Donnerstag, 6. April 2017

Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes

A weblog entry by Mari Yamasaki.

Between the 20th and 23rd of March, the beautiful city of Kiel (Fig. 1) served as the backdrop for the fifth international Open Workshop "Socio-Environmental Dynamics over the Last 12,000 Years: The Creation of Landscapes" organized by the Graduate School "Human Development in Landscapes" of Kiel University.

Figure 1: Sunset at Ratsdienergarten, Kiel (Photo by Mari Yamasaki).

The workshop hosted over two hundred papers divided into 18 sessions over 4 days, with participants coming from a variety of scientific backgrounds and from all over the globe in a truly interdisciplinary and international environment. In addition to the talks, there was a rich poster session in which the author participated with a poster titled "Coastal worlds in the Eastern Mediterranean Bronze Age" (Fig. 2). At any given moment, there were 6 to 9 sessions running in parallel and it is for this reason that, as much as I would have liked to, it was not possible to attend all the lectures and discussions. However, I shall at least try to provide a concise overview of the incredible work that was done during these days. 

Figure 2: The conference venue – main lecture hall, fields around the campus, posters (Photos by Mari Yamasaki).

Prof. Carole Crumley (Stockholm University) opened the workshop with thought-provoking questions: what is the contemporary role of the sciences that study the past, if there is any role left at all? What is in fact the purpose of studying the past? How can the past contribute to the current discourse in a way that it matters to the world we live in? In her engaging keynote lecture, Prof. Crumley proposed to try answering this question via a bottom-up approach, introducing the concept of Historical Ecology. The question, she said, should be formulated in terms of what we, as humans, need to save and send into the future, and of how the scientists – social and human – can inform the politics and the real world. In her words, Historical Ecology should be regarded as a "research framework for merging many kinds of evidence to reach new understanding of the human-environment relationship".

The usefulness of the study of the past and, particularly of the archaeological landscape, was addressed several times during the conference, under different points of view. The role of the landscape as lieux de mémoire was presented by Prof. Richard Bradley, University of Reading, in his talk "Commemoration and change: remembering what may not have happened". His talk highlighted the importance of monuments and landmarks as repositories of the collective past, whether real or - more often - imagined. The landscape was therefore presented as the privileged theatre for the display of cultural memory.

Another such example was Maria Wunderlich's (Kiel University) comparative study of prehistoric megalithic structures in northern Europe with the ethnological observation of contemporary megalith-building tribes in south-east Asia and India. In the latter instances, these were generally erected as a public reminder of the "good deeds" of an individual (or a family, or a clan) towards the community. She convincingly argued that the Europen prehistoric equivalents may have served a similar function.

Less theoretical and more practical were the Quantitative Analysis and Modelling in Archaeology sessions. The study of landscape was here addressed from a methodological point of view. Interesting ideas were especially presented in regards to new approaches in the understanding of the ancient settlement choices and population behaviour. Particularly interesting was the concept of fuzzification introduced by W. B. Hamer (Plans on agent based model approach on prehistoric scale, Hamer, W. B et al.). Introducing a fuzzification factor in agent-based modelling, means, for instance, to blur the lines of possibility in simulating past decision-making processes in settlement choice (e.g. when considering the factor of "steepness" in determining whether a location is suitable for settlement, instead of drawing a clear line between suitable and non-suitable, fuzzification allows to blend this border into a grey area which, to put it simply, is far from ideal, but still acceptable). Fuzziness can be applied to a variety of situations. The pole dwellings of the Alpine lakes, for instance, are an example of terrains that would be theoretically unsuitable for permanent settlement as the muddy shores are subject to frequent seasonal inundation. However, although such locations resulted "far from ideal", they were still "good enough" for the prehistoric builders, probably thanks to the excellent access to the lacustrine resources.

Moving on to lakescapes and seascapes, a great wealth of field projects were presented during the relevant session, mostly focusing on the lake dwellings along the shores of Lake Constance, some on the great riverine-lacustrine systems of central Europe, with a focus on the role of the Danube as a main communication artery. My very personal and somewhat biased note concerning this - otherwise very interesting - session is that the complex seascapes of the Mediterranean area were heavily underrepresented, and it could have been interesting to compare the methodologies applied in such different geographical areas.

In conclusion, this event, with its great variety of topics and approaches, was a great source of inspiration for future work. Furthermore, it was a chance to stop and ponder over the reasons why the study of the past and the understanding of the ancient landscapes are of utmost importance for the humanity of the future.

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