Two Book Tuesday: Organic Machine and Billion Black Anthropocenes

Two book Tuesdays are kind of a rare thing largely because I’m hard pressed to find time to read ONE book much less two. The combination of the last week of winter break and two short books made this rare event possible!

Book the First

I’m scratching around in American environmental history largely because I have a small research project (or something) involving some mid-century flood management furniture around the Red River of the North here in Grand Forks. I’m also keen to learn to think in a bit more of an environmentally sensitive way in my research in Greece and Cyprus as well as here in the US.

This gave me a bit of an excuse to enjoy some of the classics in late-20th century environmental history. Richard White’s The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1996) fits this bill (and I have a used copy of Donald Worster’s Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985) on its way).

White’s book tells the story of the Columbia River as a source of energy for the American northwest. His emphasis on the river as a source of energy allows him to weave together the organic life that existed along its banks and in its hinterland with the powerful flow of the river itself. This meant that salmon burning calories on their final journal up river to spawn and engineers designing dams that would harvest the flow of the river for electrical power operate in a conceptual universe dominated by the river’s energy. The focus on energy in White’s book anticipates some of the moves common to the “ontological-turn” which explicitly questions categorical divisions between humans and animals, the natural and the cultural, the animate and the inanimate. His emphasis on energy created the kind of hybrid space where various forces could interact, combine, dissipate, and develop. It allowed, for example, the wind and human power of the pre-steam ships that attempted to navigate the violent rapids of the Columbia to exist alongside the nuclear power plants of the Hanford Site. It’s a fantastic book as a generation of environmental historians know full well.  

Book the Second

It was an interesting book to read alongside Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2019). Yusoff argues that the concept of the Anthropocene is part of a larger anti-Black and radicalized discourse in geology. Some of her critiques will be familiar. They make clear that the universalizing language of geology and particularly its assigning of “humans”  in a central role of creating a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, erases the role of racialization in the construction of the human. She further notes the parallels between the work of geology in distinguishing strata with the methods used to categories in races. Thus, the very concept of the Anthropocene in anchored in the kind of thinking that produced a radicalized world. This radicalized world was not just an unfortunate side effect of a emergent modernity, but a fundament step in creating the conditions that allowed for the development of geology and Anthropocene. In fact, Yusoff’s stressed the role of  geology in creating economically productive spaces through the identification of natural resources. Enslaved Black people, then, worked and died in mines to extract this geological wealth.

Yusoff’s particularly compelling when she observed that the various dates proposed for the beginning of the Anthropocene from 15th century to 1950 rely on arguments that conspicuously ignore role that  radicalized logic played in creating the conditions in which white Europeans (uncritically defined as the anthropos in the Anthropocene) transformed the geological record. 

Yusoff makes the point that by erasing the role of race in defining the relationship between geology and history, we normalize a white, settler, colonial, conceptualization of humanity (that is the anthropos in the Anthropocene). By using this lens to define a geological epoch, we also inscribe in stone both this exclusionary narrative, but also a method that continues to organize the space of the planet in terms of resources available for colonial exploitation. It is crucial to realize that the concept of the Anthropocene however shallow or recent its historical origins — that is whether we see it as a 15th or 20th century phenomena — serves to define both the origins of a new planetary geological epoch but also the future of the planet.   

In other words, it reminds us that the stories we tell about the past create the conditions for the future and the methods that we use to create these pasts and futures are resistant to kinds of rhetorical purification that attempts to elevate the good that these methods have or can do as a salve for the evil and damage they have done in the past.

Whatever one thinks of Yusoff’s argument (and I think it has much to recommend it), the larger framing of the conversations surrounding the Anthropocene, geology, and white, settler, colonialist epistemologies certainly require continued interrogation. As a reader, I couldn’t help but think about how this kind of epistemological scrutiny could inform recent conversations on pseudoarchaeology, for example, and help my discipline avoid the casting about for specs in the eyes of others while ignoring the log in our own.

A Small Book about Small Sites on a Small Island with Big Ideas

This weekend, I had the immense pleasure of reading Catherine Kearns’s The Rural Landscapes of Archaic Cyprus (2022). The book is fantastic (and I say this as someone who is both increasingly “Iron Age Curious” and has a more mature interest rural landscapes both on Cyprus and elsewhere).

Kearns’s considers the emergence of the rural during the Archaic period on Cyprus. This is a period famously known for the emergence of Iron Age polities that form the core the ten or so “City Kingdoms” on Cyprus during the Archaic and Classical period. Iron Age cities have long attracted the attention of archaeologists working on the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age on Cyprus. Kearns’s book flips this focus by looking at the emergence of rural communities during this period and how non-urban forms of life contributed to the formation of urban polities that became so prominent in the later Archaic and Cypro-Classical periods.

To do this, Kearns interrogates the faint traces of Cypro-Geometric and Cypro-Archaic material from the Vasilikos and Maroni valleys which were surveyed in the late 20th century. Kearns complements this legacy data with resurvey and excavation, but the bulk of the evidence for her arguments comes a careful study of material from these periods across the entire island.

