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Environmental archaeology, a subdiscipline of archaeology, is defined as the study of the environment and its relationship with people through time. To elucidate this definition, the article summarizes the historical development of the subject, and explores the main subfields of environmental archaeology, namely geoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, and geochronology, with reference to specific case studies. The article also highlights some of the main research themes in environmental archaeology.
- History of Environmental Archaeology
- Subdivisions of Environmental Archaeology
- Environmental Archaeology Research Themes
Environmental archaeology has developed into a major subdiscipline of archaeology over the past five decades, and has attracted scientists from many different backgrounds of academia, including geography, geology, botany, zoology, physics, chemistry, and of course archaeology and anthropology, as well as providing specialist undergraduate and postgraduate training at universities throughout the world. We can define ‘environmental archaeology’ in archaeology, therefore, as the study of the environment and its relationship with people through time (see Branch et al., 2005); this has in turn led to the development of distinctive subdivisions of environmental archaeology called geoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, and geochronology (see below).
History of Environmental Archaeology
During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, geologists, such as Lyell (1797–1875) and Hutton (1726–97), by examining the principles of uniformitarianism and laws of stratigraphy, and biologists, such as Darwin (1809–82), by contributing to evolutionary theory, laid the foundations of environmental archaeology. Uniformitarianism, in particular, is a key scientific philosophy. It refers to the concept that natural processes observed in the present day also occurred in the past. The idea applies to pedological (soil) and sedimentological processes, and the environmental parameters that govern the distribution of plants and animals. For example, we can observe today that Alnus glutinosa (common alder) inhabits wet areas, such as fens and marshes, and the edges of rivers, ponds, and lakes. If we find subfossils (e.g., flowers and seeds) of alder in either geological or archaeological deposits, then we can confidently assume that wetland habitats existed near to the site in the past. Although there are instances where this principle is questionable (e.g., history of Taxus baccata (yew) woodland; Branch et al., 2012), the application of uniformitarianism and other universal laws governing natural processes, means that environmental archaeology is a truly scientific discipline. The existence of universal laws directing human behavior is a matter of considerable debate, and principles such as uniformitarianism are undoubtedly less valuable when trying to explain archaeological phenomena. Nevertheless, recognition of the scientific basis of archaeology (see Pitt-Rivers (1827–1900), Morgan (1818–81), and Taylor (1832–1917)), especially from the 1930s, led eventually to the formulation of a new theoretical framework known as processualism in the 1960s (see Binford, 1968; Clarke, 1978). This paradigm shift in archaeology led to an innately scientific approach to research (Renfrew and Bahn, 2000), involving multidisciplinary studies and further complex theoretical developments, such as systems theory (Flannery, 1968; Brothwell and Higgs, 1969). Although succeeded by postprocessualism as the dominant paradigm in archaeology (see Archaeology, Theory in), environmental archaeology maintains a science-based approach, which seeks to understand the relationships between the biological and physical environment, and social and economic changes (Butzer, 1982).
Subdivisions of Environmental Archaeology
The fields of geoarchaeology, zooarchaeology, archaeobotany, and geochronology form the basis of environmental archaeology, and are part of a wider subject area known as archaeological science, which includes the study of human remains, materials science, conservation, and geophysics. These fields embrace the study of ancient sediments and soils, and fossil plant and animal remains, recovered from a wide variety of archives, which may be located in a diverse range of environments – terrestrial, marine, and ice. Archaeological archives are those located on settlement or occupation sites, irrespective of the length or nature of the human activities; they include rubbish and storage pits, postholes, drainage ditches, moats, wells, postholes, cesspits, hearths, and ancient buried soils, as well as the archives listed below. In contrast, Geological archives have no known evidence of occupation but may nevertheless provide important information on environmental change due to natural processes and human impact, and the broader environmental context of human activities; these typically include peat bogs and lakes, floodplains and valleys, as well as marine sediments and ice. Environmental archaeologists therefore utilize many of the field and laboratory methods used in biological and earth sciences, and data generated by quaternary scientists, especially in the fields of paleoclimatology and paleoecology.
