Plague and Famine in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Tomorrow I’m presenting in Prof. Sercan Yandim Aydin and Prof. Luca Zavagno’s Byzantium at Ankara seminar series in a session titled “Famine and Plagues in Byzantium: archaeology, documentary and hagiography in a comparative perspective.”

I have to admit to feeling more than a little nervous about the topic which is pretty far from my core area of expertise (however narrow that might be). I’ve spend the last few days reviewing some of the key works on the topic of plague and famine, and I have to admit that it’s been a nice break from my other simmering projects.

While I’m not planning to present a formal paper, it’s useful for me to get my ideas together. For the following observations, I’m indebted to the crowd-sourced “Archaeology of Epidemics” syllabus.

It seems to me that the archaeology of plagues and famines recognizes the long-standing ties between disease and sedentary agriculture. The latter tends to be a precondition for  historical understandings of famine (although famines are, of course, possible among hunter-gatherers, many of the preconditions for famine appear to be more prominent among settled agrarians than more mobile hunter-gatherers). More than that, settled agriculture increased human proximity to animals, to one another, and to human waste and distinct environmental conditions which undoubtedly contributed to an increase rates of infectious diseases. Settled agriculture is obviously case in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires as were a series of epidemics (that verge on being pandemics) starting in the late 2nd century and continuing through the middle-8th century.

The second basic idea for any consideration of plagues and famines in the past is that both phenomena are incredibly complex and generally the result of multiple variable. Diseases, for example, can vary not only on the biological level. Yeresinia Pestis, for example, is a bacteria transmitted primarily by rats and humans; Malaria, as another example, is an amoeba transmitted by a limited number of types of mosquitos. Cholera and Typhoid are primarily transmitted through contaminated water (and food). The range of different kinds of diseases, therefore, impacts the ways in which diseases spread, take hold, and impact mortality.

Famines likewise represent a series of conditions that range from weather and climate to economic and political decisions. Famine often results in malnutrition and compromised immune systems that can produce not only a greater susceptibility to  The relationship between famine and disease then requires that we consider not only politics, ecology, economics, and environmental conditions, but also the distinctive character of the diseases moving through the human population.

The archaeology of plague and famine in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Mediterranean has its own unique characteristics as well. There are four major trends, I think, in how archaeologists have approached these phenomena.

1. Bioarchaeology. Certainly the most sensational efforts to understand disease in the ancient world have come from bioarchaeologists. The publication of evidence for Yersinia Pestis (the Bubonic Plague) in dental pulp DNA samples from two 6th century cemeteries in Bavaria has added weight to hypothesis that the Justinianic plague was, indeed, the Bubonic plague, although as a few commentators have noted, 10 individuals with the plague in a rather remote region hardly represents a meaningful sample of the Mediterranean population at the time.

The challenges facing bioarchaeology involve not only the still-developing technologies necessary to analyze human skeletal remains at the scale necessary to produce a sufficiently significant body of evidence to allow for large scale conclusions. More than that, only certain kinds of diseases leave recognizable traces in human remains. Tuberculosis, for example, leaves tell-tale lesions on bones, but other illnesses like malaria are more elusive meaning that our view of epidemics illnesses in the ancient world will likely remain uneven for the time.

2. Climate and Environmental Archaeology. The second major trend in understanding plagues and famines in Late Antiquity is the growing interest in ancient climate change and the role of climate and the environment in creating conditions favorable with the development of epidemic and pandemic outbreaks of disease. The most thorough version of this approach is Kyle Harper’s 2017 book  The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017)  or the recent volume of the Late Antique Archaeology series dedicated to Environment and Society in the Long Late Antiquity (Brill 2018).

Harper and others have sought to understand the appearance of pandemic scale diseases in the late 2nd century, starting with the Antonine plague, and continuing through to the Justinian’s plague. Harper argues that end of the Roman Climate Optimum and the start of the Late Antique Ice Age (and the Late Antique Little Ice Age) may have created environmental conditions suitable for spread of new diseases in the Mediterranean basin. Harper and other scholars who have emphasized that large scale climate change is not an explanation in and of itself, but the impact of these changes must be understood in the context of both local environmental conditions and the larger political and social world of Late Antiquity. There is little doubt however that changes in global climate triggered changes in the agricultural regimes that contributed to “years without summer” and subsequent famines that are known from literary sources. The wide ranging debate around the “The Mystery Cloud of 536 CE” and its connection to the Justinianic plague is only one such example.

As any number of scholars have shown in recent years, for example the work done by Haldon, Elton and Newhart have done in Anatolia, regional variation in the environment plays a significant role in understand the impact of climate change at the local level. Sturt Manning has recently made clear the significant inter-annual variations in rain fall on Cyprus, which may have had as much of an impact on the health and prosperity of communities than large scale climate variation on the global level. Roman efforts to drain swamps, build roads, and deforest hills would have introduced new hydrological patterns that would have supported, for example, the mosquitos that carried malaria, as Robert Sallares has shown in his work. Bret Shaw has argued on the basis of epigraphic data from across the Mediterranean that there are clear seasonal patterns of mortality. The wide range of variables that contribute to these patterns include local weather during the hotter and more humid late summer months whose impact on the mortality of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis remains difficult to assess.

Environmental archaeology has also shed valuable light on global conditions that could have disrupted plague foci in, for example, rodent colonies in Central Asia or East Africa which would have dispatched plague bearing fleas to the Mediterranean through established trade routes in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Understanding these phenomena, of course, is extremely complex and we’re only at the very beginning of understand the existence of disease foci and their relationship to climate conditions. In fact, both of these things as independent variables remain difficult to understand much less in relation to one another.

That being said, a growing body of environmental proxies from Greenland ice cores to dendrochronology is beginning to allow us to map global climate change in antiquity. Unfortunately the chronological resolution and distribution of this data does not always coincide with the kinds of historical questions that Mediterranean archaeologists and historians are asking. Moreover, they do not always make the cause of climate variation clear and are often difficult to correlate with local conditions. This isn’t to say that this work is not producing meaningful results, but that the impact of climate science on our understanding of specific historical events like the Justinianic plaque continues to develop.

3. Archaeological Evidence. Michael McCormick, one of the leading scholars in the study of plagues in antiquity, has pulled together the evidence for mass burials in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine period and published it in the Journal of Roman Archaeology. McCormick recognizes that these kinds of direct evidence for episodes of mass mortality may well provide indications of plague events and coincide with evidence from literary sources for mass burials.

The challenge, of course, is that the situation and dates of many of these mass burials remain unclear. In some cases, such as Kopetra on Cyprus, where a cistern becomes the tomb for at least 9 individuals, there is reason to at least suspect that these are people who died from disease. In other cases, like the Andritsa cave in Argolid, it’s more challenging to see the bodies of over 50 individuals as victims of the disease alone and might be better recognized as the result of a complex series of events that range from diseases and famine to regional political or military disruptions. As with efforts to understand the relationship between climate and disease, it seems likely that many of these burials represent the intersection of a series of conditions including the availability of a cave or a cistern for a mass burial. The analysis of the demographics of the individuals, when such data is available, and any chronological clustering of the incidents of mass burial likewise allow for a more refined interpretation of these events. McCormick shows that of the 48 mass burials datable to between 300 and 800, 36 of them occurred during the 6th and 7th century. That being said, the ongoing efforts to refine the dating of Late Roman ceramics, for example, may well complicate the chronology of these burials or at least complicate any clear correlation between events datable in the literary sources to a particular year or span and shifting archaeological chronologies.

4. Landscape, Settlement, and Demography. Finally, there has been a massive amount of attention on Late Roman settlement and demography over the last twenty years prompted in part by the rise in landscape and regional survey projects that have shed valuable light not only on rural settlement, but also on the relationship between city and country and between various regions in the Mediterranean basin.

On the most basic level questions of demography and settlement patterns provide a backdrop for the economic conditions present in the long Late Antiquity. As our understanding of the countryside, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean, improves and reveals a “busy countryside” in the 5th, 6th, and 7th centuries, traditional arguments for large scale demographic and economic decline have become less compelling. The neighborhood of the mass burial at Kopetra and the Andritsa cave in the Western Argolid appear to be active and even moderately prosperous with imported table wares, storage and transport amphora, and purpose made cooking pots appearing in urban and rural areas alike. Of course, this is not meant to suggest that plagues cannot strike economically prosperous communities or that they necessarily would have a negative impact on local economies, but to challenge views of the Late Antique landscape which saw conditions of decline and deprivation as particularly suitable for the outbreak of disease.

Instead, recent work has emphasized the ongoing connectivity of the Mediterranean in Late Antiquity and this connectivity goes well beyond well-known links between major urban centers or regions and now involves the myriad of small links that constituent the dense networks of small-scale and local exchange between microregions. These connections provided the Late Antique world with its remarkable resilience in times of political or environmental stress, and, at the same time, established the context for the spread of disease throughout the Later Roman world.

At present, our efforts to understand the character and extent of this connectivity in a nuanced way remains in its infancy. For example, we’re only now making strides to understand the countryside in the neighborhood of Adritsa Cave which in many ways shows remarkable continuity with earlier centuries. This makes it difficult to present even a local or regional context for this unusual site much less ascertain its place within larger regional trends.

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If my contribution tomorrow does anything, I hope that I’m able to present a view of the archaeology of plagues and famines that provides some disciplinary context. This involves not only understanding the larger methodological trends that characterize research on these topics including bioarchaeology, environmental archaeology, excavations, and survey projects, but also emphasizes the epistemological and practical limits that shape archaeological discourse.

It’s cliche to note that the goal of archaeology is not necessarily to supplement the narratives established by historians and scholars of texts. In fact, archaeological evidence often remains oddly incompatible with these disciplines. Often the incommensurability stems from the different scales at which we operate. Even with the precisions of dendrochronology, most archaeological dates established through C14 dating or conventional ceramic typologies are more broad and imprecise than dates provided in texts.

As significantly, archaeologists sometimes work at the highly focused scale of a single site, part of a site, or trench, where evidence for phenomena like plagues may not be immediately visible. This situation means that even when archaeologists work at the scale of the region, we’re often forced to recognize that our inconsistent sample is better suited to understanding intraregional variation especially when considered at finer chronological resolutions.

Advances in bioarchaeological sampling are unlikely to resolve these issues quickly because of variability in discovery and preservation of human remains, the need to secure samples through particularly rigorous and time consuming excavation techniques that are not always possible, and the cost of analysis. The same holds true for many of the techniques that are producing important insights into regional environmental conditions that require specific situations (e.g. anaerobic lake beds), expertise, and funding that not all projects can access in the same way. The resulting patchworks, like the 10 individuals with the plague in Germany, will result in datasets that seemingly beg to be over generalized or dismissed as outliers especially in their relationship to particular environmental or epidemiological events.

Where archaeology shines is in providing evidence for long-term trends at the regional level and recognizing the ebb and flow of populations, prosperity, connectivity, and settlement. Plagues and famines while seemingly more common between the 3rd and 8th century often emerge as mere blips on the archaeological radar and soon disappear again the backdrop of persistent activity and the resilience of long-standing communities.

While this will likely disappoint historians who persist in their hope that archaeology or archaeological science can unlock the relationship between climate, disease, populations, economies, and politics, maybe it’ll be heartening in our contemporary situation where the COVIDs seem destined the fundamentally transform our everyday life. Viewed at the archaeological scale, it may be that The COVID pandemic will appear as little more than some discarded latex gloves and empty bottles of hand sanitizer.

The Bakken, Petroculture, and Climate Change

A year or so ago, I was reading a good bit on petroculture and the Anthropocene. I had begun – in a back of my napkin kind of way – to trace a research trajectory that led from our work in the Bakken a larger discussion of petroculture and climate change. At some point, other projects encroached on this work and before too long, like so many ideas, this one slipped into the background.

Last week, an old friend asked whether I might consider contributing a paper to a panel on archaeology and climate change in the Middle East. As I was saying that I didn’t really have anything on that particular topic, he nudged me to consider something that connects my work in the Bakken to the larger issue of climate change.  A dim light bulb flickered to life.

I don’t have a paper yet (to be clear, the panel hasn’t been accepted!). In fact, I don’t even have an abstract, but I do have a few ideas.

1. Movement. It seems like many of the situations present in the Bakken anticipate the challenges posed by climate change. The arrival of temporary workers in a fragile and sparsely populated landscape anticipates, at least in form, the movement of climate refugees from settlements made vulnerable from changing and volatile weather patterns, rising sea levels, and the redistribution of resources.  

2. Logistics and Scarcity. The presence of oil workers in the Bakken also anticipates the paradox of logistics that is so essential to understanding the future of human society on a changing Earth. European settlement in Western North Dakota is fundamentally the product of petroculture. It was driven by the expanded reach of rail and facilitated by gasoline-powered cars and trucks. The Bakken became a place for large scale agricultural practices before it became a place defined by the sustainable extraction of oil.

Today, the challenge facing oil extraction regularly face the difficulties of moving this oil to refining and the market. The investment in infrastructure, from pipelines to additional rail capacity, defines the Bakken boom as much as the number of barrels per day. Our networked world, then, depends upon petroleum driven logistics. As climate change increasingly challenges and compromises the logistic networks that constitute our modern world, how will a world “after oil” support resilient communities in what appears to be a far more volatile climate regime? How will concepts of the local and global shift? 

3. The Present, the Past, and the Future. Readers of this blog know that I’m inordinately fond o Amitav Ghosh’s observation that in the 21st century, the poor are experiencing the future first. In my time working the Bakken, it seems to me that the model of hypermobility and precarity offered by work in the oil patch anticipates a less stable economic, political, and climactic future. This isn’t to suggest that workers in the Bakken are poor by any global standard, but to suggest that the lifestyle demanded of the workers in extractive industries foreshadows a less stable world.  

The workers in the Bakken (and in any community defined by the precarity and instability of extractive, seasonal, and “just in time” work) have begun to redefine domesticity and the material character of social life. The response to this adaptation from many outside those working in the oil fields has been complex and largely negative. In fact, much of the response from both permanent communities in Western North Dakota and the national media remains shaped by nostalgic views of middle class aspirations from land and home ownership to the nuclear family defining a place of residence. In many ways, the economic status of the oil workers – many of whom earn middle class salaries for their work – maps onto critiques of the global poor and historical working class.  

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In short, a paper on the Bakken and climate change might extend my interest in petroculture to a social critique of the culture of climate change. I realize that my observations today are rough around the edges, but I have time and can’t escape the feeling that there is something here, if I just keep playing with ideas enough.

Plague and the End of Antiquity

This weekend, I read Kyle Harper’s new-ish book on plague, climate change, and the end of the Roman Empire: The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire (Princeton 2017). I have to admit that I was skeptical before I read the book. The idea that plague contributed to the end of the Roman Empire isn’t particularly novel and the plagues of the 2nd and 3rd century have sometimes been clumsily associated with the rise of Christianity. Our growing understanding of ancient diseases and the physical condition of individuals and communities in Late Antiquity clearly has something to offer the historian, but linking the patchy evidence to Mediterranean wide geopolitics always seemed like a stretch. Finally, as readers of this blog probably discern, I’m intrigued by the recent “environmental turn” in Mediterranean archaeology, but also have lingering concerns that our interest in the ancient and modern climate has pushed us toward a new kind of environmental determinism

Despite this skepticism, Harper’s book was really good and compelling. First, this book is far from a single cause argument (as one might expect it would be considering Harper’s other work and reputation). The plague is set against a careful reading of climate change over the course of the first millennium and the political, economic, and demographic developments of the Roman world. Second, the plagues unleashed in the 2nd, 3rd, and 6th centuries were not simply more virulent versions of illnesses that had long existed in the human population, but new diseases – small pox and bubonic plague – whose impact on the Roman world depended upon both the political organization of the connected Mediterranean and the emergence of a more variable and challenging late Holocene climate regime. Finally, the book is really well written and, in turn, evocative and clearly argued, descriptive and analytical, illuminated by literary sources and grounded in archaeological evidence. 

I do wonder, though, whether framing the book as a conflict between humans and nature creates a view of the world that seems to challenge the books basic argument that the rise of the Roman mega-state was partly the result of the auspicious middle Holocene climate. It seems to me a more compelling way to discuss humans, climate, their environment, and the microbial world of bacteria and viruses that shaped the human experience in the ancient Mediterranean would be as deeply enmeshed and entangled. In fact, the helplessness articulated by so many ancient authors when faced with draught, plague, floods, and cold, speaks less to a view of existence as a battle with the forces of nature and more to an understanding of humans and nature as parallel manifestations the same cosmic and divine forces. The changes to the environment, the appearance of plagues, and unpredictable and unexpected weather formed part of the same universe that preserved the Roman Empire, the structured religion and belief, and that defined the physical health of individual bodies. For example, the end of the world was seen as the world growing old and drying out – quite literally with the arrival of droughts in some places – and it had a clear parallel in the view of old age that saw it as the drying out of the body.

That being said, the view of the human world as separate and in conflict with nature gave the book its tragic arc. Harper makes no attempt to hide his view that the Roman Empire was more than simply an administrative unit, but the fundamental framework for life in the first century Mediterranean. As a result, the collapse of the Roman state – particularly in the western Mediterranean, but ultimately in the east as well – marked more than just a political disruption, but a fundamental social and cultural one as well. The experience of individuals, then, paralleled the larger political narrative. This is compelling when the book documents the personal and community trauma associated with the plague.

It’s less compelling, though, in dealing with ragged edges of how communities experienced the Roman Mediterranean. For example, it’s become increasingly apparent that in the Eastern Mediterranean communities continued to enjoy connections that defied changing political boundaries. In other words, social and economic bonds persisted for centuries in some cases after the political life of the Roman Empire collapsed. It would appear, in these cases, that the Roman state – with its political, military, and economic challenges brought on by changes in the climate and plague – was more fragile than the centuries old social, religious, and cultural bonds between communities around the Mediterranean littoral. The persistence of these bonds played a key role in understanding the end of antiquity as a transformation rather than a decline or fall. 

This critique is, in the end, fairly minor and probably can be categorized as “I’d write a different book,” and shouldn’t detract from the larger value of this book. Works like this demonstrate the incredible potential of the environmental turn for revising even the most traditional narratives in our field. 

Environmental Determinism and Causality in Archaeology

This weekend as I descended into a seasonally appropriate panic about how little I had accomplished, I read the most recent discussion in Archaeological Dialogues on environmental determinism and causality in archaeology. Like most archaeologists, I’ve struggled to understand much less integrate the flood (see what I did there?) of regional and global climate data into the archaeology of particular places in the Eastern Mediterranean. I’ve recently read work by Sturt Manning and Katie Kearns on Cyprus and John Haldon, Hugh Elton, and James Newhard on Anatolia and started to think a tiny bit about environmental data might speak to issues like urban change in Late Antiquity, the nature of insularity, and agricultural and settlement patterns in the Western Argolid.  

Connecting how we understand environmental data to how we produce archaeological arguments pushes us both to think about temporality (and the multiple scales of time that shape archaeological knowledge) and, as the articles in Archaeological Dialogues foreground, causality. There’s a temptation to connect environmental changes to social, economic, and political change in the archaeological record. This, of course, maps on nicely to recent discussions on the impact of climate change in the 21st century. As Bruno Latour and others have suggested, the ancient and modern challenge of associating environmental changes with political changes is that it rests on the dichotomy between the natural and the human. Recent, and to my mind more subtle and thoughtful, work has emphasized the blurred lines between the natural, the social, the political, and the culture. As a result, arguments for causality that see one variable – say climate change – directly transforming another – say political or economic relationships – tend to be problematic. Contemporary commentators, for example, have proposed alternately, that the poor will bear the burden of modern climate change more than the rich; others have suggested that the poor may well be more resilient than the wealthy when faced with ecological and environmental instability. As Amitav Ghosh sagely noted, in the 21st century, the poor are already experiencing the future. This observation nicely complicates the idea of progress that seems to reinforce the linear ideas of causality. 

Covering The Beast and the LA Review of Books

I dedicated most of this weekend to production stuff for the next two books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota: The Beast and Protesting on Bended Knee: Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century AmericaWhile my work on Protesting involved adjusting margins and adding (and then revising) about 300 hyperlinks, my work on The Beast nudged us from a bunch of disassociated files to something that looks to all the world like a book!

For those of you who don’t know what The Beast is about, it’s a book length comic from Ad Astra Comix that tells the story of a couple who work to “make a living on a dying planet” against the backdrop of the Ft. McMurray tar sands, the various industries that present the oil industry to the general public, and the looming threat of “The Beast,” the massive wildfire that devastated the region on 2016. Without spoiling the story, the comic traces the lives of two media professionals as they intersect with each other and with the oil industry. Their stories – and the backdrop of overpriced hotels, bars, precarity, and the oil industry – will resonate with readers familiar with work in the Bakken or extractive industries around the world. The connection with oil, however, makes it part of The Digital Press’s Bakken Bookshelf.

Get the comic today from Ad Astra Comix

Then, download the Expanded Digital Edition next month from The Digital Press

Working on this book has been a tremendous privilege not only because of its content, but also because of the artists and writers who have helped make the Expanded Digital Version possible. Hugh Goldring, from Ad Astra has been exceptionally open to our collaboration. The designer and illustrator of The Beast, Nicole Burton, produced an tastefully updated cover for the Expanded Digital Version (presented below in draft).  

BeastCoverDraft

And, finally, Patrick McCurdy has worked closely with me to bring together an exceptional group of contributions for the expanded edition. These not only locate The Beast in current debates in petroculture, media studies, and the history of serious comics, but also make clear that The Beast is meant to start a wider conversation about the impact of oil on society more broadly.

In fact, it’s beyond exciting to see that this conversation has already begun with this long interview by Daniel Worden in the Los Angeles Review of Books with Nicole, Hugh, and Patrick. Check out the interview, buy a copy of The Beast, and stay tuned for the Expanded Digital Edition later this month!

Environment and Society in the Ancient World

Dimitri Nakassis pointed me in the direction of the most recent issue of History Compass which features a series of article the environment and society in the Ancient World. These article are best read as short essays on the state of the field with distinctive takes on the scholarly conversation rather than groundbreaking works of original scholarship. Considering both the immense outpouring of recent work on the historical (and modern) environments and challenging body of technical tools and discussions necessary to understand this scholarship, this issue was a good idea and a nice place to start for anyone interested in the “environmental turn.”

The two essays that caught my eye were Catherine Kearns article titled “Mediterranean archaeology and environmental history in the spotlight of the Anthropocene.” The article offers a nice review of recent work on the Anthopocene, the long term history of Mediterranean environments, and, then, a case study  from Cyprus where Kearns has done important work using the survey data produced from the Vasilikos and Maroni valleys on Cyprus. She argues that environmental changes contributed to the reuse of certain features like check damns in the upper reaches of these river valleys between 800 and 300 BC. These dates coincide with a period during which carbon stable isotope analysis revealed an increase in water on the island. These sites also provided access to copper deposits which represented an important source of wealth for the island. At the same time, the increased availability of water during this same period, contributed to increased agricultural productivity on the island to support copper mining and the emergence of the (new?) Iron Age polities that would come to dominate Cypriot society until the Hellenistic period.

Michael Decker’s two-part article on the environment in Late Antiquity offers a useful contribution to understanding the role that climate change and the environment played in the Late Roman world. Late Antiquity, of course, is full of paradoxes. On the one hand, it would appear that the Late Antique world experienced persistent and perhaps even increased economic activity, trade, and prosperity from the 5th to the 8th century. On the other hand, this period also witnesses significant political instability and relatively rapid religious and social change over the Mediterranean basin. As Decker notes, the alarming character of the political collapse in Late Antiquity often supported colonialist readings of the pressures exerted on the empire’s margins. In this reading, for example, the rise of Islam, for example, represented a political and religious response to the increased aridity of the Near East, the economic decline of the Roman core related to the deforestation of North Africa, and the failure of the Roman state in the peripheral provinces of the West correlated to cooler and dryer temperatures. Decker demonstrates how many of these views, at least for the East, contributed to and fed upon Orientalist assumptions regarding the character of nomadic groups living around the periphery of the Roman Empire.

The second part of his article considers new data that is being brought to bear on climate change at the end of the ancient world. While Decker stops short of arguing how this data will go beyond correcting the environmentally deterministic views of the end of antiquity in the past and provide new ways of thinking about how longterm trends in climate change changed the ancient world. But, he makes clear that there is significant promise in the analysis of finer-grained data.

These articles are a useful introduction to the growing impact and future potential of climate science and environmental studies in the ancient world. As with so much of this work at present, it is more promising than compelling, but it clearly marks a significant path forward for future research. 

#IrmaSyllabus, #HarveySyllabus, #HurricaneSyllabus

As I watched Hurricanes Harvey and Irma surge through the Gulf of Mexico, I got to thinking about the environmental, historical, political, and academic context for these “megastorms.” We can easily add Sandy, Katrina, Rita, Irene, Andrew, Matthew and various other “natural” catastrophes to this list. This year, in particular, we can expand our view of disasters to include flooding in Southeast Asia which have killed over a thousand people and displaced a million and the fires in Montana that have caused millions of dollars in damage and covered the western U.S. in smoke.

Among the more intriguing developments in recent years has been to put together syllabi that allow the public to explore the complexity of recent events. These syllabi are often generated quickly and produced by collectives of scholars and public intellectuals and have accompanying hashtags. The best known of these being the #StandingRockSyllabus and the #CharlottesvilleSyllabus.

I rarely do this on the blog, but I am wondering what a #HurricaneSyllabus would look like?

My interests are historical rather than climatological or even strictly environmental, and, as a result, I’m interested in the historical circumstances that shaped the impact of these events and their local and global contexts. My instinct would be to divide the syllabus into five weeks:

Week 1: The environmental context for Harvey and Irma.
B. Fields, J. Thomas, and J. Wagner, “Living with Water in the Era of Climate Change: Lessons from the Lafitte Greenway in Post-Katrina New Orleans,Journal of Planning Education and Research 37.3 (2017), 309-321.

Kevin Fox Gotham and Joshua A. Lewis, “Green Tourism and the Ambiguities of Sustainability Discourse: The Case of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward,” International Journal of Social Ecology and Sustainable 6.2 (2015).

R. J. Niven and D.K. Bardsley, “Planned retreat as a management response to coastal risk: a case study from the Fleurieu Peninsula, South Australia,” Regional Environmental Change 13.1 (2013), 193-209.

R.A. Pilke, The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change. Tempe 2014.

Week 2: The geographic context for storms: settlement, economics, race, and history.
Check out some of the material tweeted by Prof. Andrea Roberts at Texas A&M with the hashtag #HarveySyllabus.

Federick C. Cuny, Disasters and Development. New York 1983

Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. London 2017.

Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed. New York 2014. 

Daniel A. Farber, James Ming Chen, Robert R.M. Verchick and Lisa Grow Sun, Disaster Law and Policy. 3rd Ed. New York 2015.

Lafcadio Hearn, Chita: A Memory of Last Island. 1889

Week 3: The storm timeline: preparation and first responses.

Week 4: Rebuilding
D. Haeselin, Haunted by Waters: The Future of Memory and the Red River Flood of 1997. Grand Forks 2017.  

Anthony Loewenstein, Disaster Capitalism: Making a Killing Out of Catastrophe. New York 2017. 

Week 5: History and Archaeology of the Storms
M. Bagwell, “After the Storm, Destruction and Reconstruction: The Potential for an Archaeology of Hurricane KatrinaArchaeologies 5 (2009), 280-292. 

M. Bloom, Codex (forthcoming, but preview available here).

S. Lee Dawdy, Patina: A Profane Archaeology. Chicago 2016. 

Hurricane Digital Memory Bank.  

Timothy H. Ives, Kevin A. McBride & Joseph N. Waller, “Surveying Coastal Archaeological Sites Damaged by Hurricane Sandy in Rhode Island, USAThe Journal of Island and Coastal Archaeology (2017), 1-23.

Obviously my syllabus has some massive gaps, but please help me flesh this out in the comments section below or with the Twitter hashtag #HurricaneSyllabus.