Kearns sets her study of the development of rural landscapes and communities amid a careful and measured understanding of climate conditions, the local environment, and resources. I have to admit to lacking the technical understanding of much of what is necessary to reconstruct paleoclimate data, but she appears to approach such efforts with a full grasp of how difficult aligning climate data with historical developments can be. Her grasp of local environmental conditions and resources in Vasilikos and Maroni valley allowed her to demonstrate how household units created small worlds in the difficult centuries after the collapse of Bronze Age states in Cyprus. Moreover, she is able to provide some examples for how the  the worlds created by these household unites, despite their faint traces in the landscape, leveraged the use of gypsum, copper, wood, and arable soils to create a society that both supported larger urban agglomerations as well as negotiate their own changing roles in Iron Age society.

This is obvious a pretty casual reconstruction of Kearns’s complex and highly nuanced arguments. I honestly can’t do a book like this justice, but it did leave me with several take aways that were peripheral to Kearns’s main arguments, but nevertheless made me particularly happy.

First, Kearns clearly draws upon trends in contemporary environmental history including a prominent shout out to William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis (1991). This iconic masterpiece of contemporary environmental history traces the development of Chicago’s western hinterland in concert with the emergence of the city, its growing population, its industries, and its consumption practices. Cronon’s work marked a watershed in how we understood the relationship between the town and country in the US by demonstrating that the rural/urban divide was largely illusory. One could not exist without the other.

As someone probing the edges of contemporary environmental history lately, this got me very excited.  

Second, Kearns uses survey data in a thoughtful way. While there were moments where I wished that she had unpacked some of the methods used to produce the data that she so carefully analyzed, in general, I was pleased to see survey data being drawn upon in such a natural way. I feel like over the past decade, archaeologists have come to accept the inherent reliability of intensive survey data and felt less need to bracket archaeological landscapes created by survey methods with a heavy layer of methodological justification. The turn-of-the-century survey archeologist in me likes to imagine that this is the result of our careful rumination on the character of survey data. When I stop trying to make everything about my own work (see point one), I realize that Kearns just approached the landscapes of Vasilikos and Maroni valleys with a substantial portion of archaeological common sense.

Third, I was fascinated with how work like Kearns might contribute to how we interpreted the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria and Pyla-Vigla. While we had relatively little Iron Age material (and even less material that we could confidently assign to the Cypro-Archaic or much less Cypro-Geometric periods), the location of our site between territories traditional ascribed to Salamis and Kition makes it appealing to consider the locus for rural development outside of the control of any particular urban center. The presence of features in our landscape datable to the Iron Age complements its access to a significant agricultural hinterland, in possession of the topographic advantages of a significant coastal height, and nearby the Late Bronze Age site of Pyla-Kokkinokremos (with the potential for certain forms of landesque capital). We were guilty of attributing the site’s development to the emergence (or even persistence) of urban populations at Kition and Salamis. Kearns analysis urged me to consider whether our site emerged in the aftermath of the Late Bronze Age to Iron Age transition as the site of a rural community that ultimately contributed to the persistence of the community at Kition rather than as an extension of its efforts at rural control. 

In fact, we make a vaguely similar argument when we suggest that the expansion of the site in the Hellenistic to Roman periods reflected the breakdown of the centripetal influence of Salamis and Kition which would have encouraged the development of land that would have otherwise suffered from its politically and economically marginal position along the borders of states.

Fourth, the conclusion of Kearns’s book is a masterpiece in weaving together the often complex and hyper local strands of argument that she develops throughout her book. It demonstrates how the small worlds and faintly visible sites that she focused on in her chapters can propose a new narrative for the emergence of the rural landscape (as well as the urban areas) in the Iron Age. More importantly, though, she takes her arguments for the development of the rural and considers how these influence our view of the Anthropocene in its contemporary and its more expansive historical contexts (i.e. both “big A” and “little a” anthropocene). In other words, she demonstrates how specialized studies in how highly local communities (sometimes no more than family groups) adapted to climate change, local resources, and emerging political entities can contributed to creating a more variegated and socially responsible image of the Anthropocene. Understanding small scale adaptions reminds us that the increasingly global “we” that is responsible for anthropogenic climate change and obligated to resists or slows its progress is and was never as universal as the first person pronoun suggests. The causes, responses, and impacts of climate change in the past, in the present, and in the future are always local. And this is a brilliant reminder for anyone invested in understanding how to produce a just, responsible, and effective response to global climate change today.

Finally, there is no doubt that we live in an era of Big Books by Big Scholars on Big Topics. As I’ve said on this blog, I dislike big books and I cannot lie.

Catherine Kearns’s book is not a big book by any standard (although she is well on her way to becoming a Big Scholar). It’s runs to around 250 pages. Its deals with small worlds on a (relatively) small island situated as much at the margins of contemporary Mediterranean archaeology as it did in relation to past imperial polities. 

That said, this book is not small in terms of idea, significance, or impact. As someone who has a rooting interest in Cypriot archaeology, but no particular investment in the Iron Age, I read this book with more than a little enthusiasm! I’m sure that I’ll be annoying my friends and colleagues when I continue to recommend it to them over the coming years.

It’s the kind of book that one can read over a weekend, but whose ideas and provocations will simmer in my mind for years and it’ll have a bigger impact (at least in the small world of my mind) than any number of the Big Books by Big Scholars.  