Geoarchaeology, and the geoarchaeologist, is concerned with landscape and stratigraphic formation (e.g., sedimentary events and soil processes) and modification processes (i.e., deposit alteration), and draws mainly on geological, sedimentological, and soil science analytical techniques used in the field and laboratory (Dincauze, 2000; Branch et al., 2005). The primary role is therefore to record the physical characteristics (e.g., color, dryness, wetness) and composition (e.g., organic matter content and type (e.g., moss, herbaceous and wood peat, or lake sediment), and particle size (gravel, sand, silt, clay)) of stratigraphy in archaeological and geological archives. This information is then used to reconstruct and explain the events or processes responsible for the formation of the stratigraphic sequence, including postdepositional transformation. Recognition of the boundaries between units of stratigraphy (or contexts) is a critical part of this procedure because these may define changing depositional processes, both cultural and natural, and the relative rate of change, i.e., a conformable boundary (gradual change), and an unconformable boundary (rapid change).
Geoarchaeologists therefore utilize a wide range of analytical procedures to record and interpret stratigraphy, including standard approaches for sediment and soil description and classification, and laboratory methods, such as micromorphology, particle size analysis, magnetic susceptibility, and multielement geochemistry. Using these procedures, and applying uniformitarian principles, geoarchaeologists can assign sedimentary units to a specific natural process. For example, Riddiford and colleagues (2012) by analyzing a complex series of sediments in the Seille Valley (NE France) have been able to reconstruct the changing patterns of river channel formation, migration, and abandonment during an extended period of human settlement. The introduction of a human component into stratigraphic formation provides an additional complexity, and understanding the relationship between the event or process and the morphology of the deposit often presents a significant challenge even with the range of analytical procedures available. This is particularly apparent in archaeological sites where multiple phases of human occupation involving domestic and industrial activities (e.g., Tell Brak, Syria) result in a diverse range of deposits associated with ditches, pits, latrines, structures, and demolition debris (Matthews, 2003). Nevertheless, these procedures are particularly successful for a range of common depositional environments and their sedimentary deposits.
Particle size and geochemical analyses, in particular, are two key approaches used to characterize stratigraphy in terms of not only formation processes but also past social and economic activities. Both techniques define the geological source of the sediments and soils examined, and hence susceptibility to weathering and erosion of parent material, and resultant mineral grain size (sand, silt, and clay) and elemental composition. Economically, these characteristics help to define the agricultural potential of soils, especially their cropping capability, drainage, level of biological activity, and nutrient status, as well as the management history of the soil profile (e.g., manuring regimes) and finally the sustainability of the farming system. For example, sandy soils (silica-rich rocks) with a low pH (acid) have less agricultural potential, especially for the growth of crops, than alkaline soils, derived from calcium carbonate-rich rocks, which have a higher pH (e.g., Gale and Hoare, 1991). For example, the study of ancient agricultural terraces in the Peruvian Andes using these methods has enhanced understanding of soil quality, manuring regimes, and nutrient status (e.g., Kemp et al., 2006). Phosphorus is a key elemental indicator, and enhanced values in soils (by absorption) on habitation sites suggest waste materials associated with human and animal activities (e.g., Parnell et al., 2002). The analysis of soils and sediments in thin section (micromorphology) permits examination of microscopic characteristics, especially minerals and inclusions, and is especially important for identifying human modification of soil sequences (e.g., manuring), use of space (e.g., stabling, flooring), and the inclusion of materials into cultural units (e.g., bedding, feces, fodder, charcoal, ash, plant material). Geoarchaeologists also utilize the magnetic susceptibility of soils and sediments to test for burning, the addition of heated materials, and the natural weathering of soils. It plays a useful role, therefore, in the detection of activity areas on habitation sites, as well as identifying erosional events in the catchment areas of lakes (see Thompson and Oldfield, 1986; Dearing, 1999).
Zooarchaeology, and the zooarchaeologist or archaeozoologist, has a central focus on human subsistence of both wild and domesticated animals (paleoeconomy), but also broader environmental reconstruction (paleoenvironment), such as changes in climate and vegetation cover (see Zooarchaeology). The goal, therefore, is to enhance knowledge of the impact of humans on the natural environment, and the effects of natural environmental changes on humans, including the economy, diet, and daily life of human communities. This requires the use of a range of analytical methods, and the application of experimental and ethnographic data, to obtain independent lines of complementary scientific evidence from both archaeological and geological archives, and their sedimentary deposits.
