Archaeology Should Resist Newswire Relevance

In recent years there's been increasing numbers of archaeological research projects that reference climate change as part of what they want to study. This is at the same time wise and a little silly. It's wise because science should serve the concerns of society, and because if you want research funding it's a good idea to latch onto themes that people outside of your narrow speciality care about. But it's also a little silly because it's such transparent pandering to the funding bodies. I was taught about the threat of the greenhouse effect as a kid back in the 80s, and no archaeologist cared about climate back then. All in all, though, I think this climate orientation in recent archaeology is largely innocuous. We're all under-funded and we follow the money.

But the other day I saw something that gave me pause. I forget the details, but this was not an announcement of a future project that sought funding. It was a press release regarding an archaeological project's findings. (Was it in Latin America?) And hey presto – these colleagues of mine have found reason to believe that ancient climate change was the cause of changes in the archaeological record they've observed. This is deeply scary to me. If archaeologists' interpretations of ancient societies vary with whatever occupies our interest today, then I think we should pack it in as a scientific discipline and just call ourselves miners of ancient art for museums.

If you come across an archaeological interpretation with newswire relevance, Dear Reader, my advice is to disregard it as a scientific mayfly.

Update 23 January: Robert Muckle comments on this blog entry at Anthro News.

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I wouldn't automatically put all of the blame on the authors. Many times a university public relations office will spin a study for current relevance in an effort to get the media to pay any attention to them at all.

The other side of this coin is that, for the first time, science now has a great deal of detailed information about past climate change which didn't exist before. Should all new information about past climate be ignored in archaeological studies? I would think there would be at least some relevance in some circumstances.

I agree there should be caution when reading about studies which mention current hot-topic talking points, but I don't think it's a topic which should be shunned at all costs in the name of archaeological purity. Perhaps suggesting a great deal of caution rather than outright dismissal would be better.

Many years ago, I was awestruck by a TV Documentary about Inca irrigation channels on the western slopes of the Andes.
Agricultural production was curtailed by tectonic uplift that altered stream flows. Meanwhile, Maya culture was suffering through torrential rain then drought cycles. At least the modern science community is not making sacrifices to malignant Gods.
Okay, maybe mammon;-).

By F. B. Isaac (not verified) on 25 Dec 2012 #permalink

I am a bit conflicted, because ultimately you need to convince the taxpayers that archaeology is part of our fascinating heritage.
Here is another item that is well worth study in itself, but got a sensationalist news coverage:…
I am sure it will have some mundane explanation, but it is still worthy of interest.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 25 Dec 2012 #permalink

You are being too much of a puritan. Latest news can give a new idea for solving an old mystery, at least when the news are based on science. In the end, it doesn't matter where the ideas came from, if there are hard facts to support the conclusions.

Re: Latin America - changing climate is the prime suspect for the collapse of the Mayan culture in Yucatan. Your host NatGeo reported about it already a decade ago.…

But the idea of climate changes affecting cultures did not come from latest news. For example, the Little Ice Age has for a long time been blamed for many things in Europe, and the end of the Norse in Greenland.

When looking forward, archeology and climate change have at least two points of contact. Rising sea levels may inundate possible digging sites, and melting glaciers are exposing interesting things like Ötzi.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 25 Dec 2012 #permalink

My concern is that the likelihood that archaeologists see evidence for climate influence on ancient societies should have no relationship to how much we talk about climate.

Will you be equally happy if 20 years from now other current events replace climate change as the goto explanation?

I'm not quite as concerned even though I do get your point. With a bit of Danish bias I wonder: Could Jens Jacob Asmussen Worsaae (1821-85) have studied climatic changes influence on prehistoric Danish society? Hardly. The methods for detecting them and/or precise dating methods were not there in his days. Nor the methods for detecting ancient climate changes. So for that reason alone it's more likely that present day research finds connections between climate change and changes in society.

And without being to postmodern we all only finds answers for the questions we ask and we only ask questions we find relevant/interesting. After all, we are humans. When we see problems/challenges in our present society it's only natural to ask ourself if past societies had similar challenges and how they dealt with them (if that's the field we study). And yes, that could lead to seeing for instance climate changes as the cause in to many cases but then that simply needs to be pointed out when it happens. I can't imagne archaeology being much different than the field of history that I'm more familiar with, where nobody hesitate to tell a peer that he/she is an utter moron who got it all wrong.

By Jakob Øhlenschlæger (not verified) on 25 Dec 2012 #permalink

I dunno, Martin: I still think there are things the past can tell us about climate change. I get your point about gratuitously mentioning it, however. I confess that up till now, I've been writing (on my website, not academically) as loudly and obnoxiously as I could whenever I could about climate change, as public support of the science. Since the naysayers are fewer and fewer today, that may not be quite as necessary.

We do need to know how to adapt, and that is one thing that archaeology might be able to tell us--there is still a fundamental disconnect in the political sphere about what the effects might truly be (there's a lot of talk about building "higher" seawalls on the American northeastern coast, for example). I don't believe I'll be shy about featuring archaeological research that talks about climate change in those terms.

By Kris Hirst (not verified) on 26 Dec 2012 #permalink

I've been writing about climate change too, but not in the context of my archaeological work.

I believe an industrialised planet with 7 billion people has pretty much nothing useful to learn from ancient societies. Way too different situations. Archaeology's raison d'être is fun, not usefulness.

In most areas the climate aspect might be silly, but in marginal environments it really dominates the development, and therefor the archeological findings. The settlement history of the American south-west is one big "moving with the drought" timeline, and Greenland would be another example where relatively small climate changes had a huge influence on populations.