More on the Grand Forks Greenway

One of the down sides of struggling with work/life balance issues is that even the most mundane things that I do have the potential to slide from “life” to “work.” For example, volunteering on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission as the Commission’s archaeologist has fueled my interest in the history and materiality of the city. Walking my dogs along the Grand Forks Greenway, has spurred me to think more carefully about how the Greenway and the Red River of the North shapes not only the city’s past, but also its present relationship with its surroundings.

Sometimes these two interests coincide, such as when I find myself collaborating with another commission member, Paul Conlon, on an integrity survey of the 1950s era flood mitigation features in the city. It appears that most of these features were removed during the construction of the far more substantial post-1997 flood walls. Despite this disappointing discovery, Paul’s research and my rumination have led made it hard for me to shake a potential paper idea especially as I walk the dogs on the Greenways scenic paths.

IMG 8378

Right now, the paper is still at the “slowly crystalizing idea stage” which means that I have a title: “Cold War, Consumer Culture, and Climate Change in a North Dakota City.”

If I had to start to write the paper today, rather than, say, work on my syllabi for the spring semester, I’d start the paper with an overview of recent work on the environmental history of rivers with special attention to the goals of mid-century hydraulic programs such as the Pick-Sloan as well as more local initiatives designed to both protect communities and to provide water for recreation and irrigation. For the local situation, Kathleen Brokke’s dissertation will be an invaluable guide. She touches on the role of suburban sprawl and the growing desire for burgeoning urban communities to harness local rivers for recreation, but her work remains an expansive view of Red River region rather than an intensive one. Moreover, it appears that she doesn’t connect suburban sprawl of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to the region’s growing role in the Cold War. 

My goal with this imagined research wouldn’t be to re-produce Brokke’s expansive environmental history of the Red River, but to zero in on the relationship between the river and the city of Grand Forks. In particular, I’d be interested in understanding how efforts to control the Red River in Grand Forks in the 1950s emerged alongside the transformation of the city itself as it grew into its post-war form and its growing role as an important regional “front” in the Cold War. The vulnerability of Grand Forks to flooding should be understood in the context of the construction of the Grand Forks Air Force base in the 1950s, the expansion of the University of North Dakota in part due to its capacity to harness federal grants and to serve military veterans, and the influx of new residents drawn to the city by its post-war amenities and opportunities.

The Cold War, post-war consumer culture, and the long-term, geological history of the Red River provides three key vectors for understanding not only the history of Grand Forks, but also the form that this investment in controlling the flow of the Red River took. As I’ve noted a few times in the past, the form of the post-1997 flood walls themselves speak both to long-standing attitudes toward natural forces especially on the Great Plains and the role that the Army Corps of Engineers plays in attempting to exert control over “nature” in these contexts. 

This opens our work to a fourth vector that I would love for our article to explore. This vector would foreground the role of landscapes of control in the “late-modern” world. I have this idea that it might be a way to interrogate attitudes toward the Anthropocene. This is immediately relevant to the situation of the Grand Forks on the Red River of the North as six of the ten worst floods in history have occurred in the 21st century. More than that, the flood control systems put in place after the 1997-flood offer a visible, daily reminder of the separation, or even alienation, of humans from their natural environment. A subtle paper might observe that the flood walls, which evoke military fortifications, offer only on perspective on the relationship between the town and the river. Less visible, but every bit as important is the network of pipes and pumping stations that not only connect the city to the river for drinking water and the disposal of run off, but also prevent the river from reclaiming these same connections to flood the city. In other words, the very landscape of flood control in the city emphasizes the need to protect the community from the river itself while hiding away the deeply interconnected relationship between the city and the water. 

The flood walls, of course, contribute in strikingly visible ways to the modern ontological distinctions that locate in separate categories the “natural” and the “cultural,” “human,” or “man-made.” Scholars who have engaged with the Anthropocene as not only a term useful for defining a new geological epoch shaped by human actions, but also an ontological challenge to the view that human activities represent a separate category from the affairs of nature. The challenge of contemporary, anthropogenic climate change, then, is a direct critique of the Grand Forks flood walls themselves and their militarized station dividing the unruly power of the Red River of the North, for the neatly organized settlement of Grand Forks.

It strikes me, then, that post-war efforts to harness rivers and to control the flooding in Grand Forks offers a particularly compelling example of the way in which mid-century consumer culture created new landscapes that sought to reify the division between humans and nature by making visible the power of humanity to bring it under control. To be clear, the post-war generation was not the first to do this—gardens culture, for example, long celebrated the ability of individuals to present nature in aesthetically, economically, and politically productive ways— but the mid-20th century marked the first time that humans could manipulate the landscape on such a massive scale. Archaeologists of these decades refer to this capacity as a hallmark of supermodernity in which nowhere on earth escapes the human intervention. No expression of this is more dramatic than the ability to spit the atom. This capability plays a key role in the creation of Cold War landscapes in the American West. These landscapes not only relied on the atomic power of the post-war “military-industrial-academic” complex for its national relevance, but also demonstrated how the confidence unleashed by the atomic age could introduce new levels of prosperity and security for at least some Americans and some of their allies.