The most common vertebrate remains found within archaeological and geological archives are bones (e.g., fish, small and large mammals). They can be identified to ascertain the genus or species, wild or domesticated, the type of bone (e.g., femur), and the sex and age of the animal. These data permit understanding of human economy and diet, in particular hunting and husbandry practices, pathologies, and enable reconstruction of past environments. In addition to the quantitative methods, such as bone measurement and weight, measurements of stable carbon (d13C&) and nitrogen (d15N&) isotope ratios of collagen, lipids, and cholesterol in human bone and tissue have improved understanding of the importance of terrestrial and marine food, the use of exotic food, and changing dietary patterns. In addition, analyses of oxygen isotopes (d180) in animal bone phosphate that correspond to local meteoric water values (drinking water of the animals) and mean annual air temperature have provided quantitative reconstructions of past climatic regimes.
Mollusca preserved on land (e.g., soil and mires), and in freshwater (e.g., lakes), brackish water (e.g., high salt marsh), and marine (e.g., estuaries) sediments provide three categories of information useful to environmental archaeology: (1) broad paleoenvironmental reconstruction, (2) human impact on the natural environment, and (3) human economy and diet, which is mainly (but not exclusively) confined to shellfish. For example, in the UK, hillslope sediment (e.g., Bell, 1983) and calcium carbonate-rich sediment (spring chalk) has provided rich sources of information on past human environments. The exploitation of marine mollusks has provided valuable information on subsistence practices, including diet, seasonality, technological developments, and trade (e.g., Rick and Erlandson, 2000; Mannino and Thomas, 2001; Cabral and da Silva, 2003). For example, at Ysterfontein (South Africa), a coastal cliff shelter, evidence has been provided for the exploitation of shellfish, including black mussel and granite limpet, as well as tortoise, cape dune molerat, and jackass penguin among many other animals, enabling the reconstruction of human exploitation strategies and population levels during the Middle Stone Age (c.60–40 000 years ago) (Halkett et al., 2003). Insect remains provide unique paleoclimatic records using the mutual climatic range method (Atkinson et al., 1986; Hellqvist and Lemdahl, 1996), as well as information on human and animal diet, the function of archaeological features, the condition of human and animal mummified remains, and the contents of offerings (e.g., Panagiotakopulu, 2001). For example, insects associated with urban archaeological deposits in York (UK) have provided precise data on local environmental living conditions and human activities. Investigators established six main groups of insects that commonly co-occurred in specific contexts in the past: (1) inside buildings and dry (‘house fauna’), such as dry plant debris, wood borers, the human flea, and stored products; (2) foul decaying organic matter, rich in ammonia, commonly found in stable manure; (3) foul decaying organic matter, associated with moist ground; (4) very foul conditions; (5) cesspits; and (6) wool cleanings. These groups also highlighted the complex interpretational problems associated with single archaeological layers (e.g., floors) containing insect assemblages from several habitats, reflecting a range of human activities (e.g., Carrott and Kenward, 2001).
Several lesser groups of zooarchaeological remains are worthy of note. Ostracoda (aquatic invertebrates), like diatoms (below), are highly sensitive to changes in salinity with three main assemblages identifiable: freshwater (<0.5&; lakes, rivers, and ponds), brackish water (0.5–30&; lagoons and salt marshes), and marine (30–40&; oceans and seas), as well as rainfall, temperature, and alkalinity. They are valuable in archaeology as indicators of changing coastline morphology and the height of relative sea level. Foraminifera are unicellular organisms with a well-known ecology. Different species occupy niches in marine environments according to food availability, levels of predation, type of sediment, light penetration, water temperature, and salinity, and thus are useful indicators of changes in water depth, salinity, and climate in coastal environments. Cladocera are microscopic animals (arthropods) with an ecology divided into two broad groups based upon their ecological preferences: (1) offshore planktonic species and (2) inshore littoral species. They are useful for reconstructing temperature and precipitation, and erosion due to human activity (e.g., Jeppesen et al., 2001). The application of Cladocera analysis to environmental archaeology is still in its infancy, but the technique clearly has enormous potential. For example, analyses of Cladocera from 26 lakes in Poland, and one in Croatia, have enabled reconstruction of climate change, lake level oscillations, nutrient status, and chemistry. It was concluded that lake water nutrient levels increased during phases of human settlement due to the deposition of refuse into the lake (Szeroczynska, 2002).
