Thoughts on Archaeology and Climate Change: where do we sit?

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“Every stick has two ends” (Owen, 2021)

“you’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”- my husband.

I write this as an archaeotherapist interdisciplinarian, between the worlds of psychology and archaeology.

On Saturday 17th April 2021 I attended the online conference: Archaeology and Climate Change, offered by the Sussex Archaeology Society. It was the first opportunity I have had to sit back and listen to people working very hard within the British archaeological sector in relation to climate change. I watched and felt a humility and gratitude to those who are feeling, like I do, that archaeology has much to offer in this conversation. I saw examples of lots of collaborations between ecologists and archaeologists, with conservation teams and heritage management, with restoration and climate scientists and with letting go of heritage to the forces of the climate that are eventually going to take sites away for good. I saw also a willingness to continue in this work, a determination to use their skills for adaptation. This word came up a lot; adaptation. As did the word ‘sustainability’. Many speakers gave sound scientific evidence that (by now unnecessarily) confirms that this is indeed an unprecedented, human-made climate shift. Robert Van de Noort states that when searching through Google Scholar 35% of all archaeological papers are climate related. This means that this is an enormous concern of archaeologists now. He states that to not relate archaeology to the climate is in itself an ‘ivory tower’ act, keeping archaeology elitist.

There began to grow in me some thoughts. I let myself sleep on it and then began to write what I am thinking.

I have long been concerned with the fervour that sectors show when trying to be ‘sustainable’ and I also have concerns that the adaptability that is being spoken of is adaptability-lite. We can use our enormous archaeological knowledge base of historic adaptation skills, such as wood use, skinning animals, ancient building materials, food production and foraging, localism and pre-fossil fuel agriculture to teach people how to adapt. Yes, this is true and this is very necessary once post-fossil fuel collapse has occurred or if we have the privilege to avoid the horror of collapse. Do the speakers mean to teach those who can use these techniques as a hobby? Or is archaeology actually ready to step into the adaptation role seriously? Do we realise what this means? Have we looked at the other end of the stick? How many people and species will have died by the time the sudden 9c heating which Professor Martin Bell spoke of happening within 50 years? How will new forest cover look, when boreal forests can no longer grow, when rainfall has radically changed and species, already endangered, have died out or migrated and desertification is a real possibility?

The website suggested by Dr. Hannah Fluck, The Climate Heritage Network has the tagline: “to solve and ANTHROpogenic [their capitals] problem we need human solutions” (CHN, 2018). Through heritage it aims to build in uncertainty acceptance and resilience. By now we’re deep into mitigation, relinquishment and resilience building for what is to come. We have long overspent on what the Earth has offered, now triggering at least five tipping points; acidification of oceans, mass exterminations, air temperature rising, deforestation, CO2 emissions over 400ppm for the first time in 4 million years (Khan, 2016) and ice melt. I pose a question: what if it’s too late to ‘solve’ this, and for whom? Fluck suggests that the Anthropocene has made archaeology more relevant than ever and I agree with this. She then went on to say that it is because we can teach skills from other parts of the world, cultures, and practices to us (by this I assume she means in Western cultures) who are in need of learning another way of being. Also I agree this is the case. However, not because we can somehow fix this, but because we need to continue the work of acceptance, relinquishment, adaptation and resilience in the face of what is coming, in terms of human-centric needs.

This is not the whole picture of what archaeology can offer, in my opinion; archaeology is a gift for ecological holism where humans are part of the healing work for us along with the planet. Yet I realise that archaeology is a humanity subject and thus concerned with human-centric needs. I therefore viewed this conference through an understanding of the limitations of archaeology’s working paradigm.

This assumption of human-centric control of the situation permeated most of the talks, leading potentially to false hope and perceived ability to ‘fix’, or at least keep busy while collapse occurs. It is difficult for some to hear in the sector, yet needs to be notes: ‘sustainability’ means very little in my long experience with this word being used by any and all organisations for ‘greenwash’ purposes or misguided good intentions; in all the decades of its application in marketing, policy and approach, we still find ourselves in deep crisis. In fact it means the wrong end of the stick. It means continuing an illusion of control, while the world collapses and everyone, including ourselves disappear from the archaeological record. The Earth is suffering under cultural-level crises of overconsumption, extraction and colonialist mindsets of human-centric control. Colonial thinking, alas I’m afraid to say, is still holding the reins in archaeology, even when talking about the climate crisis. Nothing short of a radical shift in in understanding and approach can make archaeology fully grow up into the adult discipline it need become.

Adaptation means minute by minute, day by day. 9c warming will potentially change everything rapidly. There won’t be any deer or seals or bears or boreal forests. We will be living in a radically changed world. Where does archaeology sit with this? How can teaching knapping or making lime mortar actually help those who see the truth of the situation?

