ASA09: Anthropological and archaeological imaginations: past, present and future
Bristol, UK

Seascape: anthropological and archaeological approaches to the human habitation of the sea
Location Wills G27
Date and Time 8th April, 2009 at 09:00


Penny McCall Howard (Maritime Union of Australia)
Caroline Wickham-Jones (University of Aberdeen)
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Short Abstract

This panel is broken into 3 sessions which will discuss, first, modes of human habitation of seascapes, second, communication in and across seascapes, and finally, the continuities between landscapes and seascapes. Each session will include two archaeologists and two anthropologists who will consider how we understand the human seascape and what contribution new seascape research can make to existing landscape studies.

Long Abstract

This panel will examine anthropological and archaeological approaches to the study of human relations with the sea. We use 'seascape' as a holistic term to describe the depth and complexity of human relations with the sea, the modes of human habitation of the sea, the importance of the sea to maintaining livelihoods, and the connections between land and sea. Recent archaeology has highlighted seascape as a resource locus as well as a formative influence on identity, sense of place, and life history (see World Archaeology, Vol 35(3)). 'Seascape' has also been invoked to invert traditional land-centred views in archaeological interpretation. Yet anthropologists have still to make a significant contribution to seascape research despite the recent fluorescence of anthropological writings about landscape and human-environment relations.

We welcome both ethnographic and archaeological submissions, particularly those which contextualise research with reflections on historical and theoretical approaches to understanding human relations with the sea. Such studies are an opportunity to respond to increasing public concern about the crisis of ocean sustainability, and contribute to a fuller understanding of human relationships with their environments and how these have changed over time.

The panel will attempt to synthesise the results of new seascape research and to reflect on questions of mutual interest (or conflict) for anthropologists and archaeologists. While we recognise a danger in isolating research on land and at sea, we believe that seascape research has been neglected yet can contribute to anthropological and archaeological understandings of place-making, movement, environmental perception, livelihoods, technology and habitation.

Discussant: Tim Ingold and Arnar Arnason

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


'Working the ground': a labour-centred approach to seascape

Author: Penny McCall Howard (Maritime Union of Australia)


In much of the world, the sea is either regarded as a wilderness needing protection, or as a purely instrumental location for resource extraction. Marine 'sanctuaries' and 'coastal zone planning' are becoming more common, and at the same time offshore oil and gas extraction, cargo shipping, energy generation, waste dumps, fish farming, and fishing have vastly increased.

What neither of these perspectives acknowledge is the sea as a place of human habitation; we hope to recover the perspectives of those who spend their lives living and working at sea through an investigation of 'seascape'. Based on ethnographic research conducted in north-west Scotland, this paper will examine the potential contributions that seascape research can make to the understanding of human-environment relations. I argue that human-environment relations at sea are not significantly different from those on land, but particular aspects of those relations are more visible at sea and can be highlighted through seascape research.

Seascape research can contribute to an understanding of the formation and transformation of significant places at sea, which is of public policy import. Seascape research highlights the working relationships between humans and the tools and machines they use at sea. Seascape research also requires an attention to the alternative sensory modalities necessary to understand, imagine and interpret large areas people may have no direct contact with. Overall, I argue for an approach to seascape centred on the human labour that draws people, environments, and machines into intimate but often tense working relations.

Seascapes and archaeology: the evidence

Author: Caroline Wickham-Jones (University of Aberdeen)


Human interaction with the sea includes not only present interaction, such as academic study (eg: anthropology and archaeology), but also past activity.

This paper will start with a critical analysis of the evidence available to the archaeologist. This ranges from physical: site location and type; distribution of raw materials; actual boats or harbours, to conceptual: images and graffiti. There is information from related disciplines like geomorphology as coasts, and thus seascapes, have evolved. Finally there is written and oral information: weather reports, merchant records, diaries and stories, accounts of fishing hands.

Secondly a case study carried out around the waters and islands of north-west Scotland will be presented. Scotland's First Settlers, took place across the Inner Sound and included archaeological work on the Island of Skye, the Scottish Mainland and the islands between (Hardy & Wickham-Jones forthcoming). For the people of prehistory the sea could bind as well as separate.

Thirdly, consideration will be given to the way in which the nature of any seascape may be perceived differently. Within any time slice differing perceptions exist and over time these become focussed and pigeon-holed. The archipelago of Orkney provides a good example. Through time the seas here have been regarded as a food resource, place of battle or defence, means of transport, and a leisure site; sometimes all at one time.