Archaeobotany, and the archaeobotanist, also focuses on human economy and diet, but also environmental change. The most common plant remains found on archaeological sites are seeds that have been charred (exposure to heat, e.g., hearth) or waterlogged (exposure to excess moisture, e.g., ditch, moat, well), and to a lesser extent mineralized (replacement by salts, e.g., cesspits), desiccated (exposure to extreme aridity), or preserved as pottery impressions. For example, Old World cereal grains (e.g., species of wheat and barley) might be found with charred or mineralized parts of the plant, such as straw. In geological archives, seeds are mainly preserved in a waterlogged state (e.g., lake sediments, peat). For example, remains found in peat indicate plants growing on the surface of the peat, while those found in lakes represent plants found within the wider landscape and the lake margin, and may provide valuable information on climate change or vegetation history. In contrast, remains found in archaeological archives provide essential information on the economy, diet, and daily life of the site’s occupants, irrespective of whether they are hunters and gatherers or from agricultural communities. In the case of the latter, paleoeconomic, experimental, and ethnographic studies of Old World charred cereals and their associated components have made significant contributions to our understanding of the origin, spread, distribution, methods of cultivation, and processing techniques of these important food resources (e.g., Weiss and Kislev, 2004). Waterlogged seeds from archaeological deposits provide useful information on local flora, presence of standing water, animal husbandry, and the presence of cultivation (e.g., Ponel et al., 2000). For example, several lake-village sites in France and Switzerland have provided evidence for transportation to the site of plants exploited by humans for animal fodder, human food, and building materials (e.g., Rasmussen, 1993).
Palynology, the analysis of pollen grains and spores, is a widely used technique in environmental archaeology and provides valuable information on vegetation composition, structure and succession, plant migration, climate change, human modification of natural vegetation cover, and land use. They are highly resistant to decay and optimal conditions occur in acidic (low levels of microbial activity) or anaerobic (oxygen free), waterlogged archives, although pollen is also preserved in dry conditions, such as whole, desiccated coprolites (feces), and cave sediments. Identifying human impact is a key application of pollen analysis and requires the recognition of indicator species or groups of particular forms of land use, such as cultivation, pasture, and meadow, as well as deforestation and woodland management. For example, records showing a decline in tree pollen values or individual tree taxa, the presence of certain ruderal weed species strongly associated with cultivation or pastoralism, cultivated species of crops and taxa indicated managed woodland indicate a transition to agriculture, or the intensification of agriculture, in many world regions (Branch et al., 2005).
The presence of microscopic charred particles in archaeological and geological archives often complements pollen studies and provides useful information on natural wildfires (including climate history), human-induced woodland clearance, agricultural practices, and woodland management. For example, investigations of peat and lake sediments have frequently provided a rich source of information on human-induced woodland disturbance caused by burning (e.g., Moore, 2000). At North Gill, Yorkshire (UK), radiocarbon-dated fine pollen analysis combined with plant macrofossil and charred particle analysis has provided detailed information on woodland clearance (Innes and Blackford, 2003). Combined with fungal spore analysis, especially taxa that grow on the feces of domesticated animals (Sporormiella, Cercophora, Coniochaeta, and Chaetomium), the data have provided unequivocal evidence for linkages between woodland disturbance and forest grazing (Innes and Blackford, 2003). Macroscopic wood preserved by waterlogged conditions or burning is also often found in both archives, and provides primary data on woodland composition, and hence vegetation history, woodland management, agricultural practices (e.g., cultivation of plants for fodder and bedding for animals), woodland exploitation for domestic fires (fuel), and material culture (wooden artifacts) (e.g., Asouti, 2003).
Two further key categories of archaeobotanical remains epitomize the diverse range of methods available. Diatoms are unicellular algae with different species occupying the bottom of (benthic), or floating within (planktonic), water bodies. Preservation occurs in a wide range of archives of environmental archaeological interest, including lakes, alluvium, salt marshes, and ditches, and indicative of a variety of past environmental conditions (e.g., marine, brackish, or freshwater) that reflects prevailing temperature, salinity, pH, oxygen, and mineral content. For example, diatoms in lake sediments have provided valuable records of accelerated erosion due to deforestation during the last 6000 years, which in turn has caused changes in lake trophic (nutrient) status. Deep alluvial sequences in lowland river valleys (e.g., Lower Thames, UK) have also recorded changes in diatom assemblages due to fluctuations in the height of relative sea level during the Holocene (e.g., Battarbee, 1988). Finally, phytoliths are opaline silica bodies produced by plant cells and preserved in several archaeological archives, namely hearths and the sediment fills of caves, pits, and coprolites. Phytoliths may provide valuable information on past vegetation cover (e.g., the presence of meadow and pasture), the cultivation of crops (e.g., maize), and the presence of herbivores (e.g., within dung). For example, one of the most detailed recent studies of phytoliths has been concerned with the history of maize (Zea mays) domestication and cultivation in the New World, and especially extending the known range of prehistoric cultivation into southern parts of South America, e.g., southeastern Uruguay (Iriate, 2003).
To enable comparison of environmental archaeological data within and between archaeological and geological archives requires the application of dating methods that aim to provide both accurate and precise ages for the stratigraphy recorded, as well as establishing the duration of an event. By applying the universal law of superposition (a unit overlying another must have formed later), the relative chronology is often understood. Perhaps the most important of the so-called absolute chronology (precise age or date) techniques is radiocarbon dating (14C; radiometric and accelerator mass spectrometry), but also optically stimulated luminescence, thermoluminescence, electron spin resonance, uranium– thorium (234U/230Th) and lead 210 (210Pb) dating have all provided important chronological frameworks for environmental archaeological evidence (e.g., Aitkin, 1990).
Environmental Archaeology Research Themes
There are numerous excellent examples of where environmental archaeology has been enlightening, and readers are directed to the following key journals: Environmental Archaeology, Journal of Archaeological Science, Geoarchaeology, Vegetation History and Archaeobotany, The Holocene, and the following sample textbooks: Butzer, 1982; Branch et al., 2005. Case studies cover a broad range of themes and geographical areas, over a variety of spatial (local to global) and temporal scales, from the short term (<100 years) to the long term (>10 000 years). Collectively, site-specific data contribute to greater regional understanding, and occasionally, individual records provide something of unique, international importance. For example, peat cutting for fuel and horticulture has uncovered human bodies remarkably well preserved in the anaerobic, waterlogged conditions. These bodies provide a valuable insight into the daily lives of people in the past, and especially their diet, health, nutrition, and cause of death (see Stead et al., 1986). Data have emerged from geological archives that highlight the influence of climatic events over the past 10 000 years on socioeconomic developments in the Mediterranean (e.g., Drescher-Schneider et al., 2007; Berger and Guilaine, 2009; Mercuri et al., 2011), North and South America (e.g., deMenocal, 2001) and West Asia (e.g., Mithen and Black, 2011). For example, in northern Italy, climate change is considered to be a possible cause for initiation of terrace agriculture c.4200 years ago (Branch, 2013), while in northern Britain climate change may have caused the collapse of agricultural practices during the Bronze Age (Tipping et al., 2008). This theme, in particular, epitomizes one of the major ongoing challenges for environmental archaeology, namely understanding past human resilience and adaptation in the face of climate and environmental change.
A further illustration of a significant, long-term theme is the global origins and spread of agriculture (Thorpe, 1996; Harris, 2010). Environmental archaeological studies over several decades have demonstrated the existence of multiple centers of plant and animal domestication. While the timing of the transition to farming varied considerably, there is nonetheless unequivocal evidence in each location for morphological and genetic alteration of many of the food staples that remain important today (see Chronology, Stratigraphy, and Dating Methods in Archaeology). For example, the broad timing of plant domestication in West Asia (e.g., wheat, barley, rye, lentils, and peas) and Southeast Asia (e.g., millet and rice) was 10 000 years ago (Kya), while in Australasia (e.g., yam and banana) and North Africa (e.g., millet and sorghum) it was 7Kya and 4–3Kya respectively. In North America (e.g., squash and sunflower) it was 5Kya, Mesoamerica (e.g., squash and maize) 10–8Kya, and South America (e.g., squash, arrowroot, yam, cotton, sweet potato, beans, peanut, manioc, chili pepper, potato, and quinoa) 10–5Kya. The subsequent spread of agriculture across these geographical areas, traced by environmental archaeological data, has quantified the magnitude of impact on the natural environment, especially the creation of new ecosystems, due in many respects to increased human population levels and technological developments. This resulted, directly and indirectly, in animal extinctions, deforestation, soil degradation and erosion, afforestation, and the formation of mires, grasslands, and shrublands (heathlands and moorlands).
In Western Asia, arguably the most intensively studied region, agricultural origins have been linked to both climate change at the transition from the last glaciation to the present interglacial (Holocene), and a continuum of human interaction with plants and animals. In many areas, significant landscape modification accompanied the transition to farming, including woodland clearance and water management systems. During the subsequent spread of agriculture across Europe over 6000 years, woodland clearance became increasingly apparent, complementing evidence for woodland exploitation for fuel, fodder, bedding, and construction. Although many records suggest that clearance was temporary (‘shifting cultivation’), which permitted the woodland to recover, the general trend was progressive deforestation of mature coniferous (e.g., fir) and/or deciduous (e.g., elm, lime, oak) woodland, and the introduction of field systems and in some areas agricultural terracing. For example, the so-called ‘elm (Ulmus) decline,’ and later ‘lime (Tilia) decline,’ were two events linked to woodland clearance (e.g., ‘slash and burn’), for both cereal cultivation and the harvesting of leaves, bark, and twigs for fodder and bedding. Both were part of a mixed economy involving animal husbandry and cultivation, and possible woodland management (pollarding). The subsequent development of grasslands and shrublands illustrate the long-term effects of degradation due to intensive and extensive human activities, with the development of Northern European heathlands, Mediterranean macchia/maquis, and lowland temperate grassland. The African savannah, American prairies, and Asiatic steppe have similarly been cited as plagioclimax communities (created and maintained by human activities) whose origins relate to sustained human intervention and management for many millennia.
The widespread impact of agriculture, in terms of environmental degradation, landscape modification, and societal resilience, therefore, remains a key global theme. In South America, for example, evidence for landscape modification is epitomized by the development of raised fields and terracing, with an estimated 1 000 000 ha of terracing in Peru alone (see Branch et al., 2007). Terracing transformed the morphology of the landscape while also creating the basis for a highly innovative and sustainable agricultural system that primarily permitted the cultivation of maize and quinoa. Studies have permitted detailed investigations of the terrace structural organization and development, especially their irrigation and drainage. This work has revealed multiple phases of terrace construction during later prehistory, with evidence for possible soil enrichment through manuring and/or fallow periods, and localized landscape erosion triggered by the construction activities. Interestingly, there is evidence in several parts of Peru for the abandonment of terraces, such as those of the Wari civilization (AD 500–1000), and their subsequent reconstruction prior to the Colonial Period (AD 1533). While the persistence of terrace agriculture confirms the importance of terraces in the agricultural system, the precise reason for their unsustainability remains unclear. In contrast, in Mesoamerica, the collapse of agriculturally intensive practices of raised field agriculture and terracing due to nutrient depletion and soil erosion has been strongly associated with the demise of the Maya civilization (Branch et al., 2005).
In summary, future environmental archaeological research will, therefore, focus on major methodological developments and key themes of regional and global significance. A primary research area will be improvements to the precision of key dating methods; this will ensure a better understanding of the timing and duration of major cultural and environmental changes, and will be crucial if we are to explain whether natural environmental change, such as climatic oscillations, caused social and economic change in the past, or if this was triggered by purely cultural factors. The origins and spread of agriculture, and the environmental impact of agriculture, will also continue to be major research areas, as will changing human diet, nutrition, and health; these linked themes permit better understanding of past food security, and the sustainability and resilience of societies in a changing world, which will be pertinent to present day concerns and debates surrounding global climate and environmental change.
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