Of course, the promises of prosperity and security appear increasingly illusory in light of growing evidence for climate change. Perhaps here is where the efforts to control the flow of the Red River through Grand Forks offer the most poignant or even useful metaphor. The division between the town and the natural spaces of the Greenway, while compelling in our daily lives where it is easy (and even necessary) to imagine nature held at arm’s length, is no more absolute than the collapsing ontological division between humanity and the wider relational network in which we live on Earth. 

Oil, TVs, and Babylon

I’ve been working on revising my paper on the Bakken and Babylon and it just so happens that I’ve also read two pretty great things that contribute directly to these efforts. This was not really intentional, but not entirely coincidental either. 

First, I really enjoyed my colleague Kyle Conway’s piece in the International Journal of Cultural Studies: “Reading oil (back) into media history: The case of postwar television”. The article is short and manageable while still making an interesting point. The rise of the television in the 1950s and 1960s depended on oil (and other carbon based forms of energy) in the manufacturing of cabinets, the transporting of TVs to market, and as the center piece of electrified and increasingly synthetic living room. This is true also of vinyl records, plastic taps and CDs, and synthetic material boom of the post-war decades that fed both our thirst for oil and the growing need for infinitely customizable and profoundly disposable consumer culture. Or as the kids say: plastics.

I read this alongside Alejandro Varela’s The Town of Babylon (2022) which was short listed for a National Book Award. The town in the book, which I think is otherwise unnamed, might well refer to the Long Island town which was the backdrop to Nick Mirzoeff’s Watching Babylon: The War in Iraq and Global Visual Culture (2005). In fact, Mirzoeff’s and Varela’s book begin in oddly similar ways: Mirzoeff described himself at on an exercise bike at a gym witnessing a man “pumping an elliptical trainer” and Varela’s main character, Andres, walked along the sidewalk-less road to his high school reunion. Both Mirzoeff and Varela situate their characters bodily in relation to the spectacle of Babylon. In Mirzoeff’s case this allows him to observe how we witnessed the start of the first Gulf War and in Varela’s, this is his encounter with his high school classmates at a reunion. In both cases, there physical activity of the observer helped the author to reify their character’s detachment from the mis-en-scène, on the one hand, and perhaps allude to the pointlessness of their character’s actions in relation to their environment, on the other. Both books seem to suggest that Babylon is more to be seen than experienced. 

Thus the television in Conway’s article is more than simply part of a petroleum drenched assemblage of plastics, electrical current, and expectations. The television becomes a key tool in creating the kind of alienation experienced by Mirzoeff’s authorial narration and Varela’s Andres who drifts through his hometown while struggling to reconcile his past with his present circumstances. In this way, the alienation experienced after the fall of the Tower of Babel continues to define our encounter with Babylon whether that be visually, literally, or figuratively. Conway’s article reminds us that our modern Babylonian exile is mediated by carbon based energy, material, and experiences. Our markers of social status — cars, television, suburbs, (including our bodies as Bob Johnson’s Mineral Rites: An Archaeology of the Fossil Economy [Baltimore 2019] or Scott W. Schwartz’s The Archaeology of Temperature: Numerical Materials in the Capitalized Landscape [2022]) — exist in the same reality as the war in the Middle East and the flow of oil through Iraqi pipelines, fracked wells in North Dakota, and coastal refineries.

What makes this especially challenging for us is that the former works to preserve our detachment from the latter. 

An Afterword for The Archaeology of the Contemporary Experience: A Second Draft

I’m not great at writing conclusions. More than that, I designed my book on the archaeology of the contemporary American experience without a conclusion. Instead, I planned an afterword that would bring the book “up to the minute” (and you can read that here), but my editors, rightly, noted that the publication process is a long one and that makes producing an up-to-the-minute afterword particularly fraught.

With this critique in mind and recognizing that my book is substantially longer than I originally proposed to the press, I’ve produced a shorter, more general, but also more “conclusive” afterword. I don’t dislike it and I hope you find it unobjectionable, shorter, and somehow still incisive and useful.


Acknowledging our contemporaneity with the planetary changes that constitute the Anthropocene transforms the scale and scope of the archaeology of the contemporary American experience. In this context, it is tempting to lose site of what constitutes our experiences as “American” in a globalizing and globalized world. It is also challenging to consider how we should imagine the contemporary as a meaningful chronological periods. This book offered one perspective on what an archaeology of the contemporary American experience might look like. It endeavored to employ approaches and priorities manifest at the intersection of American historical archaeology and the archaeology of the contemporary past as practiced outside the United States to traces our American experiences within our growing sense of being part of a densely interconnected world. At the same time the book attempted to embrace a sense of the contemporary that recognized it as a challenging and sometimes even contested lens through which to focus archaeological inquiry. The previous chapter have proposed concepts of the contemporary that vary situationally. The concept of the contemporary among Native American communities struggling with the pain of residential school era burials or among African American communities who continue to endure the loss of life and generational wealth in the Tulsa massacre cannot be the same as the contemporary conceived in the ephemeral immediacy of the Burning Man Festival or in the multiple temporalities manifest in the Bakken oil boom.

