The following article first appeared in issue 1.1 of Journal of Contemporary Archaeology where it introduces the first of that journal’s ‘Forum’ sections which in this instance is devoted to exploring the notion of the ‘anthropocene. Read the rest of the contributions on the journal site where they are published on an open access basis.
We reproduce it here to encourage more debate.
Introduction: Archaeology of the Anthropocene
University of Leicester, UK
Citation: Edgeworth, Matt. “Introduction” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology [Online], Volume 1 Number 1 (22 August 2014)
During the opening of the UN’s Rio+20 summit on sustainable development in 2012, a short film called “Welcome to the Anthropocene” (Gaffney and Pharand-Deschenes 2012) was introduced by Ban Ki-moon and shown to over 150 heads of state and ministers. The film uses stunning graphics to show the impact of human beings on the planet. A steeply climbing curve on a graph provides data on accelerations in energy use, urbanization, damming of rivers, deforestation, loss of species, resource depletion, and so on. There is a low musical hum, like an engine running in the background. The spectacular image of Earth as viewed from space gets progressively covered by finely spun filaments of light circling the globe and coalescing into thick webs—networks of roads, railways, urban expansions, airline routes, communication networks and other mesh-like patterns of human artifice. These are traced forward from a single moment in time and a particular location in space, rather as physics takes the whole of the known universe to have expanded outwards from the Big Bang. Point zero in this instance is the start of the Industrial Revolution in England just over two hundred years ago—the specified moment of birth for the new geological epoch. “We are entering,” the narrator intones to dramatic effect, “the anthropocene.”
The screening of the film before all those world leaders at the Rio summit is a measure of the extent to which the idea of the anthropocene has captured the global imagination (or certain layers of it) in the decade or so since the term was first coined. For those with an anthropological sensibility, there is much there that is myth, not least an origin myth of the birth of modern science and technology, and a wholly Eurocentric one at that. There is also much that is publicity and promotion, and it must be acknowledged that the idea of the anthropocene has flourished in the context of Internet and other multi-media environments. But behind the media image there is a solid corpus of work being carried out on anthropocene-related issues by scholars from multiple disciplines (see collected volumes of papers in Ehlers and Krafft 2006; Williams et al. 2011; and Waters et al. forthcoming). If there are myths, these are closely woven around harsh facts and statistics on global developments that are all too real. Most important of these is that human population has doubled in the space of a single lifetime, and is growing exponentially at an extraordinary rate. The acceleration of so many other key parameters of environmental change—such as increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere —stems in large part from the explosion in numbers of people inhabiting the planet, the unequal distribution of its resources, and unsustainable trajectories of economic expansion on the part of richer nations.
Such developments have to be addressed, and the idea of the anthropocene is rapidly opening up a multidisciplinary space in which to do so. The proposal of a new geological epoch characterized by human impact on Earth systems, whatever its faults, has set the grounds for a debate in which scholars from the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities can participate together. It is encouraging specialists from discrete fields—economists, geologists, anthropologists, climatologists, oceanographers, environmental historians, political theorists, ecologists, geographers, hydrologists, biologists, sociologists, microbiologists, archaeologists—to work in collaboration. Interest in the idea is crossing disciplinary boundaries and academic divides in unprecedented fashion, and proving a catalyst for the setting up of interdisciplinary research projects.
Although the concept of the anthropocene was introduced in a paper jointly written by an atmospheric scientist and a freshwater biologist (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000), it is geologists—in their search for a stratigraphical basis for the proposed new epoch —who have been pushing the debate forward (Williams et al. 2011). There is collision of scales, a colossal shift in focus from macro to micro levels, as geological perspectives move from four and a half billion years of Earth history to focus in on the relatively brief period of human evolution and technological development, and the thin envelope of material deposits associated with it that will arguably one day form a geological layer in its own right.
Far from being separate and apart from archaeological concerns, the anthropocene debate has come to us, has already moved onto our territory, and could even be said to be partly emerging from it. Geologists are currently carrying out investigations of archaeological stratigraphy in formulating their concept of “artificial ground” (Price et al. 2011). Climate scientists are using archaeological material (along with other kinds of stratigraphic evidence such as bubbles of ancient atmosphere trapped deep in polar ice) to date their versions of the start and development of the proposed new epoch (Ruddiman 2005). Meanwhile atmospheric chemists and other Earth scientists are devising chronological schemes for periods of human history that are normally dealt with by historians and archaeologists, basing these on a primary divide between anthropocene and pre-anthropocene phases (Crutzen et al. 2007).