Hardy K & Wickham-Jones CR forthcoming Mesolithic and later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland: the work of the Scotland's First Settlers project 1998-2004. Scottish Archaeological Internet Report.

"Take care lad... it's ganka weather!" - the role of an ambiguous Bass Strait sea-monster in socialising seascapes and landscapes

Author: Tanya King (Deakin University)


The commercial shark fishermen of Bass Strait, Australia, share their seascape with a creature called the ganka which, according to experienced seafarers, is prone to eating the gumboots of inexperienced deckhands during their first night alone 'on watch'. Though unknown to marine scientists the ganka plays a vital role in socialising those who transition between land and sea, guiding initiate crew members onto the appropriate rung of the hierarchy. Indeed, the ganka is a manifestation of the ambiguous nature of life at sea and the inadequacy of considering human and natural worlds exclusively. As Ingold (1992:40) suggests, they are mutually enabling.

Gankas are ambiguous creatures: they straddle reality and myth; they live in air and water, on islands, boats and in the sea; they eat the 'inedible'. However, they never venture to the mainland. The 'existence' of gankas in Bass Strait is dependent upon the performances of those who fish this particular region. Without the relationships among fishermen - one in which deckhands are sometimes the butt of elaborate jokes - ganka populations would dwindle to extinction. While gankas only exist in seascapes they straddle the boundary between social and natural environments, thus facilitating a path for fishermen as they move between the social domains of land and sea.

To understand the seascapes in which people dwell we must be mindful of the ambiguity of the division between land and sea and recognise both connections and divisions between these socialised domains. This paper uses the ganka to explore these ambiguous relationships.

Somewhere beyond the sea: modelling contact across the Irish Sea in the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic

Authors: Vicki Cummings (UCLan)
Gary Robinson (Bangor University)


Traditional considerations of interactions across the Irish Sea in early prehistory suggest that people were not in contact in the late Mesolithic, evidenced by different lithic styles in Britain and Ireland. By the early Neolithic, however, there is clear evidence of contact, with shared monument forms and material culture, and the movement of specific resources across the sea. In this paper we want to critically reconsider this approach to the late Mesolithic and early Neolithic, and instead emphasise the experience of living in this particular part of the world. We will discuss new fieldwork being conducted in Kintyre, the closest point between Britain and Ireland, and suggest some alternatives to the traditional interpretation of contact at this time. In particular we will highlight how the sea should not be considered as separate from the landscapes either side of it, and that it enabled contact instead of restricting it. We want to think critically about what 'contact' may have involved, using our own experiences of working in Kintyre as a starting point. We will suggest how and where people may have moved across the sea at this time, and identify how this can be demonstrated through targeted archaeological fieldwork. We also wish to discuss the idea that people expressed their identities in different ways. We hope this mixture of more nuanced theoretical approaches to landscape and seascape, in combination with new archaeological fieldwork, can offer some new ways of thinking about the land and sea and contact at this time.

Places and practices on the prehistoric Scillonian seacape

Author: Gary Robinson (Bangor University)


In the last 20 years landscape archaeology in Britain has developed in many directions, providing increasingly sophisticated understandings of prehistoric people's sense of place. Such studies have however, predominately focussed on inland landscapes, ignoring the significance of the sea for people in prehistory and its influence upon the formation of social identity.

In this paper I will demonstrate how a consideration of the social construction of prehistoric seascapes is central to an understanding of the archaeological record of island and coastal communities in British Prehistory. Using data from the Isles of Scilly and West Penwith in south-west Britain, this theme will be explored through a detailed examination of Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age chambered cairns. The social and symbolic meanings of these monuments will be investigated through an examination of their distribution, configuration and relationship to marine and terrestrial topography. It will be shown that these monuments are intimately linked with their island environment and that through their construction; experience of the later prehistoric landscape and seascape was manipulated and transformed. I will argue that the seascape was not merely a neutral backdrop for human action but was an active medium through which prehistoric communities lived, experienced and ordered their world.

Wayfinding, following and learning: navigating the frozen seascape in East Greenland

Author: Sophie Elixhauser (University of Augsburg)


This presentation will show how wayfinding is related to learning, following and non-verbal communication among Inuit boat drivers and passengers in and across the frozen seascape of the Ammassalik region, East Greenland. It draws on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Sermiligaaq and Tasiilaq (2005-07).

