on their part, may highlight examples of local environmental degradation or stress the inadequacies of indigenous techniques in the face of perceived social, economic, or environmental crises, and their proposed interventions may rely on models of ecological or social change that are implicitly historical or which are themselves extrapolated from historical case studies. With this discourse as backdrop, archaeology’s emphasis on material culture, long-term perspective, and close alignment with cognate fields such as palaeoecology and palaeoclimatology seem to offer the tools necessary to challenge or qualify these narratives and models. Indeed, a limited number of archaeological projects have taken this process further by attempting to re-establish abandoned agricultural features such as raised fields, irrigation canals, and cultivation terraces; an approach that correlates well with current thinking regarding the desirability of low external input, locally managed, sustainable resource use.

The WAC session explored questions arising from these issues by focusing on the practical, theoretical, methodological, and political implications of archaeological involvement in IK-based rural development projects, drawing on fieldwork-based research and practical applications in Bolivia (Christian Isendahl), France (Carole (p. xviii) Crumley), Italy (Lorenzo Caponetti), Peru (Ann Kendall), and Tanzania (Daryl Stump). The width and depth of issues introduced in presentations and discussions at the session and immediately following it made clear the need for further explorations of approaches to a usable past from the vantage points of historical ecology and applied archaeology. This volume is the result of that expansion. Its appearance, and the multi-faceted discourse within, form part of a reshaping of the ontological framework of archaeology and the anthropological historical sciences from one with a focus distinctly placed on the past towards an inter- and transdisciplinary critical science that integrates the empirical study of the past with approaches to understand the present, ultimately to offer reflection on alternative futures. This is a reshaping that has involved and continues to involve a host of scholars with very different backgrounds and experiences from across the globe. While editing this book, we have learned of the passing of three scholars, colleagues, and friends instrumental to this reshaping of the scope of archaeology: Karl W. Butzer (1934–2016), who contributed Chapter 7 to this volume, William I. Woods (1947–2015), and Denise Pahl Schaan (1962–2018). Their research and publications have made major and lasting impacts on the field of overlap between historical ecology and applied archaeology. This volume is dedicated to their memory.

The Scope of This Volume

The authors of the chapters of this book were presented with the challenge to examine the ways in which data from the past has been, or could be, used to benefit communities today. In order to achieve this they were asked to present frank assessments of the strengths and weaknesses of different approaches and available data and methods, and to propose—if they so wished—recommendations for future directions, either in terms of subject matter or methodologies; the latter including not just techniques for retrieving additional and more relevant data, but also methods for combining data from disparate sources and proposals for innovative interdisciplinary conceptual approaches to the interpretation of historic data and the linking of this knowledge to contemporary situations. This collection of related tasks is far from easy, and indeed is one that some archaeologists and historians have even rejected as a fool’s errand (e.g. Pluciennik, 2009). As the chapters collected here make clear, however, information from the past can inform actions and policies today in a number of ways, but it is also necessary to remain alert to the limitations of doing so. The volume could thus be regarded as a ‘critical friend’ of historical ecology and applied archaeology.

Initially the focus of the volume was on archaeological data and techniques, but since archaeological research includes the study of written and oral historical sources (historical archaeology), comparative insights drawn from the observation of living communities (ethnoarchaeology), the study of soils and sediments (geoarchaeology), and the study of plants and animals (environmental archaeology, bioarchaeology, archaeobotany, zooarchaeology) it was clear that focusing narrowly on the material (p. xix) culture of the past was too prescriptive. The scope of the volume was thus expanded to include any research technique that explores how information from or about the past can inform our understanding of the present, and thereby help plan for the future. While roughly half of the chapters retain this focus on archaeology, the volume includes methodological reviews and case studies from a range of research techniques, including those based on interviews and/or observations of living communities, and are authored by individuals that describe themselves as anthropologists, archaeologists, environmental scientists, ethnographers, geographers, and historians. Having noted this disciplinary diversity, however, it is also noteworthy that all chapters advocate an interdisciplinary approach, demonstrating the advantages of combining a variety of different techniques in multiple ways (on the significance of interdisciplinarity see e.g. Butzer, Chapter 7; Crumley, Chapter 1; Doolittle, Chapter 3; Isendahl and Stump, Chapter 30; Lane, Chapter 4). This reflects the fact that drawing lessons from human history will always require, at some level, an attempt to understand the complex interactions between human communities and their respective resource bases, and that to disclose this complexity to any significant degree of certainty requires input from multiple disciplines. In one way or another all of the chapters cover this broad topic of human–environment interactions, itself the broadest possible definition of what constitutes historical ecology—though definitions are returned to below and in the concluding chapter (Isendahl and Stump, Chapter 30).

