Accepted paper:

Acquiring, transforming, consuming materials: artefactual archaeology as environmental humanity


Alison Klevnäs (Stockholm University)

Paper short abstract:

The dramatic increase in consumer goods in recent decades, especially in wealthy nations, is a growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, among many other environmental impacts. Archaeology needs to step up its role in critically questioning our relations with our material possessions.

Paper long abstract:

To date, contributions by archaeologists to the environmental humanities have mainly come from methodological frameworks which investigate deep-time climate data or human-environment interactions. This paper argues that the more traditional homeland of archaeology, centred on artefact production and consumption, should also actively interest itself in questions of the local and global environment. In particular, the paper focuses on the exponential rise in consumer possessions with which contemporary populations surround ourselves. Acquisition of material goods continues to burgeon, despite growing environmental awareness, and in testament to the strength and multi-scalar complexity of incentives to increase consumption. Even in countries in which other sectors of the economy (e.g. industrial and domestic heating, electricity production) are being successfully de-carbonized, consumer goods remain significant and so far intractable contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. Humans have long histories of remodelling and often degrading landscapes to extract resources and form new products, but the present scales of material transformations and flows are unprecedented. This paper contends that many of the narratives archaeology presents about the purpose of material belongings, especially to the public, are deeply embedded in a mentality of ever-increasing acquisition, and urgently need critical attention. Museum exhibitions in particular are susceptible to a meta-narrative of the human past in which increasing numbers of personal possessions are closely equated with progress, development, and self-realisation. More positively, it will be argued that exploring past lives can be a fruitful route into initiating future-oriented debates about the need and desire to acquire.

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