Archaeologies at the Climate Crisis

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Views from attending TAG 2023

Finished collaborative artwork in the 'How did we get here? Exploding the day-to-day to explore climate relations' workshop.

Finished collaborative artwork in the ‘How did we get here? Exploding the day-to-day to explore climate relations’ workshop. Image Credit: Melissa Thomas

Introduction

TAG 44 took place at the University of East Anglia from 18-20 December 2023. TAG, the annual conference for the Theoretical Archaeology Group, is undoubtedly one of the UK’s most exciting, and often politically pertinent, archaeological conferences. And this year, with its overall theme on Archaeology and the Climate Crisis, was no different. The symbolism of holding a conference on the Climate Crisis and Archaeology a stone’s throw away from one the UK’s fastest eroding coastline, and whose crumbling cliffs had revealed the oldest example of worked flint in England, could not be ignored. This was indeed brought up in Dr Kristina Douglas’ (Columbia University) powerful Keynote Speech. Dr Douglas’ lecture continued by highlighting the global inequality of the climate crisis and brilliantly set the tone for the conference by encouraging us to examine the ways in which we can, as archaeologists, be a part of an international and progressive challenge to this disaster. This was also carried through many of the sessions at the conference. The rest of this blog post consists of four contributions written by PhD candidates at York who attended a broad range of the sessions available about their experiences.

Ashley Brogan: TAG 2023 was the first academic conference I have attended, and it has definitely encouraged me to attend more. My PhD focuses on Mesolithic sites in the Pennine moorlands and the substantial risk the sites face due to climate change, so it is unsurprising that the climate theme of TAG 2023 was incredibly useful for me.

The conference included several sessions which were really helpful in exploring wider issues and themes to include in my thesis. The theme that perhaps stood out the most was the theme of ‘adaption’. Archaeology’s place in climate change discussion, such as how to learn from the past and how to prepare for the future, revolved around the concept of adaptation. Groups of people in the past adapted to their surroundings as the environment around them changed, and many case studies presented at the conference demonstrated how people did or did not adapt to change in the past. The case studies were then used to discuss how learning from these past groups can help us today. Climate scientists also addressed the theme of adaption in acknowledging the changes currently happening and discussing how we can work together to make change and adapt to change.

Melissa Thomas: TAG 2023’s climate theme aligned with my own interests on the intersections between the environment and heritage. I attended the workshop ‘How did we get here? Exploding the day-to-day to explore climate relations’, which used a collaborative artist-facilitated approach to exploring the relationship between humans, non-humans and the environment. I was a part of three online sessions in the weeks before TAG, in which we chose an object to focus on that was related to our journey to TAG or our reasons for attending. These objects included charging cables, a water bottle, a rain jacket, knitting yarn and a water pump in the Norfolk countryside. The resulting work created in the session wove together each participants’ individual interests and modes of artistic expression; it included crafted objects, drawings, film and sounds which we had recorded in the natural surroundings of the UEA campus. I chose to focus on my own broken earbuds, using the copper wire from inside to sew a representation of the soundwaves of a recording taken by the UEA campus lake. It was a thought-provoking opportunity to experiment with new methods of creating and researching which I am excited to bring forwards into my own practice.

I also attended the session, ‘From Bogs to Beaches: Navigating Water(scapes) in the Past and Present’. Papers in this session discussed the archaeology and heritage of coastal communities in Greece, Wales and several locations throughout Kent. These papers tackled the undeniable impacts of climate change on the shoreline, which not only took the form of coastal erosion revealing and destroying sites, but also wildfires reducing access to the resources required for traditional boat building. The session prompted me to reflect on the complexities and lack of simple solutions to problems created by human-water interactions in the Anthropocene.

Maki Wardle: As a newcomer to archaeology from the world of design, attending TAG was a fantastic experience. It was wonderful to be exposed to such a broad range of experimental theoretical frameworks, but also to see that there was a strong emphasis on using them to produce tangible impacts for the communities archaeologists serve, and for the planet. I was particularly excited to see how interdisciplinary the field is becoming, in particular how archaeologists seem to be picking up artists and designers’ tools to solve pressing challenges. Perhaps the most memorable session was ‘Mountains have Souls and Some Statues are Gods’ which brought us into dialogue with living objects in the Sainsbury Centre’s collection, as part of the museum’s radical new approach to curation, which aims to give objects ‘their best possible life’. My own PhD is a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership with Museum of London Archaeology, and there was a huge turnout from MOLA, with several sessions and dozens of papers. It was great to finally meet so many colleagues I’d only spoken to over Teams or in email chains!

Owen Hurcum: Whilst the overall theme of TAG was on Archaeology, the Anthropocene and Climate Crisis, the conference also included a number of sessions on other aspects of contemporary archaeological theory. One of these was the full day session  ‘States of Being: The Politics of Bodies in Archaeology’, which consisted of papers focusing on destabilising a priori and established assumptions of what constitutes a body, and whose body counts, in the archaeological record. This included challenging the binary human/non-human boundary in archaeology to extend our study to include diverse bodies, from animals to trees. We were also encouraged by one paper to rethink our approach to the studies of childhood in archaeology through an exploration of the Viking age Birka Burial. The politics of the archaeological body was also brought into the centre of discussion through papers on gender and transgender archaeology, as well as the ethics of displaying body parts in medical museums, and the erasure of fat bodies in our reconstructions of the archaeological record.

Contributors to this session varied from MA and PhD Students making their first conference presentations to post-docs and established and influential academics within body politics and archaeology. Equally presenters were from, and focused on, a myriad of different locations around the world. These diverse backgrounds ensured truly invigorating session discussions and left me with an insatiable desire to continue to disrupt limiting assumptions about what is a body in archaeology and with great expectation of the research being produced by a talented and international corpus of academics within this study area.

Conclusion

TAG 44 was a fantastically thought-provoking experience, not just in terms of the sessions that related directly to each of our individual theses, but understanding archaeology’s place in the climate crisis and how fundamentally important it is for our discipline to be a part of a world that seeks to redress the inequalities that fuel it. Archaeology makes us aware of the ability of humans to not only respond and adapt to change, but to create it. It also highlights the importance of recognising our responsibility to non-human life and questioning the value systems we hold which lead to their exploitation. Finally, archaeology can create a sense of place on scales ranging from the superlocal to international, which are key to inspiring action to deal with global crises.

As all good archaeological conferences do, TAG ended with a very enjoyable after party. Alongside getting to dance to the “absolute bangers” (AB) of York’s own DJ Hippocampus, the afterparty served as a way to make further introductions to people at the cutting edge of archaeological theory. Bournemouth will host TAG 2024 and if you have never been to a TAG before, all the contributors to this post would highly recommend it – so keep an eye out for information regarding it! And finally to end this blog with a small announcement; many of the contributors to this post, along with several additional members of the HGCRC will be heading off to Turku, Finland, in March as speakers at the Nordic countries’ sister TAG – Nordic TAG 2024. 

By Melissa E Thomas and Owen J Hurcum

With contributions from Ashley Brogan & Maki Wardle

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