It is worth acknowledging that the very premise of the volume might seem counterintuitive to anyone unfamiliar with either historical ecology or applied archaeology: why on earth would you go to the trouble of looking for answers to current concerns by studying the history of communities in the past? If, for example, sustainable farming is your concern, why is agronomy (or any cognate field) not your main skill? The first response to this question is to note that none of the chapter authors started their careers with this aim in mind, all having come to the realization that some of the processes they were studying out of purely academic interest in the past had the potential to shed light on contemporary concerns. Perhaps the most obvious and direct examples of this are presented in Part III on ‘Reviving Past Technologies’, the earliest advocates of which were initially interested in exploring how long-abandoned agricultural techniques operated in the past, the answers to which suggested that these same techniques could be of use in the present (Cooper and Duncan, Chapter 23; Kendall and Drew, Chapter 22; Spriggs, Chapter 20; see also e.g. Erickson, 1998). The chapters in Part IV on ‘Bridging the Past and Present’ in essence follow the same trajectory but on a grander scale, most famously perhaps in Tainter’s (1988) analysis of why historic and ancient civilizations collapsed—an analysis that is extended here in the chapter by Tainter and Allen (Chapter 29) to conclude that the global economy’s current reliance on fossil fuels mirrors a process of diminishing investment returns experienced during the later phase of the Roman Empire. Other chapters in this section take similar comparative approaches to explore aspects of societies rather than societies as a whole, for example the sustainability of cities (Sinclair et al., Chapter 27) or water management systems (Isendahl et al., Chapter 26), or indices of household prosperity and ‘quality of life’ (p. xx) (Smith, Chapter 25). The chapters in Part IV are thus based on the recognition that archaeological and historical research has created a vast archive of studies of communities in different social-environmental settings over long time frames, and that the examination of this archive potentially makes it possible to define general rules that are relevant to both ancient and contemporary societies—or, at the very least, highlight factors and processes that may not be evident from observational studies.

Although the chapters in Part II, ‘Approaches and Applications’, are grouped together because they primarily discuss the strengths and weaknesses of particular research techniques, many of the chapters in this section broadly take this stance to the utility of knowledge about the past, noting that the sheer number of historical and archaeological case studies of the interaction between humans and their environments is too important a resource to neglect within current studies of sustainable management. Indeed, provided these studies have sufficient detail, the techniques outlined and discussed in Part II have the potentially crucial advantage that they can help define the trade-offs, outcomes, and unintended consequences of processes that can take several generations or even centuries to become apparent, and thereby to identify thresholds of change and tipping points beyond which remedial action is unlikely to be effective. Observational studies cannot directly record such long-term processes or the effect of variables changing over long time scales, and although models and computer simulations can use recent observations to predict future outcomes, such models still need to be calibrated and validated, suggesting a further role for the use of archaeological and historic data within predictive modelling—an approach discussed in different ways in the chapters by Barton (Chapter 15), French (Chapter 14), and Heckbert et al. (Chapter 16). Indeed, non-specialists might be surprised to learn that all predictive models of future global climate change rely on understanding how complex climatic feedbacks have operated in the past, and then employ these mechanisms to forecast future change. For much of the world the raw data needed for modelling is either absent or dispersed through innumerable archaeological, historical, and palaeoecological research findings (Dearing et al., 2015); with these findings particularly relevant for the period of rapid environmental change that many now—popularly and academically—refer to as the Anthropocene (Crumley, Chapter 1; for a critical stance see Doolittle, Chapter 3).

This last point regarding the absence of data could, in fact, serve as an answer to why the study of the past is significant to contemporary issues, because perceptions of the past are frequently marshalled in support of actions in the present regardless of whether significant historic facts exist or not (Stump, 2010). Many of the chapters here, but particularly those in Parts I and II, illustrate important examples of this, including the long-held assumption that the Amazonian rainforests were undisturbed prior to European colonization in the sixteenth century ad onwards (e.g. Arroyo-Kalin, Chapter 6; Balée and Nolan, Chapter 19), and what might be regarded as the opposite assumption that communities in eastern and southern Africa have been degrading natural resources throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Årlin et al., Chapter 18; Ekblom, Chapter 5; Lindholm, Chapter 17). Assumptions of this kind have influenced and continue to influence policy, a striking and unusually clear example of which is (p. xxi) presented by Lyman (Chapter 10), who notes that attempts to return national parks in the United States to pre-disturbance conditions have included the eradication of species that were assumed to be exotic but which are now known from zooarchaeological data to have been indigenous. Even from this very brief summary it should be clear that data from the past is relevant to current policies, but this does not mean that it is always possible to produce relevant data and interpretations at the resolution and level of precision required to directly inform policy, or that communicating results to potential or known stakeholders is easy (e.g. Årlin et al., Chapter 18; Barton, Chapter 15; Lyman, Chapter 10; Minnis, Chapter 2; Smith, Chapter 25; Wells, Chapter 28).