Ammassalik people inhabit a sparsely populated fjord system on the east coast of Greenland. During many months of year they are surrounded by frozen or partly-frozen waters. Ice is a constant topic of conversation and observation. The inhabitants frequently travel on and through the ice in order to visit relatives and friends or the hospital in Tasiilaq, or to go fishing and hunting. Travelling is highly valued, although not all inhabitants move about as regularly as in the past. To do this, they use a variety of means of transport, of which I focus only on the boat. Travel routes and orientation are recurrent themes of communication, not only among boat drivers and passengers but also with other East Greenlanders encountered along the way. Here, gestures and other modalities of non-verbal communication are prominent. Wayfinding during boat travel requires much skill and experience. In difficult ice conditions, when boats meet on their way they usually try to stay together and follow the most experienced driver. The paper will argue that following is key to the processes of learning and communication involved in finding a way through ice-covered waters. These practices contribute to the emergence of the East Greenlandic seascape.

Creolised seascapes: Afro-Caribbean maritime culture

Author: Patrick Dresch


This paper looks at the archaeological potential of the African-Diaspora Caribbean in a maritime context. The region includes over 7,000 islands and maritime culture has been essential in its development both economically and with the creation of a pan-Caribbean African identity.

Much of the archaeological work done in the Caribbean has focused on the extremes of society, from colonial urban settlements such as Port Royal in Jamaica (Zahedieh, 1986; Thornton, 1992; Johnson, 2000), to plantation sites (Orser, 1988; Singleton, 2001; Hicks, 2007). These studies have largely focused on understanding the region in terms of its economic development from either a mercantile or slave labour perspective.

Seascapes involve more than simply looking at trans-Atlantic shipping in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perceptions of the sea and the maintenance of African traditions and beliefs should also be considered. We must also considered how this is reflected in the ways in which island communities made use of maritime resources, including activities taking place at a local level and the material culture they produced. Maritime culture is then looked at on the larger scale of inter-island trading and its influence on both black seamen and the development of the Caribbean as a whole.

Maritime traditions in the Caribbean have not simply been transposed from either Africa or Europe. Instead we are forced to try to disentangle a number of influences that have come together in a process of creolisation. As such, this subject can be used to examine the broader question of culture genesis.

Drawing gestures: body movement in perceiving and communicating the underwater landscape

Author: Cristián Simonetti (Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile)


Underwater archaeology is a very interesting case for studying perception and communication in situ, especially considering the characteristics and limitations of the work, which is related to a field under the water. This medium puts several limitations both on visual perception and interaction. As a result underwater archaeologists (U.A.) rely mainly on communication on the surface to share relevant knowledge and accomplish their work. Interestingly, they manage to do so always diving in pairs silently, therefore never having all together "the landscape in sight". This brings several questions about how U.A. are able to reenact the landscape in its temporal dimension and how are they able to communicate knowledge about it.

This paper presents ethnographic work with a team of Chilean U.A. Audio-video data is analyzed with a special focus on meaningful interactions. I show how archaeologists rely, most of the time, on gestures to communicate about the underwater landscape. Challenging mainstream research on gesture, I argue that U.A. do not convey mental, self-contained representations but open movements that are part and parcel the constant flow of their thoughts. As they perceive the underwater landscape from a limited perspective they draw it gesturally for others, once they have resurfaced. This invites us to understand thinking as embodied movement, and to draw attention to the open-ended, emerging and dynamic side of gesture. I argue that this approach contrasts fully with the well-established representational notion of cognition, which is inadequate to provide and account of how U.A. work.

Moving beyond the 'scape' to being in the (watery) world, wherever

Authors: Hannah Cobb (University of Manchester)
Jesse Ransley (University of Southampton)


In seeking to replace traditional, stilted 'land vs water' views of the world with a more seamless perspective, the seascape is undoubtedly a useful heuristic concept. It moves us closer to addressing the fluid relationship that those who live and work on and around any body of water experience in reality. However in this paper we argue against the continued juxtaposition of land and sea in the development of the concept through the binary notions of landscape and seascape. Instead, drawing upon two very diverse, archaeological and anthropological examples, from the backwaters of present day Kerala, southern India, and from the island archipelagos of Mesolithic western Scotland, we propose a move away from the modern, Western need to atomise and categorise people's experience of the world as existing in a landscape or a seascape. Instead, through these examples, we demonstrate how in daily life, in being in the world, land and sea are always intermingled and always connected in a way that defies the simple realm of one 'scape' or the other.

