Sonntag, 31. Januar 2016

Archaeology Today – Archaeology Tomorrow: Part I - Assessing Challenges – anthropocene, constructions of identity, heritage demolition…

by Detlef Gronenborn

At this year's beginning Doug Rocks-MacQueen called for another blogging carnival #blogarch.
A few years back there was a survey of archaeologists to determine the 25 Grand Challenges that archaeology could help solve: The results have been published by a group of renowed American scholars in American Antiquity:
  • K. W. Kintigh/J. H. Altschul/M. C. Beaudry u. a., Grand Challenges for Archaeology. Am. Ant. 79 (1), 2014, 5–24. pdf.
Detlef Gronenborn has taken over, to give his impressions about current challenges of archaeology. He has contributed two blogposts:
Undoubtedly the world currently undergoes a period of rapid social, political, economic, and ecological change – if it will not, in hindsight, prove to be a fatal tipping point in global history. Following Kintigh’s (et al. 2014) “grand challenges” archaeology as a scientific discipline is called up to carefully observe, analyse, and assess these trends and to bring them into a longue durée context (e. g. Robb / Pauketat 2013). Generally, representatives of the discipline claim that particularly archaeology, with its long-term approach, provides data and analyses which would open pathways to a better world.

But how realistic is this claim really, how influential has the discipline been? An answer to this essential question first requires a review of the past and present roles of archaeology among political and economic decision makers:

During the latter 19th century professional archaeology gradually developed out of a leisure time interest by mainly the European upper-middle class. While curio cabinets and classical art collections have a greater antiquity with the European nobility, scholarly analyses of the material and immaterial remains of the past is a post-enlightenment phenomenon, and was tied to the rising and politically and economically increasingly important middle class (Trigger 1990). Throughout the 20th century did archaeology remain largely a middle class past time, with a few exceptions from the upper class and/or nobility – nevertheless, a past time of the politically and economically active.

But despite this social embedding, its influence had been confined to benevolent glances into coffee table books and outings to museums and exhibitions. Only in fascist governments did archaeology rise to some prominence, but certainly not to any benefit of the discipline. So where would have archaeology left a lasting contribution to politics and the economy? As Cobb (2014) somewhat critically wrote in his reply to Kintigh et al. (2014), heritage management and conservation may be a field with more attention by politics than grand narratives on “transhistorical processes”.

This seems to be the general situation: Despite the many claims about the importance of the past for understanding the future, the discipline mostly did and does feed the global entertainment business with input for glossy books and shiny documentaries, or more or less appealing films and novels.

However, given today’s global challenges archaeology – or any of the humanities with a historic scope – may indeed offer extremely valuable longue durée data for an assessment of the present and future problem, much in the sense of Kintigh et al. (2014):

The Anthropocene:
industrial emissions in Benxi, China, 2013
(picture: Andreas Habicht [CC BY SA 3.0]
via Wikimedia Commons)

One of the most pressing clusters of problems is subsumed under the term “anthropocene” as it was suggested by Crutzen and Stroemer (2000). The anthropocene debate entails aspects of population increase, environmental degradation, global warming, in short all current threats to humanity (Waters et al. 2016). But while Crutzen had considered a recent age for the applicability of the term, a much deeper time scale may have to be embraced: Ruddiman (2003; Ruddiman et al. 2015) and following him a number of scholars have suggested that the onset of the anthropocene might have to be dated back at least to the beginning of the Neolithic (e.g. Lemmen 2009; Kaplan et al. 2010) if not further (Foley et al. 2013). Archaeology provides empirical data for the modelling of the actual onset and intensity of factors contributing to the anthropocene, beginning form waste rates to greenhouse gas emissions (Waters et al. 2016).

Wealth distribution within global but also western society is another problem directly linked to the very existence of archaeology: The middle class, the backbone of industrial society is losing ground on a global scale with wealth being increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few. The middle class, at least in the industrial nations, is gradually being pushed towards impoverishment. This is an immediate threat to national economies and societies and also an immediate threat to the archaeological disciplines itself, as both producers and consumers of archaeology are largely confined to that very middle class. Archaeology may serve as a resilience factor for crumbling societies by providing identities through constructions of cultural heritage. Obviously the grave mistakes of the past, particularly in nationalistic archaeologies, have to be avoided. But there might be a double challenge in this as surely the past will sooner or later once again be exploited by  political extremists and this on supra-national scales. Recent gruesome examples have been given by Islamic extremist groups and their many attempts to destroy any heritage of a pre-Islamic past – this is a drastic and very revealing form of negative exploitation of the field archaeology and heritage conservation.

Archaeology’s past role in providing identities is also challenged by the increasing role of genetics. Biological relationship is again beginning to dominate approaches to e.g. European deep-time history (e. g. Mathieson et al. 2015). These results evoke memories of past race concepts with the lurking danger of past misuses being repeated, all the more in the present heated political and social debate around migration both in Europe as in North America. Archaeology is called up to objectify these ethnic and race debates and to add the aspect of cultural identities, composed of acculturation and assimilation processes (see Europe is based on Migration, Cooperation and Adaptation – A brief glance at long time scales).

These are but a few, but possibly quite important, current aspects of the present and future challenges of archaeology. These challenges directly refer to the current global political, social, economic, and ecological dynamics. They make archaeology not only important but essential in understanding the past, the present and the future, far beyond the TV-documentary level.


C. R. Cobb, The Once and Future Archaeology. American Antiquity 79, 2014, 589–595.- DOI: 10.7183/0002-7316.79.4.589.

P. J. Crutzen / E. F. Stoermer, The Anthopocene. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme Newsletter 41/5, 2000, 17-18.

S. Foley / D. Gronenborn / M. O. Andreae /… P. J. Crutzen, The Palaeoanthropocene – The beginnings of anthropogenic environmental change. Anthropocene 3, 2013, 83-88. - DOI: 

J. O. Kaplan / K. M. Krumhardt / E. C. Ellis / W. F. Ruddiman / C. Lemmen / K. Klein Goldewijk, Holocene carbon emissions as a result of anthropogenic land cover change. The Holocene - DOI: 10.1177/0959683610386983.

K. Kintigh / J. Altschul / M. Beaudry R. Drennan / A. Kinzig / T. Kohler et al., Grand Challenges for Archaeology. American Antiquity 79, 2014, 5–24.- DOI: 10.7183/0002-7316.79.1.5.

C. Lemmen, World distribution of land cover changes during Pre and Protohistoric Times and estimation of induced carbon releases. Géomorphologie: relief, processus, environnement, 2009, 303-312

I. Mathieson / I. Lazaridis / N. Rohland / S. Mallick / N. Patterson / S. A. Roodenberg et al., Genome-wide patterns of selection in 230 ancient Eurasians. Nature, 2015. - DOI: 10.1038/nature16152.

C. N. Waters / J. Zalasiewicz / C. Summerhayes / A. D. Barnosky / C. Poirier / A. Gauszka, et al. (2016): The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351, 2016.- DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2622.

W. F. Ruddiman, The anthropogenic greenhouse era began thousands of years ago. Climatic Change 61, 2003, 261-293. -

W. F. Ruddiman / E. C. Ellis / J. O. Kaplan / D. Q. Fuller, Defining the epoch we live in. Is a formally designated “Anthropocene” a good idea? Science 348, 2015, 38–39.

J. Robb / T. Pauketat, Big Histories, Human Lives: Tackling Problems of Scale in Archaeology. SAR Press (2013).

B. Trigger, A History of Archaeological Thought. Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1990).

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