This combination—discussions of the strengths and weaknesses of particular techniques and discussions of how and to whom they should be communicated—is important for the aims of the volume. The book was, however, never intended as a ‘how-to’ guide or as a field handbook, even in its earlier incarnation as a primarily archaeological text. Instead, it is intended to provide an overview of the issues relevant for any attempt to use data from the past to inform the present—both the potential and the pitfalls—and is aimed at both archaeological and non-archaeological researchers and students. The volume reviews the results of previous projects and looks towards the future of archaeological applications, employing a combination of theoretical discussions, methodological papers, and case studies from a range of geographical areas and historical periods. Attention is directed to the ways in which existing and current research can be—and indeed are being—employed within broader debates, and stresses the necessity of further work. The fact that archaeological case studies may be interpreted or misinterpreted as precedents of the sustainability of local practices or as examples of environmental degradation is highlighted, placing emphasis on evaluating the strengths and deficiencies of current data and on the application and suitability of available archaeological methods to contribute insight on issues of contemporary relevance. Hence, the volume is intended as a key text for those wishing to explore the potential of applied archaeology, and for those who work in fields that employ historical data to provide historical baselines or to assess long-term trends.

A Note on Definitions

Having given the authors the difficult task of defining how and in what ways the past is relevant today, it was important to the aims of the volume that definitions of historical ecology and applied archaeology were allowed to emerge from the discussion rather than be prescribed from the outset. The various contributors to the volume certainly take differing views on what is meant by both historical ecology and applied archaeology, and pursue different connotations of central concepts. These include terms that seem to have clear meanings in common parlance like ‘sustainability’ and ‘resilience’, but which take on more specific connotations in the context of these discussions. Examining what is meant by these terms in turn raises the connotations of further terms, some of (p. xxii) which are potentially contentious and context-dependent, such as ‘degradation’, ‘trade-offs’, ‘baselines’, ‘legacies’, ‘diversity’, ‘biodiversity’, and even ‘prosperity’, ‘poverty’, and ‘failure’. Exploring why the meanings of these terms are not as straightforward as they first appear is in itself instructive.

Historical Ecology

Balée (2006)—a principal founder of historical ecology—offers a seminal definition of its ontology and approach, for which Crumley (Chapter 1)—another principal founder—offers a clear summary (see also Isendahl and Stump, Chapter 30). Balée’s definition draws a distinction between historical ecology, political ecology, and culture ecology, with the emphasis of historical ecology clearly being change through time. Wells (Chapter 28) partially dissolves this separation, noting that understanding change through time requires an understanding of political and cultural change, and thus that each of these approaches could be said to encompass the other (see also Butzer, Chapter 7). The distinction is nevertheless important because historical ecology’s focus demands analysis of the causes and consequences of historical change. Like Wells, Crumley (Chapter 1) also notes this relationship to political ecology, references the methodological debt historical ecology owes to environmental history and the Annales school of history (the latter an avowedly political project), and sees a focus on providing information pertinent to modern resource management as integral to historical ecology’s aims; the latter contrary to Balée (2006) and Isendahl et al. (Chapter 26) who regard this as ‘applied historical ecology’. Interestingly, and unusually, Crumley also adds a moral dimension to historical ecology of ‘equity, respect, [and] tolerance of difference’ (Chapter 1: 8). It is arguable that these moral arguments are not simply statements of ideology but instead emerge from the facts, i.e. that studies of subaltern and marginalized local societies (e.g. Balée and Nolan, Chapter 19; Ford and Clarke, Chapter 9) demonstrate that their ecological knowledge is ‘worthy of respect’. There is, however, a clear overlap between Crumley’s description of the aims of historical ecology with the aims of development and conservation projects that attempt to learn from or reapply local resource exploitation strategies; a point returned to below.

To Crumley, historical ecology is most useful at landscape scales. A strong case can be made for this position, but it is also clearly crucial to be able to bridge between scales to comprehensively understand the complete range of sociocultural and environmental processes and systems that influence the development of a landscape. Indeed, as both Crumley (Chapter 1) and Lane (Chapter 4) note, the widely influential concept of ‘panarchy’ was explicitly designed to deal with influences between scales (Gunderson and Holling, 2002), and the fact that both authors reference this approach serves to demonstrate that complex systems ecology and resilience theory have become incorporated into historical ecology thinking. This having been said, although resilience theory is referenced and employed by many historical ecologists and those interested in (p. xxiii) the application of data about the past in present settings (e.g. Fisher et al., 2009; Redman and Kinzig, 2003), it is by no means an integral part of historical ecology to every author of the present volume.


