Accepted paper:

Let's talk about the weather: Imaging, imagining, and merging the aurora borealis, volcanic lightning, and giant squid in an age of uncanny anxiety


Karen Holmberg (New York University)

Paper short abstract:

Using the example of volcanic lightning, I argue for the archaeological examination of experientially rich but non-material environmental phenomena in the past. This serves as a practice study for the imagining of the environmental future, another uncharted territory devoid of materiality.

Paper long abstract:

We are no longer required to simply imagine past landscapes, weather, and environmental hazards. Advanced technologies now allow us to image the paleogeology of a much younger earth for the first time and record and analyze weather events from the recent past. The confluence of the understanding of the past and cutting edge technology is one that archaeology has long embraced. As a discipline, however, archaeology is deeply bound to its reliance upon materiality. This places the role or importance of past environmental phenomena and weather with ephemeral or non-existent material traces largely out of archaeological consideration. In this discussion I query the phenomena of volcanic lightning from an archaeological perspective. While it is the focus of stunning photography possible with recent digital technology and the subject of innovative experimental volcanology in laboratory analyses, volcanic lightning is poorly understood. It is also materially nonexistent in the archaeological record despite its experiential richness. I argue that the imagining - if not imaging - of non-material phenomena such as volcanic lightning is challenging but requisite both in the past and contemporary contexts. There is a payoff to imagining the environmental past more clearly and completely: it is practice for the imagining of the environmental future, another uncharted territory devoid of materiality that requires our thoughtful study. It is the imagination, not the fetish of technology, that will serve us best.

panel P46
Past weather, past climate - archaeology as Environmental Humanity