That said, it remained difficult to ignore the most insistent aspects of the contemporary American experience which loomed over the writing of this book. I completed the first drafts of this manuscript against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic and protests following the murder of George Floyd. I was checking citations while keeping one eye on the stunning events of January 6th, 2021 and worked on edits as the Russians invaded Ukraine. This afterword come into focus as the US Supreme Court has compromised women’s reproductive freedom and severe drought continues to wrack the American West. These events and our disciplinary response to them continuously provoke and expand my view of the archaeology of the contemporary world and the American experience. Awareness of contemporary crises infuses the discipline with a sense of persistent urgency as these flashpoints often reveal deeper fractures and structures in our society. The urgent and essential work by Maria Franklin and her colleagues (Franklin et al. 2020) while situated amid BLM protests nevertheless speaks to a century long struggle for racial equality both in the discipline of archaeology and in American society more broadly. Similar sentiments emerged in a recent article in American Antiquity, composed jointly by the editors, which situated the contemporary COVID pandemic in the long history of pandemics, marginal communities, and race (Gamble et al. 2020). By considering the uneven social impact of pandemics in the past, the authors push us to consider how our ongoing response to the COVID-19 outbreak can avoid further marginalizing groups who have historically suffered from inadequate medical care and economic opportunities. Like so many issues confronting contemporary American society, the COVID pandemic requires us to think beyond traditional disciplinary, national, and geographic boundaries (Angelo et al. 2021). The contributors to a special issue of the African Archaeological Review have similarly sought to situate our contemporary response to COVID to past practices and to understand the impact of long term change, indigenous knowledge, social resilience, and colonialism shaped how communities reacted to such traumatic events. Shadreck Chirikure (2020) calls for archaeologists to not just content themselves with the study of past pandemics, but to use this knowledge to collaborate with other disciplines and to shape policy in the present. Kristina Douglass (2020) considers how the disciplinary knowledge that archaeology produces about the past might form the basis for a more resilient present both for the communities where we live and study and for our discipline. As these examples show, the archaeology of the headlines contributes to how we understand and address the slow violence of situations that date to the start of the 20th century, to the beginning of modernity, or even emerge from deep time itself. In this context, the archaeology of the Anthropocene marks yet another example of how the proximate crises of climate change whether manifest in unpredictably violent storms or severe draught nevertheless depends upon ecological, geological, and structural limits expressed at a planetary scale and over deep time.

An archaeology of our contemporary experiences, then, reflect a range of temporal and geographic concepts at play. This book’s first case study emphasized discard, consumer culture, and the digital world which embodied the anxieties, expectations, and dreams of the turn of the 21st century middle class. These experiences were distinctly American in their particular their concern for garbage barges, Hummers, jazz and rock music, and, of course, Atari games, but these encounters, objects, and expression relied upon global networks and produced global consequences. The second case study, explored the role of domestic spaces, institutions, urbanism, protest, and extractive industries in shaping the late 20th and 21st century experience. To understand something as regional, if not parochial, as the short-lived Bakken oil boom, I considered the archaeology of national borders and homeless camps, college campuses and military bases, protest sites and urban landscapes. This suggested to me that the displacements, deployments, occupations and migrations that characterize a range of contemporary experiences often leave ephemeral or obscure traces in the material record, but reflect the often tense negotiations between the modern, national, and institution spaces and the supermodern, global, and transitory spaces. In the end, the archaeology of contemporary America frequently represents effort to place ourselves, our possessions, our trash, our habits, and ultimately our experiences in their local and planetary contexts.

Three Things Thursday: Pollen, Climate, and Grass

Today will be a hectic day toward the end of a hectic week. As we enter the “frog days” of summer, I think I’m feeling the start of the fall semester looming. 

As a result, all I have this morning is a very short three things Thursday, but maybe there’s a bit of thematic unity that extends across my posts this week!

Thing the First

My long time collaborator and friend, Dimitri Nakassis, sent some of his WARP colleagues a link to “Mid-late Holocene vegetation history of the Argive Plain (Peloponnese, Greece) as inferred from a pollen record from ancient Lake Lerna” by Cristiano Vignola, Martina Hättestrand, Anton Bonnier, Martin Finné, Adam Izdebski, Christos Katrantsiotis, Katerina Kouli, Georgios C. Liakopoulos, Elin Norström, Maria Papadaki, Nichola A. Strandberg, Erika Weiberg, and Alessia Masi in PLOS One.

As the title suggests, this article reports on the analysis of pollen in cores taken from bed of the now-drained Lerna Lake. It’s pretty technical, but offers a very readable “Interpretation and Discussion” section which offers some perspectives that while not entirely unsurprising are nevertheless useful: 

“During the Early Byzantine period from ca. 1480 to 1120 BP (470–830 CE) the increasing percentage and influx values of Pinus and Quercus robur type evidence the expansion of both pinewoods and oakwoods in the Lerna pollen catchment area. The Olea curve displays a severe drop and PI significantly increases, together with Artemisia, Cichorieae and Plantago undiff…pollen and archaeological data point out a reduced human pressure in the uplands and a more local food production in the plain, where olive groves contracted and pasturelands expanded following the collapse of the Eastern Roman control on the Balkans.”  