In common parlance the term ‘resilience’ is often seen as a synonym for ‘sustainability’, but the authors who use the term within the current volume do so in reference to ‘resilience theory’ (particularly Crumley, Chapter 1; Lane, Chapter 4), as first posited by Holling (1973). While this theory of ecological change and the definition of resilience within it has subsequently been refined, ‘resilience’ was used from the outset to connote the ability of a system to recover from a disturbance, and is now most commonly defined as the capacity of a system to absorb and deal creatively with stress, to reorganize and to continue developing without losing fundamental functions (Barthel and Isendahl, 2013; Carpenter and Folke, 2006; Folke, 2006). ‘Resilience’ is different from ‘sustainability’, which at its simplest merely refers to the ability of a system to persist through time (Lane, Chapter 4). This has clear echoes in Holling’s (1973) contrast between ‘stability’ and ‘resilience’ that is based on the recognition that a system could be highly unstable (i.e. constantly changing) and yet repeatedly return to its former condition (i.e. be highly resilient). The classic example is a forest recovering from fire (Holling, 1973: 15), whereby the destruction of vegetation initially creates conditions conducive to the growth of grasslands, but where a longer period of recovery sees the re-establishment of a forest composed of the same species that existed prior to disturbance. This succession is now known as the ‘adaptive cycle’ (e.g. Gunderson and Holling, 2002), with—in the forest fire example—a phase of ‘reorganization’ after the fire; a ‘growth’ stage characterized by fast-growing opportunistic species; a ‘conservation’ phase characterized by a diverse ecosystem including long-lived, slow maturing species; followed by a ‘release’ phase of another fire. Analysing the factors that prompt a system to pass through phases of the adaptive cycle thus offers the potential to quantify resilience, with early proponents noting that resilience could be measured by recording the time required for an ecological system to return to a pre-disturbance state, while more recent approaches have focused on attempts to quantify the amount of disturbance necessary to force a change (Gunderson, 2000). This change could be a shift into another phase of the adaptive cycle, or could break the cycle entirely, for instance by so depleting the seedbank that the forest in the fire example can never be re-established.

As Crumley (Chapter 1) makes clear through multiple examples, this approach is applicable to ecosystems occupied and modified by humans, but can also be applied to human social systems, and to ‘socioecological systems’ (citing Folke et al., 2002): i.e. ecosystems that are so integrated with human societies as to be impossible to understand as purely ‘natural’ dynamics. Such systems are self-evidently complex, since they involve multiple factors interacting at different spatial scales and at different rates (p. xxiv) (Lane, Chapter 4), which in turn means the span of time under examination can influence whether or not a system is seen as ultimately resilient or in a state of constant flux (Ekblom, Chapter 5). Nevertheless, archaeological examples presented by Isendahl et al. (Chapter 26) and Sinclair et al. (Chapter 27) show how parts of complex socioecological systems can be studied in isolation in order to assess their resilience to particular threats, with both chapters concluding that resilience is highest when there are the greatest number of future options, and that limiting options increases vulnerability. To put this conclusion in terms of the adaptive cycle: the reorganization and growth phases offer the greatest number of potential future pathways, whereas the conservation phase reduces options and thereby increases the chance that the system will dramatically collapse.

Although not couched in terms of resilience theory, Tainter and Allen (Chapter 29) reach precisely the same conclusion, noting that systems of resource extraction that can obtain high levels of energy from low investments of effort do not require complex organizations and are correspondingly highly flexible and sustainable, whereas systems characterized by low energy returns on investments (EROI) are often more complex and fragile (an analytical approach also used by Isendahl et al., Chapter 26). What Tainter and Allen term ‘complexity’ would be termed ‘connectedness’ by resilience theorists (e.g. Gunderson and Holling, 2002) since highly biodiverse ecosystems have high numbers of mutually dependent species; complex socioeconomic systems have high numbers of interconnected elements; and even comparatively simple human resource procurement strategies may have deeply embedded cultural ties that make them extremely inflexible and resistant to change. Identifying factors of complexity, connectivity, diversity, flexibility, adaptability, and propensity for change, and their influence on future pathways, is thus an important potential contribution of studies of the history of human societies and linked socioecological systems, and it is certainly rare—at least within the archaeological literature—for authors to confidently highlight factors from historical case studies that are equally relevant to modern policy-makers (Isendahl et al., Chapter 26; Sinclair et al., Chapter 27; Tainter and Allen, Chapter 29).

Sustainability, Degradation, and Trade-Offs

Since entering the global discourse in the 1980s ‘sustainability’ has become one of the most popular concepts in science, politics, governance, planning, economics, and business. However, once popularized (e.g. when distorted by marketing strategists to green wash businesses) it has lost coherence, thus forfeiting precision. Lane (Chapter 4) notes that it is much in vogue—as exemplified by the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2015)—but vague. Doolittle (Chapter 3) makes a similar point, observing that ‘sustainable development’ is potentially an oxymoron since ‘sustain’ connotes lack of change while ‘development’ refers to the opposite. At the core of the sustainability concept is a temporal dimension associated with ‘persistence’, ‘permanence’, or a situation that will continue ‘indefinitely’. Archaeologists, whose primary data sources cogently (p. xxv) suggest that all things must pass, should be well equipped to strenuously test these semantic associations. The four-point query of sustainability outlined by Tainter and colleagues (Allen et al., 2003, cited by Hicks et al., Chapter 12) provides an analytical framework to do so, arguing that it is insufficient to ask whether a natural resource management strategy is sustainable, and that we need to ask more specifically ‘sustainability of what, for whom, at what cost, and for how long?’ The term is thus context-dependent, because it is possible to prioritize economic sustainability over ecological sustainability (Stump, Chapter 8), and it is perfectly reasonable to describe a system as being sustainable for period X, but as being unsustainable (or non-resilient) thereafter. Hence, archaeology’s long-term perspective can contribute to assessments of sustainability by, for instance, offering examples where recovery rates exceed rates of extraction (e.g. Hicks et al., Chapter 12), but it can also provide salutary examples, such as Butzer’s (Chapter 7) exploration of sustainability’s apparent opposite: degradation.