Hmmm... Here in California, looking at the effects of climate change has been a productive aspect of prehistoric research since the 70s. You might argue that it was inspired back then by the environmental movement but that does not change the fact that paleoenvironmental studies have been valuable in informing us about cultural change. Perhaps what you are noticing is that because climate change is a hot topic now, these studies are getting additional attention, which may or may not be warranted. However, the inclusion of paleoenvironmental studies in archaeological interpretations is neither frivolous nor gratuitous.

By Mark Neal (not verified) on 26 Dec 2012 #permalink

My guess is that climate-based interpretations in archaeology are both (worryingly) more common today and (unsurprisingly) reported to a greater degree by the media.

IMHO you are seeing spooks where there aren't any. The recent results depend on recent tools, like ice cores, rations of oxygen isotopes, amount of titanium in water, and scores of other proxies. A real cornucopia of new data that wasn't available only one generation ago. Almost as good as in situ measurements, when earlier you had to make indirect guesses based on medieval manuscripts and fragments of skeletons.

The connection with climate news comes via the tools. They were developed for climatology, but they are now available for archeology as well.

By Lassi Hippeläinen (not verified) on 26 Dec 2012 #permalink

So you're suggesting that climate change has actually been an important influence on the trajectories of human societies in the past, but we haven't had the climatological data necessary to argue those cases conclusively before? Stands to reason.

What became of the Anasazi? Were they displaced by paleo-human migration, (and why were the migrants encroaching?), or, were environmental, (read climate) stressors the principle cause for collapse? Slowly, archaeologists are answering those questions through techniques mentioned by Hippelainen.

By F. B. Isaac (not verified) on 27 Dec 2012 #permalink

East Africa has been quite vulnerable to the "El-Nino- Southern Oscillation" and presumably there are some longer term climate fluctuation that has had a strong effect on the difficulties of building cerntalised polities in the region, but the climate "signal" will be obscured by such things as the spread of disease or volcanic eruptions.
China and India have a written history, and comparing periods of unrest and written records of famine with climate "proxies" should provide a more unambigous picture of climate effects on past civilisations, For other regions, there may be to much "white noise" for useful conclusions.
Re. the Anasazi a major shift of prevailing winds bringing dry air from Mexico instead of moist air from the Mexican Gulf would have been lethal but I am unaware of the resolution of climate proxies in the area.

By Birger Johansson (not verified) on 27 Dec 2012 #permalink

This sounds a little like traditional English anti-intellectualism and suspicion of anything “relevant”. I think researchers should be rightly careful with what PR people and journalists make of their work. They shouldn’t be scared of their work being relevant. My Tutor was an expert in small snails; they became relevant because their distribution was evidence of past temperature conditions. I sat in tutorials with someone who always seemed to be wearing sweaters and big anoraks and was fascinated by glaciers. That was seen by other Geographers to be valid and worthy but not of mainstream interest. He is now the Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute and very relevant. Neither my Tutor nor my student colleague changed their interests but the world changed around them.

By Neil Howlett (not verified) on 27 Dec 2012 #permalink

Neil, note that I don't complain about researchers pursuing hot current topics in research. I am suspicious about interpretations, about results, that fit into hot current debates.

OT: Thought you might find this recent danish find of a three dimensional depiction of a valkyrie interesting: . As far as I've been able to find out it's the first time such a piece has been found since they normally are two dimensional but I might have missed something.

By Jakob Øhlenschlæger (not verified) on 29 Dec 2012 #permalink

As someone who has recently finished university and who has only been involved with research led projects I might be speaking from a slightly naive perspective but it seems to me that newswire relevance is a necessary evil. We live in a time where productivity and relevance are key issues for many societies. For something to receive attention and support it has to produce something tangible that is relevant to a range of people. If we talk in terms of a product then a major role of archaeology is to contribute to the formation of identity in the present and if it is to fulfill that role then to a certain extent it must be congruent with the attitudes and concerns of a society or it lacks in context and relevance.
A second point to make is that interpretation can only be created from the individual experience and interjected values of the person or people viewing and/or generating the data. The selection of sites have always reflected an agenda whether that is financial, personal or a scientific or cultural trend. In this sense there is always an element of bias and an element of artistry whether conscious or not. From the former perspective Archaeology has never has been a pure science and has a long history of political involvement.
This does not mean we should call ourselves treasure hunters or dismiss the relevance of what we do. As others have pointed out and Martin R. acknowledges the data on climate change is providing a different way to think about behavioral change in the past and if these avenues have not been explored then this can only be a positive thing. I have worked on sites before where the media have become involved, the excavation was sensationalized and the leaders of the excavation were named and we made presentations and exhibited our finds to the local populous. The newspapers concentrated on the spectacular elements of the sites and dismissed the mundane. Despite this the mundane elements of the site were still recorded so people who wanted to find that data and study the site in a more realistic way could do so. Toward the end of the excavation a conflict arose with foresters who were approaching the site with bulldozers and tractors with the intent of felling the oaks that covered the barrow cemetery. Due to the media involvement the local people had an interest in the site including the mayor who came out in our support. The locals used political pressure to have the site protected and its total destruction was narrowly avoided. This is one example of how the newswire can be beneficial to archaeology.
All this said I believe Martin R. has raised a very valid concern but I believe as a discipline we can maintain our integrity while still giving the media stories with a high degree of cultural relevance.

I hope you will agree that if what people were doing at certain time and place in the past was in fact rather irrelevant to present concerns, then archaeology's picture of that time and place should reflect this faithfully. Because in my opinion, archaeology only deserves funding if it can find out what was actually going on in the past. And I believe it can.