Thing the Second

It’s pretty rare that I’ll link to a book published by Springer on this blog, but I’ll make an (open access) exception today. I’m very much looking forward to reading Perspectives on Public Policy in Societal-Environmental Crises: What the Future Needs from History edited by Adam Izdebski, John Haldon, and Piotr Filipkowski.

The book, as its title suggests, look directly toward the relationship between environmental policy and history. More importantly, this book uses quite a few examples from Greece and the Medieval period, and includes chapters relating to how we narrate and tell stories about environmental history. I’m looking forward to checking this out over the next few days.

Thing the Third

As promised, this is a short post today, and the final thing for this “three thing Thursday” is a link to an essay by Judith Fetterley called “In Praise of Grass” which appeared last year in NDQ.  

It’s a brilliant little reminder that our lawns are both living things and vibrant ecosystems even if they’re very much cultivated by humans. 

Planetary History

As I’ve hinted for the last week or so, I’ve been reading Dipesh Chakrabarty’s The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). It’s a fantastically rich book that I neither have the depth of learning to review nor the time to digest even partially (and this appears to be my fate in life). The book takes as a point of departure, Chakrabarty’s seminal article “The Climate of History: Four Theses” from 2009, which he republishes in the book with some commentary.  

That said, I do want to offer some book notes if for no other reason than to tempt historians and archaeologists to pick up this book. As per usual, these are random and reflect things that stuck in my mind rather than a systematic review. 

1. Global versus Planetary. One of the main themes of the book is the relationship between our concept of the global, which Chakrabarty locates in the mid-20th century with the development of not only post-war economic and political networks, but perhaps as importantly the post-colonial move to modernize the “developing world” in political and economic terms. This view of the “global” forms the basis for the notion of globalization that has come to dominate certain kinds of late-20th century and early 21st-century thought and certainly has influences our experiences and the kind of history that we write. Of course, Chakrabarty recognizes that various moves – from Atlantic trade to post-war “neoliberalism” – contributed to the history of globalism in our contemporary world. 

Chakrabarty distinguishes the global from the planetary which he sees as a way of seeing the world developed by James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis and later by the field of Earth Systems Science. These theories seek to understand the planet Earth as a system with its own regulating mechanisms that operate on the scale of millennia rather than decades or centuries. Reconciling the historical notion of the global with the vast time scales indicative of the planetary systems is part of the challenge for history, the humanities, and even our experiences as humans.

2. Deep Time and Experience. One of the main issues that Chakrabarty addresses is how do we reconcile our distinctly human (even phenomenological) experience of time with the planetary scale. The latter Chakrabarty recognizes as “deep time” which intersects with our experience in ways ranging from our dependence on fossil fuels and the evolutionary scale of the development of species and the human mind. Climate change at a planetary scale forces us to confront the messy intersection between deep time and the immediacy of the present. 

One of my favorite dilations on this topic is Chakrabarty’s discussion of Reinhart Koselleck’s distinction between experience and expectations. Experiences are the “present past” and expectations are “the future made present” and “that which is to be revealed.” For Koselleck, experience and expectations coexist in humanity, but in the modern period, the gap between the two is ever expanding but at the same time it is this efforts to reconcile expectations and experiences that constitutes historical time. For Koselleck and Chakrabarty, this tension ensures that historical time is not simply reflect past experiences, but also embodies affect and emotions. In the context of planetary level climate change and our expectations of catastrophic change and efforts to avert it contribute to a sense of historical time that is infused with both hope and anxiety. Thus, the deep time of the planet influences the historical time in which the past and present co-create the present.

3. Labor and Time. One of the key elements of Chakrabarty’s thinking derives from his long association with the subaltern studies project and post-colonial historiography. This not only informs his view of modernity which he sees as a global project informed by both the traditional colonial metropoles and in the post-colonial world as it sought to improve and develop their communities and nations in way that respond to local needs, accommodate distinctive priorities and beliefs, and enable them to integrate into the globalized work.

Here Chakrabarty admits that his earlier concern for the post-colonial experience overlooked the planetary concerns of climate change despite being contemporary with its formulation. I’m particularly interested in how he thinks about the relationship between labor and climate change which he just starts to develop in the final section of the book in his dialogue with Bruno Latour. Here he develops a distinction between labor (in a Marxian sense) and work as energy and the extent of capital’s reach. And here conventional understandings of labor (even in the context of subaltern and post-colonial studies) breaks down and gives way to a theory of work redefined as the extent of capitalism’s reach into planetary stores of energy. Here, then, labor, work, energy, and deep time intersect in ways that require new paradigms to understand.  

4. Deep Time and Archaeology. One of the interesting oversights of Chakrabarty’s book is that it overlooks the role that archaeology can play in bridging the gap between deep time, history, and experience. Moreover, archaeology is situated in place where it can find ways to integrate approaches developed in science, social sciences, and the humanities. Indeed, archaeology’s intense interest in methods creates an opportunity to foreground the tensions that different time scales and different types of knowledge.

Even something as basic and routine as stratigraphic excavation involves understanding that soils are not necessarily contemporary with the human artifacts that are typically the objects of archaeological study. Without understanding the character of the soils present in stratigraphic excavation or even the surface of ground in surface survey, it becomes impossible to recognize the context for the human-made objects present in these contexts. 