However, many of the same problematic issues also apply to degradation as a concept. To an ecologist any process that disturbs a natural system is regarded as degradation. Yet this degradation can have positive outcomes for some species, most obviously in the form of soil and vegetation manipulation when creating agricultural land. Indeed ‘human niche construction’, as Arroyo-Kalin (Chapter 6) puts it, is often the aim of sustainable development projects. As with ‘sustainability’, therefore, it is possible to create a system of resource exploitation that ‘degrades’ some aspect of an environment while ‘improving’ it for its human inhabitants, or which improves the survival chances for one human community to the detriment of a community elsewhere. Virtually all of the chapters address this issue to some extent. Ford and Clarke (Chapter 9) and Balée and Nolan (Chapter 19), for instance, provide examples of disturbance (and hence degradation) in Neotropical forests where human communities could be regarded as well-integrated within the ecosystem. Once again, however, these examples of ‘forest gardens’ are effectively a question of scale: settlements are farmed until the soils are so degraded that the settlement or cultivation plot must be abandoned and re-established elsewhere, meaning that a decade-scale, highly localized study would record degradation, whereas a longer-term perspective studying the wider landscape would see a sustainable and low-impact strategy (see also Ekblom, Chapter 5).

Many other chapters present examples where degradation ultimately led to systems becoming unsustainable. Several chapters look at soil erosion, for example, as well as at methods to prevent it, such as the construction of agricultural terraces. At first glance erosion seems self-evidently a degradation, yet here too we see examples where degradation in one part of the landscape (hillside soil erosion, for example) led to benefits elsewhere (e.g. exploitation of the deposited colluvium) (Barton, Chapter 15; French, Chapter 14; Stump, Chapter 8). In current policy terms this can be regarded as a form of ‘trade-off’: the loss of something has a cost, but this cost might create a corresponding benefit. This is not to say, of course, that individuals, households, or communities in the past or present, necessarily think consciously in these terms: Doolittle (Chapter 3) argues that individuals do not, and notes that many changes that have long-term consequences occur so gradually (p. xxvi) that individuals could not perceive them. Arroyo-Kalin (Chapter 6) makes an important and related point, since to talk of ‘trade-offs’ implies intentional modifications by humans, but the immediate consequences and long-term legacies of both intentional and unintentional interventions almost always have unintended costs and/or benefits. The long time frames and multiple scales of analysis offered by combining archaeological, historical, and palaeoecological data create the opportunity to learn from these trade-offs in the past, and to examine cumulative impacts of degradation. Barton (Chapter 15) and French (Chapter 14), for example, use computer models of human impacts on landscapes and note several case studies where soil erosion initially benefited small-scale communities but ultimately led to detrimental degradation (see also Stump, Chapter 8). Heckbert et al. (Chapter 16) and Tainter and Allen (Chapter 29) explore these same issues of initial benefits leading to ultimate costs on the far grander scale of long-lived states. Approaching these issues from an historical perspective serves to highlight trade-offs and complexities resulting from issues of scale (see also Hegmon, 2017) and provides lessons with policy implications, some of which are highly case specific, while others provide universal insight.

Narratives and Indigenous Knowledge

The idea that lessons from the past could have policy implications in the present played an important role in the early development of both historical ecology and applied archaeology. For historical ecology this is most obvious in the rejection of the ‘pristine myth’ (e.g. Denevan, 1992) that large parts of the globe—in particular Australia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Americas (especially the Amazonian rainforest)—had been wholly or largely undisturbed by human communities prior to European colonialism from the late fifteenth century ad onwards. Archaeological, historical, and palaeoecological data of various kinds has now comprehensively debunked this fallacy (e.g. Arroyo-Kalin, Chapter 6; Butzer, Chapter 7; Ekblom, Chapter 5), and in doing so has discredited any environmental conservation projects based upon this misconception (Lyman, Chapter 10). For the earliest forms of applied archaeology, attempts to influence policy by employing data on the past were more direct, and took the form of efforts to reconstruct and reuse abandoned agricultural techniques such as raised fields, irrigation systems, and agricultural terraces; many of which predated European colonialism, and were assumed to have been abandoned as a result of their environmental or economic unsustainability (Cooper and Duncan, Chapter 23; Herrera, Chapter 24; Kendall and Drew, Chapter 22; Spriggs, Chapter 20).

Both the pristine myth and the assumption of unsustainable practices contain what have become known as ‘narratives’: self-contained stories of cause and effect that appear to justify a particular course of action. Many of the chapters here provide examples of such narratives and serve to demonstrate their potential rhetorical power and hence influence on policies and developmental interventions. Both Sulas (Chapter 13) (p. xxvii) and Ekblom (Chapter 5), for example, explore ‘degradation narratives’ in Africa, with Ekblom offering case studies where the practices of local communities were blamed for depleting assumed pristine ecosystems, while Sulas provides an example of recent soil erosion in Ethiopia that was presumed to be a legacy of long periods of poor local management (cf. Butzer, Chapter 7). Historical information from multiple sources (archaeological; geoarchaeological; oral testimony and tradition; the accounts, maps, drawings, and photographs of earlier travellers; comparisons of aerial photographs and satellite images; palaeoenvironmental reconstructions) have all been used to test these narratives, and thereby to challenge the logic and efficacy of the practices they have helped promote.