Contentious issues arising out of that work—for example about the date of the start of the anthropocene, and how it might be represented in stratigraphic evidence—can be tackled and partly resolved through archaeological investigation and analysis. There is an imperative for archaeologists to deal with such issues alongside natural scientists. So far archaeologists have considered the implications of the anthropocene for heritage and conservation issues (Solli et al. 2011), and some discussion of how archaeology might be used to date the start of the proposed new epoch (Balter 2013). But the role of archaeology may yet prove to be much wider and more substantial than that. Up to now we have perhaps underestimated the value of the formations of the anthropogenic layers, cuts, features, fills, stratigraphic sequences and artifact assemblages that make up the archaeological record, for other disciplines as well as our own (see Edgeworth 2013).
The anthropocene brings with it a convergence of planetary and human timescales, and the folding of the human into the geological and vice-versa—a “crease in time” as Dibley (2012) puts it. A corresponding folding together and convergence of attention of natural scientists and scholars from the social sciences and humanities on matters anthropocene would seem to be a necessary step. As a mark of its entry into social science discourse, Bruno Latour devoted much of his 2013 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh to exploring connections between the concept of the anthropocene and the Earth-systems approach of “Gaian” scientists like James Lovelock (Latour 2013). And an important new book by Timothy Morton takes the anthropocene as a framing concept for a groundbreaking discussion on the emergence of hyperobjects (Morton 2013). This engagement is important. The anthropocene has political, economic and social dimensions that can never be fully apprehended by methods of the natural sciences alone, any more than data from ice-cores and climate measurements can be fully evaluated by social scientists. Working together is the way forward, and archaeology can be a meeting-ground of sorts between quantitative and qualitative methods of investigation, playing its part in building a global science of sustainability (Hudson 2013).
No-one is suggesting that archaeology should tie its flag to the anthropocene mast, uncritically accept the assumptions it presently enshrines, or wholly agree with ideas put forward by its proponents. But there is a growing sense that archaeology has something substantial and important to contribute here—not only in terms of ideas and arguments (whether in support or in critique), but also in terms of a large body of material evidence, in the form of the archaeological record, against which specific arguments can be checked and evaluated, along with a tried and trusted methodology for doing so. Collaboration with other disciplines has the potential to lead to new forms of knowledge that transcend disciplinary divisions, opening up as yet unimagined spaces for further research which could prove to be of some benefit to future generations as well as our own. That in itself is a good reason for embarking on an interdisciplinary adventure with the idea of the anthropocene.
The forum started out as a session entitled “Archaeology in the Anthropocene” in the Theoretical Archaeology Group (TAG) Conference at the University of Chicago in May, 2013. The session began with the same film “Welcome to the Anthropocene” that was shown to world leaders at the UN’s Rio+20 summit described earlier, though perhaps finding a more critical audience in this smaller and humbler academic setting. Many contributors to the forum were in the original session, either as presenters or in the audience. One talk was given via Skype from Australia, spanning the globe and its time zones by means of the same space age communications technology that was in part the subject of the talk. As serendipity had it, our session was followed by another on the subject of “Ecology and/of Archaeology” which tackled connected themes, and three forum participants were co-opted from that. Further participants were invited subsequently from wider afield in an effort to broaden out the debate. Archaeologists and other scholars from five continents are represented in the forum discussion which follows.
In formulating the question for the forum—circulated to all participants and addressed in different ways by each of the papers—the aim was to gather a range of responses to the emergence of the concept of the anthropocene, and to discuss the potential contributions that archaeology might make to the wider debate, while allowing space for voices of scepticism and dissent.
The question for the forum
Until recently we thought we were living in the Holocene epoch. But some Earth scientists now argue that we have moved into a more unstable geological time, characterized by human impact on planetary systems. Though not yet formally accepted into geological time-frames, the anthropocene has become one of the hottest topics of interdisciplinary debate, with relevance to some of the most difficult and pressing problems facing human beings today.
If the anthropocene has objective reality, a material record of it must exist in the cuts, deposits, stratigraphic sequences, material residues and artifact assemblages that constitute archaeological evidence. Does the proposed new epoch have a distinctive stratigraphy? What are the principal artifacts / structures / markers of the anthropocene? Is the term “anthropocene,” with its emphasis on the “anthro” and its inherent lack of symmetry in its dealing with the non-human as well as the human, an appropriate term to use for the latest phase of Earth’s history and development?
What roles might archaeology play in formulating, substantiating, challenging, dating, critiquing, investigating or reworking the idea of the anthropocene?
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