I suspect this capacity for archaeology to contribute to our ability to reconcile the global and the planetary is part of the reason we’re seeing an outpouring of recent work on the archaeology of climate which not only brings together multiple sites on a global scale, but also planetary scale data that traces not only long-term processes, but requires us to understand both these processes as they occurred and the results of these processes to make sense of human scale activity.

I wonder, then, whether this is a missed opportunity for Chakrabarty and a vote of confidence in archaeology’s efforts to imagine new ways to reconcile deep time and history.

4. Finally, this book clocks in at about 230 pages. It is a long-weekend read, but it’ll take me months to unpack the implications of this book, however.

This isn’t a criticism, but a demonstration that short, intense, and compelling works continue to exist even as we weekly confront some or another 500+ page magnum opus from this or that ambitious senior scholar. And, I’d rather read a 200-odd page book than any of the recent crop of mega-tomes and spend time that I might have spent reading thinking though what the author had to say. 

Three Things on COVID

Like most of the world, I’m anxiously reading about the rise of the latest COVID variant, Ba.5, and worrying about how it will impact my health, the health of people in my community, and our daily life. I’m already hearing about the consequences of this new, highly transmissible variant, on the operations of summer programs, and on the fall semester.

This has spurred three poorly formed ideas that I’m sharing here mostly to get out of my system.

1. COVID and Compliance. To be absolutely clear, I’m vaccinated, boosted, prone to follow the various protocols and mandates, and inclined to express a kind of good-natured annoyance when I see people flaunting the rules, ignoring social distancing practices, or wearing the famous chin mask. 

That said, I have this growing feeling that the way we talk about COVID and compliance is evocative of how we talk about capitalism especially in the 20th century. In particularly, we are told that compliance with  the expectations of capital will led to not only personal prosperity but also economic growth and collective prosperity. Thus, in the so-called “neoliberal” regime that has emerged since the 1980s, the state has worked hard to eliminate policies and practices that run counter to capitalism even if this involves cutting away the social safety net, removing the guard rails from the market, and, at times, working to suppress alternatives that might offer viable ways of life outside of he capitalist regime. The inducement for these policies is that some social, economic, and political discomfort now will yield a better life for individuals and society in the future.  

It’s hard to know whether the continued roiling of the COVID pandemic will lead to renewed mandates and protocols as schools reopen in the fall. To be sure, we’ve been told that if we just comply with various policies, including vaccinations, masking, social distancing, and, if need be, lockdowns, the possibility exists that we can return to normal pre-COVID practices. Not only does this seem increasingly unlikely, but also calls into question whether “the science” behind efforts to reduce the spread of COVID provides a sufficient foundation for real world policy making.    

2. Migrant COVID. Over the weekend, I read most of Dipesh Chakrabarty’s latest book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age (2021). One observation that Chabrabarty makes is that displacements associated with modernity, capitalism, and globalization extend well beyond humanity. As the deer happily munching on the hostas in our garden know, displacements extend to local megafauna who often depart from habitats increasingly encroached upon by development and the privatization of property. As many local gardeners know, the only way to keep deer from grazing on delicacies destined for human palates is to fence off gardens. Thus the borders between human and “natural” habitats, if such a designation makes sense in the contemporary world, become increasing hardened. Traditional migration routes become “wildlife corridors,” traditional ranges become “preserves,” and living things that stray from their designated environments become invasive. 

Obvious the COVID virus is not the same as megafauna, but efforts to contain its spread seem in some ways to echo our efforts to constrain the movement of both fauna and, more tragically, humans displaced environmental destruction, climate change, economic and political colonialism, and war. 

It has become almost a bit cliche to speculate on how we might blur the division between the human and non-human world. It seems like our global response to COVID, that so often focuses on efforts to disrupt the movement of the virus between context, between communities, and between people, offers a vivid example of how various routes of displacement long used by more visible species are also suitable for less visible and less living creatures. 

3. COVID and Time. Finally, earlier in the pandemic, I speculated a bit on COVID and time (here, here, and here). One thing that reading Chakrabarty’s book has pushed me to think about is how much time makes a difference in how we experience crises in the contemporary world. For example, it is well understood that the rate of change associated with global climate change has made it difficult for political institutions much less individuals to make decisions and policies necessary to avert what is almost certain to be catastrophic climate change. 

COVID in contrast is doing what viruses do. It is adapting and surviving, but as we continue to struggle to keep pace with its changes and its movement. COVID testing often lagged behind outbreaks and new variants of the virus have outpaced our ability to produce new vaccines (much less policies). It is often imagined that the time of “nature” is slower than “human” time, but we also need to acknowledge that the time of nature can be much faster than human time. The COVID pandemic is a tragic reminder that our ability to understand and respond to our surroundings is as much a matter of time as a matter of conditions.

Roman Climate

As I get old, one of my great weaknesses as a professional is becoming more and more apparent. As my always modest synapses have slowed down further and my limited pool of energy has gotten shallower, I find myself increasingly driven by deadlines rather than genuine curiosity about the past (or the present or the world). This summer, for example, has become a prolonged exercise in shooting the wolf closest to the sled and this is both unrewarding and exhausting.