To Årlin et al. (Chapter 18) all narratives are representations of change which can themselves become artefacts that are debated, regardless of whether or not these assumed truths have any empirical grounding. Indeed, it is not uncommon for narratives with colonial origins to become enmeshed within local beliefs and to be reported back to researchers as if they were part of a community’s cultural history (which in a sense they are), making the process of unravelling them difficult and politically sensitive (Årlin et al., Chapter 18; Lindholm, Chapter 17). Testing the validity of a ‘received wisdom’ (Leach and Mearns, 1996) is thus in itself an important contribution of research into the past, as is determining whether these perceptions have their origins in political or economic interest groups, and whether they are maintained (knowingly or unknowingly) by interest groups in the present (Ekblom, Chapter 5; Lindholm, Chapter 17).

This job of deconstructing narratives is further complicated by what Fairhead and Leach (2003, cited by Ekblom, Chapter 5) call ‘intertextuality’: the fact that some narratives can only be understood in reference to others, just as some texts can only be understood within a wider canon. Moreover, challenging narratives risks creating counter-narratives. Demonstrating the fallacy of the pristine myth certainly had this effect, leading some to forward the idea that indigenous communities prior to extractive colonial exploitation lived in harmony with their environments; an equally dangerous and empirically unsupportable notion that Butzer (Chapter 7; see also Balée, 1998) succinctly and effectively refutes. Nevertheless, at some level this perception of the sustainability of pre-industrial societies could be said to lie behind the idea that development planners and ecological conservationists can learn from so-called ‘indigenous knowledge’, though historical critiques of failed modernization schemes certainly played a part here too (Stump, Chapter 8 citing Nazarea, 2006). In Herrera’s view (Chapter 24), early attempts to use archaeology to directly contribute to sustainable development through the re-establishment of ‘indigenous technical knowledge’ came very close to endorsing this romanticized idea, albeit tacitly. It is thus clearly necessary to continually question the empirical basis of narratives that are based on perceptions of historical and ongoing change; something that all of the chapters here are attempting to achieve by focusing on the consequences and legacies of human–environment interactions, rather than advocating for particular modes of resource use.

(p. xxviii) Baselines, Thresholds, and Tipping Points

One of the most important contributions of the challenging of narratives has been the rejection of the simplistic notion of systemic baselines or benchmarks in favour of tracking non-equilibrium system dynamics and the nature of socioecological systems in flux (e.g. Ekblom, Chapter 5; Lane, Chapter 4; Lyman, Chapter 10). In other words, once it is understood that systems are constantly changing, the idea of attempting to restore them to a pre-disturbance state becomes nonsensical. Ekblom (Chapter 5) presents an extreme example of this where the establishment of the Kruger National Park in South Africa in the early twentieth century included the expulsion of human communities; the binary (and historically inaccurate) thinking here being that ‘culture’ is antithetical to ‘nature’ so restoring the area to a ‘natural’ state required the removal of humans. There are of course colonial legacies and frankly racist factors at play in this example (see also Lindholm, Chapter 17), but in essence the same thinking underlies attempted ecological restoration projects outlined by Lyman (Chapter 10; see also Broughton, 2004), while Coutu (Chapter 11) highlights the need to design wildlife conservation strategies that understand how species adapt their behaviour in response to both predictable seasonal changes and to longer-term unpredictable phenomena such as droughts.

Coutu’s work examines seasonal, yearly, and decadal time scales, since the analysis of stable isotopes within elephant hair and tusks permits the examination of dietary changes within individual animals over the course of their lifetimes. Lyman, in contrast, presents case studies that span over 10,000 years; time frames that allow researchers to determine how changes in species composition have cascade effects that alter ecosystem function. This is potentially crucial data for modern conservationists, and allows palaeozoologists, palaeoecologists, and palaeoclimatologists to identify the conditions that lead to a threshold being crossed: with a threshold defined as the nominal boundary between systems with different characteristics and feedbacks, or the point at which even a small change in conditions will force the system into a different ‘regime’ (see Heckbert et al., Chapter 16). As noted above in reference to the adaptive cycle and non-equilibrium dynamics, a landscape may repeatedly shift back and forth between multiple regimes (i.e. repeatedly cross thresholds), though of course the time frames needed to do so may be so long that these changes in conditions seem permanent to the human inhabitants, or the period of transition so protracted that a shift in regime is imperceptible to the individuals that live through it. The term ‘tipping point’ is thus often used as a synonym for ‘threshold’, but within complexity theory and the climate change debate it has come to be used as a radical form of threshold where the shift to a new regime is dramatic and may be irreversible. This is the sense in which Barton (Chapter 15) uses the term ‘tipping point’, and illustrates all of these scale issues by noting that computer simulations of prehistoric landscapes in Jordon show that even relatively small agropastoral settlements of 50–100 inhabitants can force the system to tip from one characterized by low and beneficial rates of soil erosion to one characterized by detrimental degradation, and that the tipping point of change is crossed long before inhabitants can foresee its consequences.

