Saturday, 11 October 2014

The interdisciplinary continuum in studies of Humanity and the Earth

Sometimes I find it hard to put myself into a subject area box. I was a Geography undergraduate, a Geoarchaeology MSc student, and did a PhD jointly in Chemistry and Archaeology. What does that make me? I used to say I was a geoarchaeologist, applying the methods of geoscience to archaeological questions. But I realised that was too narrow, as even the methods I draw upon vary depending on the question being asked, and indeed a multi-proxy approach is something which I try  to promote. My main research interests are the relationships between humans and the environment, how this has changed over time, and how it varies in different geographic settings. Very much a theme of environmental archaeology, but also geography.

Geography has been called the subject that bridges the human and physical sciences, encompassing the Earth and all of its natural and human components, and the dynamic relationship between the two. Physical geography seeks to describe and explain the spheres of the Earth - the lithosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, atmosphere. It is closely linked with other geosciences such as geology, which inform specific aspects of these 'spheres'. Human geography is concerned with the people, and investigates the processes that shape human society - social, political, cultural, economic. The two are distinct, yet inextricably linked, and in theory the two parts of the discipline are complimentary and inform each other. Being at the interface of the two, an environmental geographer, is arguably the most exciting, but also the most challenging, not quite fitting in to a neat little box.

Anthropology too is the study of humans, both in the past and the present, drawing on physical and social sciences. In the UK it focuses on socio-cultural aspects, the customs, structures, relations, religions, but also the economic and political organisation to name a few. In the US it is divided into 4 parts (or sub-fields), cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, linguistic anthropology and archaeology. This 4 field approach encourages integrated approaches to the study of humans, from their biology to their cultures, with archaeology being the study of humans in the past. I like that the 4 field approach leans towards the interdisciplinary. I would take this further and say that we also need to look beyond the confines of these traditionally defined sub-disciplines, drawing on whichever subject areas can inform the research questions.

Archaeology in the UK is largely seen as a separate discipline to Anthropology. I think if we focus on the methods of archaeology, there is a case to be made for it being 'separate', and indeed this is the area where I had the most to learn when I shifted from being a geographer to being an environmental archaeologist. Approaching the archaeological record requires a different sort of approach to modern material culture and living humans. Its methods of data acquisition give nods to geoscience (stratigraphy, taphonomy and formation processes) and physical sciences (preservation, characterisation), yet are highly distinctive. The process of interpretation on the other hand requires an understanding (or appreciation!) of the complexity of human behaviour that draws on anthropology, and an awareness of our own theoretical biases which are rooted in philosophy.

So, how do we understand human-environment relationships in the past? What are these relationships? How have they changed over time? How do they vary in different environmental settings? We need the methods of geography, the methods of archaeology, informed by anthropology if we are to understand the complex human-environment dynamic. I examine anthropogenic sediments, and integrate analysis of microfossils with microstratigraphy and geochemistry (geoscience). I link this micro data back to excavation, macrofossils and artefacts (archaeology).  I try to make sense of what these linked data tell us about the people that produced these deposits, what activities they were engaged in, what and environments they inhabited and utilised. Sediments as material culture, and sediments as environmental archives.

So, what am I? An enviro-geo-archaeologist-geographer who dabbles in chemistry and philosophy? And you, reader, are you more easily defined?



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