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Seascapes of the far, far, far… West, technologies of seamanship and environmental modification

Author: César Enrique Giraldo Herrera (University of Oxford)


The south-western littoral of Colombia is a dynamic labyrinth, an extended alluvial plain of movable sandy keys and slow-growing mangrove estuaries dominated by moderate tides and soft winds. Since the Conquest this environment has been perceived by travellers, colonists and developers as a rich but hostile and wild periphery, a formidable barrier to contact, transport and overall progress. However, thanks to their skills of seamanship, local inhabitants have been able to move around in this environment with ease and efficiency, using watercraft that to outsiders seem fragile and vulnerable, but which are in fact highly versatile. Thanks to the mobility afforded by these craft, they have been able to form dense networks of interconnection, and to retain a measure of autonomy in the face of the potentially exploitative pressures of externally instigated development. Indeed the intricate and largely uncharted history of the region is characterized by a multiplicity of inter-ethnic contacts and intermixtures, local marooning and innovative smuggling; the dynamics of a crossroads rather than a periphery. At these crossroads, landscape and seascape merge to constitute a single extended field.

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Investigating the submerged prehistory of Europe: ethnographic methods

Authors: Jonathan Benjamin (University of Edinburgh)
Catriona Pickard (University of Edinburgh)


Through the investigation of historically documented and modern accounts of human interaction with the sea, this paper aims to expand upon existing models for the discovery, exploration and interpretation of prehistoric archaeological landscapes.

The importance of coastal regions to hunter-gatherer and early agricultural populations in Europe is well established. As a consequence of post-glacial sea-level rise much of the coastal archaeology of Early Holocene Europe is now submerged. The archaeological potential of submerged sites has been amply demonstrated by underwater survey and excavation in Scandinavia. Despite the wealth of evidence recovered from such sites, a concerted effort for the discovery of prehistoric material through underwater methodology has not been widely practiced in other regions of Europe. In part, this is a reflection of the specific hydrological conditions prevailing in the southwest Baltic Sea but also results from the theoretical and practical issues surrounding underwater site discovery and excavation. A number of the submerged prehistoric sites investigated in Scandinavia were discovered through 'predictive modeling'. The potential locations of preserved archaeological remains were presupposed largely from the presence of submerged topographic features (including embayments, straits, inlets, islands, etc). The fundamental principles of predictive modeling can be applied internationally. However, detailed regional consideration of the economic strategies and social practices of historically documented and recent maritime groups may facilitate greater resolution in underwater site discovery. A revised theoretical model for the survey of submerged prehistoric sites, with a specific emphasis on its ethnographic components, is described in this paper.

Between land and sea: Kalaallit Inuit subsistence harvest on coastal sea ice in West Greenland

Author: Pelle Tejsner (Aarhus University)


Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Qeqertarsuaq (Good Harbour) in Disko Bay, West Greenland, this paper examines local subsistence activities and everyday use of annually reoccurring sea ice as a medium for human-environmental interactions and seasonally dependent harvesting practices. Kalaallit Inuit subsistence relations with the sea are based on environmental knowledge and continual observation, which provides clues about what to look-out for during periodically shifting sea ice and weather conditions and is taught in narratives of experienced elders and attained through a process of learning-by-doing in everyday subsistence whaling and fishing. By relying on knowledge and skills related to both terrestrial and maritime based activities, sea ice as a medium for harvesting practice, serves to inform local fishermen about minute environmental changes and how to "negotiate" dwindling ice conditions and changing habitats of local marine life. The harvest and sharing practices of kalaalimerngit (local marine foodstuffs) among households and between immediate kin is tied to rhythms of everyday life and ideas of community belonging, which relate to a deeply felt experience of 'being Greenlandic' and in dealing with newly imposed whaling quotas, hunters and fishermen often draw on their experience and relationship with marine mammals and local sharing networks when discussing issues of resource regulation, generational and social change. Faced with observations of rapidly shifting weather and climate and increased quota regulations concerning subsistence whaling practices this paper examines local Inuit relations with sea ice, weather and animals as a source for dealing with issues of social and environmental change.