(p. xxix) Applied Archaeology

As with the meaning and scope of historical ecology, a definition of the term ‘applied archaeology’ was not offered to the contributing authors prior to their submissions, despite the fact that one of the editors has attempted a definition (Stump, 2013) and the other has previously discussed the process of learning from past modes of agricultural land-use as ‘applied agro-archaeology’ (Isendahl et al., 2013). Stump’s (2013) definition is far narrower than that adopted by several of the contributors to the current volume (e.g. Cooper and Duncan, Chapter 23; Wells, Chapter 28), and attempts to distinguish applied archaeology (the co-opting of aspects of historic technologies or techniques for use in the present) from the ‘usable past’ (e.g. the challenging of narratives of the use of historical data to refine models). Where the term is used here it tends to be used to combine both of these potential uses of archaeological data. In the concluding chapter, Isendahl and Stump (Chapter 30) attempt a new definition on the basis of the multi-faceted discourse emerging from the collected contributions to this volume.

Caponetti (Chapter 21) offers a clear example of the co-opting approach by outlining how he has adapted an Etruscan ‘water tunnel’ to irrigate his farm in Tuscany, Italy. Importantly, this ancient and formerly disused technology continues to perform its original function, albeit that it is now used for market production and incorporates solar-powered pumps. The approaches described by Herrera (Chapter 24), Kendall and Drew (Chapter 22), and Spriggs (Chapter 20) also discuss the adoption of aspects of abandoned agricultural techniques, though the abstraction from the social systems that formerly supported these technologies is an important aspect of the lessons learnt from attempts to do so. Minnis’s (Chapter 2) ‘utilitarian-perspective archaeology’ in effect also adopts this approach of learning from past technologies, though Minnis includes not just the engineering solutions of soil and water conservation features but also the technological innovation that is the selective modification and domestication of crops. Indeed, Minnis doubts that archaeological data will ever be sufficiently chronologically precise or provide sufficient clarity on day-to-day practices to ‘offer robust and unambiguous models for human–environmental interactions’, and instead argues that archaeological data are most useful when ‘documenting novel human behaviours not present in the ethnographic or historical record’ (Chapter 2: 23).

Importantly, Minnis also argues that the aim of applied approaches should be fundamentally different from traditional archaeology: rather than producing interpretations and models and then asking whether these are relevant to present-day concerns, applied approaches should start with the problem in the present and then explore if and how archaeological data can assist. Smith’s (Chapter 25) approach is similar, arguing that studies of societies in the past provide proxies for wealth, poverty, prosperity, and quality of life that can contribute to studies of inequality in the present. Like Stump’s (2013) attempted distinction between ‘applied archaeology’ and ‘the usable past’, Smith subdivides applied archaeology into ‘direct’ (e.g. the reuse of technologies as described by Herrera, Chapter 24; Kendall and Drew, Chapter 22; and Spriggs, Chapter 20), ‘abstract’ (p. xxx) (e.g. contributing to a deeper understanding of concepts such as ‘sustainability’), and ‘intermediate’ (e.g. contributing to interdisciplinary studies). Like every chapter in the volume, Smith is thus advocating an interdisciplinary approach, but argues pragmatically that archaeological data are likely to play a contributory rather than a leading role in any attempt to apply it to present-day issues.

The Future of Historical Ecology and Applied Archaeology

Even from this brief summary of the ideas discussed in the following chapters it should be clear that none of the authors restrict themselves to discussing one technique, one case study, or one concept. The volume could thus have been organized in a number of different ways. The chapters by Arroyo-Kalin (Chapter 6), Barton (Chapter 15), Butzer (Chapter 7), French (Chapter 14), Stump (Chapter 8), Sulas (Chapter 13), and Wells (Chapter 28), for instance, could all be described as discussing geoarchaeology, and so the volume could have included a geoarchaeology section. However, this would be reductive and doing the authors a disservice, since all are concerned with how different data sources can both complement other data sources and be complemented by them, and all discuss the potential, challenges, and dangers of applying insights from the past to the present.

A theme that has been referenced several times already is the need for interdisciplinary approaches. In a sense the emphasis on interdisciplinarity emerges from acknowledging disciplinary limitations: data from the past cannot answer all relevant questions alone, and so require input from other disciplines—a view expressed by many authors but perhaps most clearly by Minnis (Chapter 2), Lyman (Chapter 10), and Smith (Chapter 25). However, this same conclusion can be turned around: every chapter presents examples of questions that could not have been addressed without contributions from the historical sciences. As Lyman (Chapter 10) notes succinctly, zooarchaeological studies cannot quantify past populations of species in numerical terms or fully appreciate ecosystem diversity, but studies of modern zoology and ecology cannot address past extinctions or study speciation. Studies of ecosystem dynamics in the past were thus instrumental in debunking notions of ‘pre-disturbance baselines’ and ‘benchmarks’, just as studies of human–environment interactions have debunked narratives that denigrated the knowledge of non-Western and colonized communities, in the process highlighting the political and economic interests that consciously or subconsciously promoted these narratives (e.g. Ekblom, Chapter 5; Lindholm, Chapter 17).