As an antidote to this tendency, I still try to read things that capture my interest or that contribute to a broader understanding of the past. As I look at the prospects of teaching a class on the “End of the Roman Empire” (or some such thing) in the spring (alas another deadline), I’m feel an even greater sense of urgency to read and think more broadly about the past (or at least Late Antiquity).

At present, I have a “back of the napkin” idea how to organize my class on the End of the Roman World and I won’t burden this blog post with that kind of nattering, but I do want to include at least a week on Roman and Late Roman climate. The archaeology of climate, climate change, and its impact on society has long drawn my interest. The challenge, of course, for antiquity is that the paleoclimate data is hard to understand. Not only does it involve understanding the science of climate, but also a certain amount of statistics, sampling, and regional geography. 

Over the weekend, I read “Settlement, environment, and climate change in SW Anatolia: Dynamics of regional variation and the end of Antiquity” by Matthew J. Jacobson, Jordan Pickett, Alison L. Gascoigne, Dominik Fleitmann, and Hugh Elton in PLOS ONE. I was initially drawn to this piece because I noticed that the region was not only near Cyprus, but that some of the points that define this region were further from one another than they were from northwest Cyprus where I work. I’m not especially sanguine that data from southern Anatolia is likely to correlate directly to the climate conditions during Antiquity on Cyprus, and one of the authors discouraged me from thinking that way via the twitters

At the same time, this article offers some remarkable conclusions that suggest, for example, that the Roman Climate Optimum, which some scholars have treated almost as a given, might not be as obvious in the regional level climate data as big picture discussions of the Roman world have tended to assume. In fact, in this articles’ SW Anatolia study area, there was no evidence from the RCO in the climate data and it was impossible, then, to correlate the increase in agricultural activity, building, or trade during the Roman period with a milder regional climate. Indeed, this is consistent with data from across the Eastern Mediterranean more broadly. The Early Byzantine period (350-600) shows a predictable increase in settlement and a more or less continued investment in urban areas. That said, there’s little in the way of climate data from this specific region to correlate these investments and expansion of settlement with a pan-Mediterranean situation. Instead, there appears to be a regional patchwork moisture levels for example that likely contributed to the prosperity of the period, but perhaps did not represent a single transformative agent in the development of this period. 

As a result, the contraction of settlement and seeming decline in prosperity in the Middle Byzantine period does not emerge as the result of climate change, but similar to Roman and Late Roman prosperity, part of a more complex group of political, military, social, and environmental influences.

Returning to my class, this article has some real advantages for classroom use. Some advantages are clear, but go without saying, such as the robust footnoting and careful historical and archaeological contextualizing. Others are tacit, such as its open access status!

So, I’ve added it to my list! 

Bakken Babylon

When I first started working on Cyprus, in 2003 or so, and maybe up to 2008 or 2009, it was pretty easy to avoid being in constant contact with professional colleagues while “in the field.” With COVID accelerating our adoption of technology that allows for remote work, this year I feel like I’m constantly connected to my other responsibilities, for better or for worse, and entangled with other timelines and situations in other places.

This is not a complaint, necessarily. I like remaining involved in my various projects and hearing from colleagues and collaborators when I’m abroad. As I mentioned last week, the intensity of work during field seasons contributes as much to being exhausted as being away from home, eating different food, and having a new routine. Being in contact with my colleagues is a nice way to introduce a bit of home cooking and balance to my life when abroad.

Tomorrow, I’m going to meet with the editors and contributors to a special section of Near Eastern Archaeology on archaeology and climate change. This derived from a panel held at ASOR a number of years ago where I presented some of my research on the Bakken and suggested that it  could contribute to larger discussions on man-made climate change. At the end of the panel, which was quite stimulating, I felt concerned that my research didn’t really fit into what the other papers were trying to do. I was less interested in the climate change in the Near East, for example, and more interested in the social processes associated with the oil industry as a kind of surrogate (or a lens) through which we can consider contemporary climate change.

As part of the zoom conversation tomorrow afternoon, we’ve each been asked to talk for one minute on our proposed papers. I’ve been mucking about with mine over the last few months and have posted some fragments (which you can follow here). For my 1 minute precis, I need to wrangle these into something more coherent. Here’s my current plan:

My paper will use Reza Negrastani’s Cyclonopedia, a work of speculative fiction which offers a brilliant, if obscure meditation on the materiality of oil and the oil industry in the Near East, as a kind of cypher to unpack the relationship between the Bakken and Babylon. This aspect of my paper will be (hopefully) playful, but also have the goal of showing how oil conflates the Bakken and the Near East.

It sets the stage for the second part of my paper which makes this conflation a bit more explicit not only by tracing concepts like “dustism” (and the preoccupation with dust) between the two places but also figures like Thomas Barger, Frank Jungers, and Wallace Stegner whose work connected North Dakota with oil in the Persian Gulf.

The final section will suggest that this conflation of the Bakken (or North Dakota) and Babylon not only emphasizes the globalization of the concept of Babylon, which reverberates through critiques of capitalism and colonialism (and their role as the backbone of oil, climate change, and modernity) as well as a global approach to Near Eastern archaeology.