Archaeology has no relevance….

Archaeologists are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate that their work has impact beyond the discipline. This has prompted some archaeologists — and in particular, environmental archaeologists and palaeoecologists — to argue that an understanding of past environmental changes is essential to model future outcomes in areas such as climate change, land cover change, soil health and food security. However, few archaeological studies have explored how to put research results into practice. 

Film showing the historic intensive agricultural system at Engaruka, Tanzania.

The EU-funded Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa (AAREA) project ran from 2014–2018 with the aim of looking at the long-term sustainability of two east African agricultural systems (Engaruka in Tanzania and Konso in Ethiopia). This was undertaken through a combination of archaeological, geoarchaeological, archaeobotanical and modelling techniques with the aim of providing a frank and realistic appraisal of the role archaeology can play in sustainability debates worldwide. The findings on the applicability of archaeological research were published through the generous funding from the NHSF Gold Open Access grant in Internet Archaeology in the article ‘Archaeology has no relevance’.

Figure 1 Konso terraces (1)Archaeological investigation of historic terracing in Konso, Ethiopia reveals the importance of valley-bottom sediment traps (Image: C. Ferro-Vázquez, et al. Journal of Environmental Management 202 (3): 500-513).

Admittedly, the title of the article might seem to imply our findings indicated that archaeology doesn’t have a role to play in the global conversation about sustainability, whilst in fact, the insights we gained showed that it was far more complicated than this. Archaeological results were not particularly relevant to policy-makers and NGOs in their raw state, or even in the form of a written-up scientific article, but the insights gained were of interest. In order to progress from, “Oh, that’s interesting” to the point where the insights can be used, a different way of working is needed. A way that is transdisciplinary and requires the ‘flow of knowledge’ to go in every direction, this may ultimately produce changes in the way we work, the methods we use, and the questions we ask. Enacting this way of working was beyond the limits of the AAREA project, but since the publication of ‘Archaeology has no relevance’ a new project, SOIL-SAFE, has been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts and Humanities Research Council to allow us to develop this idea.

Figure 2 Policy brief image Policy brief exploring the potential role of sediment traps can play in soil conservation practices.

Using one of the original case study areas (Konso, Ethiopia), SOIL-SAFE will build on the relationships created during the AAREA project. It will bring together those working in archaeology, ethnobotany, development studies, NGOs and those who live and work in the landscape to co-create a method with archaeological insights embedded from the beginning. Knowing how an agricultural system was built and operated over time is clearly relevant to an understanding of its current sustainability, but discussions of future sustainability must include everyone that is invested in this future. As archaeologists we can tell people what happened in the past, but the relevance of this information can only be determined through open conservation with the people that may choose to apply it. 

 

The paper ‘Archaeology has no relevance’ is co-authored by Suzi Richer, formerly with National Trust, and Daryl Stump and Rob Marchant of the University of York.