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date: 01 June 2020

(p. 480) Bridging the Past and Present (p. 481) (p. 482)

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter proposes conceptual and methodological approaches to measure ancient quality of life and prosperity using archaeological data. For households, the author draws on Amartya Sen’s writings to measure the quality of life from two elements. First, the standard of living can be reconstructed from quantities of valuable goods. Second, the choices or capabilities of households can be measured from the diversity of goods available to households, and from their participation in external social networks. For communities, the author proposes archaeological measures of prosperity based on network concepts from the work of Samuel Bowles, Herbert Gintis, and Elinor Ostrom. These include joint participation in collective projects, stability of residence, population growth, longevity of settlement, and resilience of external shocks. The chapter’s political-economy approach brings the archaeological study of households and communities into the broader domain of contemporary research on quality of life and prosperity.

The scope of applied archaeology—defined as a branch of the discipline that is explicitly concerned with the application of knowledge about the past generated from archaeological research to address practical problems perceived in the present—remains controversial and contested both within and beyond the broader field. Arguably, these debates often reflect the wide gamut of diverging views on the link between the pre-modern past and the modern present, ranging from one of fundamental otherness to essential sameness, a key issue in anthropological archaeology perhaps best exemplified by the formalist/substantivist debate on human economic behaviour in economic anthropology (Isaac, 1993). While the intensity of the formalist/substantivist controversy may have faded to remain a matter of diverging positions, the assumption that knowledge about the past can indeed be practically useful in the present permeates this volume.

The global community is currently facing daunting challenges. One important argument for an applied archaeology is that in order to address these challenges scholars, planners, decision-makers, practitioners, and stakeholders must draw from as complete a knowledge base as possible (Isendahl and Smith, 2013: 132). Archaeological knowledge production is concerned with the critical examination and explanation of the contexts and consequences of human actions, ultimately since at least the emergence of behaviourally modern humans some 75,000 years ago, but particularly since the end of the Pleistocene about 12,000 years ago. In that perspective, without archaeology and cognate sciences, we simply would have no knowledge about the majority of the human experience. While applied archaeologists are fully aware of the range of critical issues involved in archaeological method, theory, and interpretation, they argue that the archaeological knowledge base provides an under-utilized resource in informed decision-making and practice. Outlining a critical applied history, John Tosh (2008) distinguishes three main approaches to apply historical knowledge that are as relevant for a critical applied archaeology: (1) history as difference, e.g. elucidating phenomena in the past that may suggest alternative possibilities to those observed in the present; (2) history as providing parallels in the past, i.e. analogies that may inform present (p. 484) phenomena; and (3) history as process, e.g. to build models of long-term change, or track the complex interactions of sometimes slowly changing variables, or understand the present as contingent on the past. The last point is a staple argument of historical ecology that has been criticized for being a cliché. However, even though references to the past are often made both in political discourse and in the planning sector, these generally focus on the very recent past. It seems that if it is indeed a truism, it is one the significance of which is rarely duly recognized.

Applied archaeology contests the marginalization of historical knowledge to address issues in the present. For instance, while context, scale, and detail may vary vastly, several current challenges—such as food and water security—are essentially permanent in the sense that all people irrespective of time and place need to address them, or suffer the consequences of failing to do so. Studying the sustainability, resilience, and vulnerability of past solutions to such challenges, whether deliberate or unintentional, will not necessarily offer lessons that can be copied (in fact, they very rarely do), but they will potentially provide new insights and, significantly, added depth of reflection on current affairs.

The chapters in this section present a series of complementary approaches to bridge the present and the past. Smith, addressing the timeless challenge of social inequality, suggests a conceptual framework and methodological approach to examine quality of life and prosperity in the past that is partly based on Amartya Sen’s (1993) influential ‘capabilities approach’ in development economics. For applied archaeology, the salient ideas driving Smith’s argument are twofold. First, studying the socioeconomic dimensions of past livelihoods—inequality, quality of life, prosperity, capabilities, standard of living, and so forth—can provide useful comparative data that inform our understanding of these issues in the present. Second, to do so effectively (i.e. to bridge the gap between the past and the present), involves the use of concepts and methods that are both applicable in the archaeological analysis of the past and germane for investigating present conditions. As Smith’s chapter lucidly demonstrates, finding common ground requires archaeologists to appropriate and integrate the concepts and methods of other disciplines (regrettably, perhaps, to a much higher degree than vice versa). Internalizing the exogenous, however, continuously enriches the discipline and enables new opportunities to publish with thematic academic journals and other scientific outlets devoted to the dissemination of research results beyond the narrow archaeological field. Such publication strategies are crucial to increase the impact and relevance of archaeology.

The two chapters that follow each consider a specific contemporary challenge from an archaeological vantage point, and present examples of different kinds of insights that archaeological knowledge production can generate. These approaches potentially add depth not only of reflection but also of inference on these issues in the present, thus ultimately aiming to broaden the frames of reference in the current sustainability discourse. Addressing the global challenge of freshwater security on the basis of a case study discussing pre-Columbian Maya water management systems, Isendahl et al. provide some initial observations that resonate in the present, including that diversity of procurement systems provides greater freshwater security, (p. 485) that high investments in technology and management increase vulnerability over time, and that local resource abundance increases the risk of mismanagement. Turning to the generic challenge of increasing global urbanization, Sinclair et al. set out an applied historical ecology of urban planning using a cross-cultural comparative approach drawing on data from pre-modern cities in the eastern Mediterranean, Mesoamerica, and southern Africa. The chapter shows how such an approach can mine the rich archaeological and historical records of past urban experiences for insightful analogies—for positive as well as negative cases of difference to present solutions—and to understand long-term urban processes.

Focusing on applied archaeology’s potential to engage in global change research, Wells emphasizes that the bridge between the present and the past forms a two-way street: it is not just that scholars of complex adaptive socioecological systems need to extend the temporal frame of analysis further back in time in order to capture a longer trajectory of relevant system dynamics, but archaeologists must also extend their analyses forward in time to link their socioecological reconstructions to contemporary data sets. In a critical applied archaeology, such arguments clearly follow the idea of history as process. Wells emphasizes the need for multi- and interdisciplinary research and argues that archaeologists can contribute a crucial understanding of culture, power, and history to global change research by drawing on historical ecology and the related fields of political and cultural ecology.

Similarly, Tainter and Allen employ a long-term approach to critical applied archaeology. Illustrated by unrelated case studies they outline a framework that links the evolution of complexity to energy gain, and put forward a series of propositions that encourage further interrogative questions on the challenges and opportunities of long-term sustainability. It offers a lucid example of the considerable potential of the historical sciences to inform sustainability concerns in the present. Furthermore, Tainter and Allen’s work serves as a model for formulating and empirically testing generic macro-scale heuristic frameworks for explaining the complex social-ecological dynamics that enables and constrains human action. In that capacity, it is a fitting final chapter of a volume dedicated to critically exploring the potentials of historical ecology and applied archaeology.

Isaac, B. L. (1993). Retrospective on the formalist-substantivist debate. In B. L. Isaac (ed.), Research in Economic Anthropology, Vol. 14. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 213–233.Find this resource:

Isendahl, C., and Smith, M. E. (2013). Sustainable agrarian urbanism: the low-density cities of the Mayas and Aztecs. Cities 31: 132–143.Find this resource:

Sen, A. K. (1993). Capability and well-being. In M. C. Nussbaum and A. K. Sen (eds), The Quality of Life. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 30–53.Find this resource:

Tosh, J. (2008). Why History Matters. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource: