The Archaeology of Environmental and Climatic Change

In archaeology today, and ancient studies more generally, climatic and environmental change remains a niche subject of study. The considerable amount of technical skill needed in particular to be able to conduct scientific research on the climatic shifts of the past precludes many from becoming acquainted with this subfield. As the topic of climate change continues to dominate discussions of the future of humanity, however, disciplines such as archaeology and history have striven to shed more light on its role in the past development of societies, fostering a new generation of scholars interested in palaeoclimatology.  

Katie Kearns, a recent graduate of Cornell University, is on the leading edge of this new wave of researchers focusing on the archaeology of environmental and climate change. Her PhD dissertation, entitled "Unruly Environments: The Making of a 1st-Millennium BCE Political Landscape on Cyprus," examined climate change and the interaction between humans and the landscape from a deeply interdisciplinary perspective, drawing on the fields of classics, geography, anthropology, and environmental history.

I asked Katie a few questions about how she approaches her work and where she sees the study of the human-environment interactions of the past heading in the future.

What is your philosophy towards studying the environments of the past?

-       Coming from an interdisciplinary background that encouraged thinking about and doing archaeology outside the boundaries of one field, I have learned to incorporate multiple strands of evidence and diverse methodological tools for examining ancient human-environment relationships holistically – to be what some have called an “omnivorous” archaeologist. To avoid only borrowing data from other fields or compounding problems of miscommunication, I believe scholars need to engage actively with the methods and issues of the data they are working with – learning how samples for stable isotope analysis are processed and interpreted, for example!  I also approach human-environment relationships as complex, dynamic, and having real social and political dimensions that we can investigate using a full suite of archaeological, scientific, and historic skills.  I’m really interested in cultural constructions of environment and climate, and how those shape the way we as humans make and manipulate landscapes.


What role do you see your work playing in broader current debates about the nature of the Anthropocene, and climate change in particular?

-       I’m especially invested in the utility of an archaeological view on climate change and the question of the Anthropocene, emphasizing archaeology’s expertise in thinking about “things” over long stretches of time.  In many cases, cross-disciplinary understandings of past climate change rely on reductive or macroscalar correlations between excavated evidence and coarse paleoclimatic models, which tend to be the ones applied to discussions of pre-Industrial Anthropocenes.  In my work, I examine the social and political dimensions of environmental change – how different groups or authorities perceived, experienced, and imagined their surroundings – and how shifting environmental materials, like vegetation or water systems, mediated human practices.  Such a view hopefully can expand our understanding of “anthropos” as more than a generalized “human,” looking at the changing give-and-take between diverse communities, authorities, or identities and their technologies and crafts of landscape practice. 


Where do you see the study of the relationship between ancient societies and the environment heading in the future?

-       I see rising interest in making our current paleoclimatic models more highly-resolved and precise, and a push to bring their temporal and spatial variability more in line with our material and textual evidence for past environmental change.  That movement will include more projects taking samples, but also more innovative methodological studies.  I think we will also see increasing research on past anthropogenic environments in particular, from farmsteads to industrial mines, which can provide space for valuable interdisciplinary work with policy-makers, climate scientists, and local stakeholders.  I think conceptually, the next intervention needs to happen in the realm of theories of materiality and social space to include environmental matter, from soils and animal bones to steppes and watersheds.  

Katie Kearns is current an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University. She will be joining the University of Chicago as an assistant professor later this year.