Just how radical is archaeology ready to get in order to stop rearranging the deck chairs? Just how ready is archaeology to step into eldership?

Dr Robyn Pender’s talk was fascinating and enlightening. It was a holistic approach to understanding the more-then human world, realising the thermodynamic nature of the built environment. Perhaps she wouldn’t see her work as such, but I was struck by the animistic nature of what Dr Pender was suggesting: our built environment is speaking to us. We need to listen and we need to be wholly in tune with our world in order to find comfort and peace. When we have a better idea of how to live, then we will be better able to adapt with less chaos and pain, when the end of fossil fuels arrives.

The final talk was by Professor Marcy Rockman and this, in my opinion was the radical wake-up call I was hoping for. Her work with colonialist history in Jamestown in the USA, her understanding of looking deeper at questions and her multidisciplinary approach resonates strongly with my own work. Rockman unflinchingly said that archaeology needs to ask systemic questions of its own colonial heritage and western assumptions, look critically at cultural governance and at adaptation. She also reminded us that everything is different now and that what’s coming has no precedent. We, much as archaeologists love to, can no longer hide in the past, but bring it into the present and possible futures.

In my research of psychology, ecopsychology and ecotherapy a pattern in the timeline of adaptation can be seen, when looking at the ecological crisis in application:

  1. “business as usual” comes from western, colonialist and human-centric approach, that has no space for external (in this case, external to the human’s unconscious) patterns
  2. Planetary pressures bring a few to question received wisdom by going ‘out’ into other approaches (indigenous, eastern, Druidry, shamanism, ancestral work, ecology etc)
  3. These people try to assimilate the newly found knowledge by returning to the discipline, usually finding rejection in some form
  4. Some approaches begin to be applied in the working model- human-centric ‘what can I get out of nature?’. shallow level of acceptance- ecotherapy level 1
  5. A split begins and continues between conventional approaches and ‘eco’ approaches
  6. Eco-labelling begins with tentative links to deeper truths, yet rejection of the deepest truths is ongoing- words like ‘sustainable’ ‘nature-healing’ and self development dominate. Rewriting of history to make ‘eco’ look like it originated in the discipline.
  7. Deeper truths become unavoidable. Some practitioners leave. Assimilation of non-western approaches become more rapid. Learning phase and outreach to practitioners is intensified. Language develops. Ecotherapy level 2.
  8. Fully accepting deep messages, holisim, indiginetiy, turning to full acceptance of role in adaptation to eco-approach

Can this pattern be seen in the histrory of ecological thinking in archaeology? If so, what stage are we at? I feel that the discipline is still dragging its heels in stage 1, while some practitioners have moved firmly into 2 onwards to stage 6, trying very hard to bring the discipline along with them. I would say that if archaeology is to truly become more than an escapist route, a re-skilling route for the privileged few or irrelevant, it needs to radically look at where it sits, honestly, with points 7 and 8. Of course, I offer this structure as a potentially applicable one but with tweaks such as the approaches are very different in stage 2, in that archaeology’s raison d’etre is to look at other cultures, but with surprisingly little reflection on its own approach. This has long baffled me in archaeology; colleagues have looked at many cultures who have radically different worldviews, but it has rarely occurred to them to see their own worldview or question seemingly professional inalienable truths of process. At least not professionally to question them.

I also do not think that archaeology will rewrite history as this is a professional anathema and it strives always to speak evidence-based truth, and enjoys the process of ongoing learning about the past. I have seen some in psychotherapy try to claim that ecotherapy originated within the discipline. This is a real sorrow for me when I see this, although I recognise that it is a reflection of the vast disconnect westerners have from earth knowledge consciousness. Ecotherapy is, in my opinion, a gift from the Earth herself, given to us all to feel and experience as our life-given right of existence. That psychology has taken it and made it a professional approach is commendable. But it doesn’t ‘belong’ to psychotherapy or psychology. Neither is the numinous feeling of connecting with our ancestors the sole ownership of archaeological discipline, but is an ancient and inexplicable experience that belongs to the commons. Most professionals would agree, I would surmise. However, this is potentially a very important and relevent professional application of heritage, with the right training.

The conference was to me a real highlight and clarion call to professionals about where they sit in the process of ecological awakening, and what works still needs to be done. Mention was made repeatedly of current governmental reviews of culture and heritage, in light of valuing them and in ways that we can work together to protect and support. This is encouraging.

When I asked the question to Professor Bell, when responding to his very dire climate history talk: how does this make you feel? His and the host thought I was coming from a place of ‘using’ archaeology for wellbeing (stage 4), from a place of assuming I had harnessed archaeology for their benefit. What I meant was: as an archaeologist, immersed in data which spells out the end of our Mother, how does that make you feel (stage 8)?

I think this is an important missing piece: archeologists need to be given permission to allow their own work to be reflected in their emotions, as well as their emotions reflected in their work. We are losing our home. We have devoted our lives to witnessing and data collecting this information. We have witnessed wars and rapes, murders and deaths, we have witnessed the last species dying in multiple eras, plastics in fish guts, climate derangement and mass ecocide by human hands. Why does this not make us all fall down and weep in horror and rage? And why, most importantly, does our profession not open up its huge, huge potential for understanding and reach out to those-both professionals and the public- who need our help?

In answering my own question: why do my colleagues not use their knowledge of the past to ask questions of their own worldview? I think it is because we are taught at university and then on sites in the moment of discovery, to have appropriate responses (head shaking, tutting, shows of surprise) then put it into the report and leave it somewhere buried deep in our souls, or let it go, unexamined. The severance of Victorian antiquarians from anything remotely sentimental, magical or esoteric when undertaking their excavations in order to make archaeology a ‘real’ science’ is such a hefty hangover that professionals are still, in the 21st century unsure how to go about beginning to let these feelings in, for fear of losing credibility or standing.  

My work honours the grief of the heavy hearts many archeologists must have. It has been a long, long century of accumulating evidence about the worst (and best) of our species. We have got our hands dirty and our hearts broken. Now we face the greatest heartbreak of them all: to witness, excavate and catalogue the end of so much as it collapses into something new and completely unknown. Now is not the time for action plans and fixes. Now is the time for racial acceptance of archaeology’s place in how it chooses to be both hospice worker for the dying and midwife for what is needing to be born.

I suggest that archaeology is perfectly placed to address the rich, deep, chaotic and messy emotions of facing climate change, as well as the hard skills of adaptation, relinquishment and restoration. It is time for these emotions to come into focus, not just the hard skills of archaeology. These emotions hold the key to an understanding of resilience: for the profession as well as individuals and societies. But something needs to be done, first. Archaeology needs to ask itself if it is ready to fully accept climate derangement and ecological chaos? Is it ready to support people as they build unknowing into their lives? Can archaeology guide those who need to learn how to relinquish what needs to be let go of, helping them to learn new ways of living, even thriving in a new and unknowable future? Can archaeology assist those who will experience personal suffering and loss, as they have done in their thousands during COVID?

But long before that new future lands, can archaeology help those who come looking for the wisdom of our discipline? How we know how civilisations survived during great uncertainty? How did people adapt to ecological chaos? How did societies fail? How did humans face their vulnerabiilty, both individually and collectively?

In my work as teacher, practitioner and PhD student, I am looking at archaeotherapy, which works at all sites- ancient, sacred, healing, modern, profane, messy and toxic- in order to help clients to look with curiosity and compassion at themselves and the planet. The work has been keeping me busy in some form or another for over a decade, yet is now becoming critically important as an approach to healing and cultural understanding that hides nothing from us of ecological derangement. For there is no need to hide: those who find my work are already there, at the interface between the then and the future. I have long called this ‘the gap’. Between what was assumed, safe, normal, ordinary into what is unsure, unsettling, dangerous and chaotic. My work is to guide, to hold those people safe as they turn towards their grief and sorrow, their anger and confusion.

I am heartened, humbled and challenged by what I learned at this very important conference. I hope it will be seen as the call to action that I felt it was. I write this, however, to reflect the unspoken: archaeology holds far, far more knowledge than just how to restore and protect, or how to reduce one’s carbon emissions: it holds the key to ancestral, numinous healing. With the courage needed to take the next step, archaeology can finally grow out of its hangover from antiquarian ideals of throwing out the numinous in payment fot scientific rigour and into true adulthood, of offering service to those who need it at this critical juncture in the planet’s unknowable future.

References:

CHN (2018) Climate Heritage Network http://climateheritage.org/ [accessed 16.04.2021]

Khan, B. (2016) Antarctic CO2 Hit 400 PPM for First Time in 4 Million Years The most remote continent on Earth has caught up with its more populated counterparts https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/antarctic-co2-hit-400-ppm-for-first-time-in-4-million-years/ [Accessed 16.04.2021]

Owen, M., (2021) Terra Mortis : The pathology of Hope and the Death of the Earth, Te Ipu Taiao- The Climate Cruicible conference, New Zealand Association of Psychotherapists, 27.03.2021

I work with Radical Joy for Hard Times (www.radicaljoy.org) and teach for the Tariki Trust (www.tarikitrust.org) as well as volunteer mentor for Bards and Ovates in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (www.druidry.org).

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