It is also instructive to turn the question stated at the start of this chapter on its head: not what do you gain if you add data from the past to questions arising from modern concerns, but what do you miss if you do not include it? In essence, this is the approach proposed by Smith (Chapter 25), who not only sees studies of past quality of (p. xxxi) life as a potential adjunct to studies of inequality in the present, but also pragmatically advocates ‘translating’ that data into forms that are of use to social scientists studying this issue today (see also Kohler et al., 2017). For Smith, quantification of data is crucial in this translation process, but his advocacy of producing data sets that are relevant to social scientists working on issues in the present is based on the recognition that they have more experience of further translating their data sets and conclusions into the language of policy-makers (see also Smith, 2017). Wells (Chapter 28) draws a similar conclusion in a different way, noting that studies of the more recent past should extend their data sets to the present in an attempt to demonstrate causation rather than merely coincidence. Both Butzer (Chapter 7) and Minnis (Chapter 2) also note pragmatic concerns in this regard, with Minnis suggesting that in directly engaging with policy ‘we [archaeologists] need to be prepared to defend the quality and integrity of our interpretations to a degree that we rarely have to in the academic setting’ (Chapter 2: 24). In part though, this is a question of being clear regarding definitions (in effect an aspect of the translation process highlighted by Smith), and in part it is a question of communicating complexity and of being open and transparent about what is and what is not known: what are the facts, and what are the different degrees of confidence in models and interpretations that are drawn from them. Although it is no doubt a truism to say that ecosystems are complex systems, or that cost–benefit analyses of trade-offs will differ in different contexts, it is also true that over-simplifying complex situations has led to poor policy decisions in the past (Crumley, Chapter 1; Ekblom, Chapter 5; Wells, Chapter 28). Continuing to supply clear case studies of these past errors is therefore likely to remain an important contribution of both historical ecology and applied archaeology.

One theme that emerges, and one that is clearly still in the process of being refined, is how to incorporate the potential application of insights from the past into future projects from the outset of project design. Indeed, this is a topic that we would hope readers from all disciplines—whether from research, practice, or policy backgrounds—will bear in mind when reading the chapters, since it is a challenge that evidently requires input from all potential stakeholders. Although not explicitly discussed below, one potential route forward is co-designed projects, i.e. projects that not only start from the identification of an issue of relevance to the present (as advocated by Minnis, Chapter 2), but which are designed in partnership with the policy-makers that might seek to apply the results, or with the communities that may benefit from either the research or resulting policies. Of the chapters here, Årlin et al. (Chapter 18) come closest to this position, stressing both the importance of communicating research results back to host communities, and the ways in which these research results may influence land management and development policies. In different ways the chapters by Herrera (Chapter 24) and Spriggs (Chapter 20) also approach the issue of co-design, since both in effect critique early attempts to revive abandoned agricultural systems for not adequately considering how the revived systems would benefit the host communities—a self-critique in the case of Spriggs. Interestingly, in both these cases local communities adopted aspects of apparently failed external interventions some 20 years later, in the process demonstrating (p. xxxii) the importance of community engagement, the necessity of favourable economic conditions, and the potential of re-establishing elements of abandoned agricultural systems. Caponetti (Chapter 21) draws the same conclusions, and whilst it is tempting to cite this as an example of a successful co-designed project, it would be somewhat disingenuous given that Caponetti is both researcher and beneficiary rolled into one, having refurbished an ancient Etruscan water tunnel to help irrigate his own farm! His example nevertheless aptly demonstrates the potential of ancient technologies, and succinctly illustrates the points made in other chapters of the value of recognizing and adapting appropriate approaches to well-defined problems.

It is hoped, therefore, that the case studies, techniques, approaches, and concepts outlined and explored below will help evaluate the potential of existing data sets, aid in the design of future projects, and in so doing promote further research and practical applications that push the boundaries of how knowledge and insights generated from the study of the past can inform a quite desperate present.


The gestation period of this volume, from original conception to appearance in print, has been frustratingly long. The editors would like to take this opportunity to express their sincere gratitude to all contributors for enthusiastically responding to our invitation to be part of this project; for submitting original, thoughtful, and expert chapters on a highly challenging, complex, and underexplored topic; for efficiently and creatively responding to our queries and editorial comments; and for their patience with the editorial process, to produce with us a thought-provoking volume that in quality and eclecticism surpasses our initial plan. We would also like to thank the editors and staff at Oxford University Press who have worked with us to see this volume through to completion, first as an Oxford Handbook Online and now as published in print.

Daryl Stump’s work on this volume was partly funded by a grant from the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/200702013/ERC Grant Agreement No. ERCStG-2012-337128-AAREA). This support is gratefully acknowledged.

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