‘Include material of a controversial nature where important issues are involved’: a history of Environmental Archaeology and a review of its archive

by Andy J Howard, Richard Madgwick and Tim Mighall

CircaeaPrior to the launch of the journal in its current format in 1996, members of the AEA and the wider environmental archaeological community published articles of varying length, news, book reviews and other information in its predecessor Circaea. In total, 12 volumes of this bulletin were published between 1983 and 1996, with up to 3 issues per year. The development of the Bulletin followed only four years after the formation of the Association itself in the Spring of 1979; its aim being to provide ‘a forum for the exchange of ideas and information between people working the general field of the application of natural sciences to archaeology’. Therefore, Circaea was at the vanguard of the newly evolving discipline of environmental archaeology and in its first issue, the editors encouraged readers to ‘include material of a controversial nature where important issues are involved’. Its audience responded to this plea with generosity over the following years and browsing through the back catalogue of Circaea, which is freely available on the website of the AEA, provides numerous examples of important articles, particularly associated with methodological debate and development. The final issue of the Bulletin, published in 1996, overlapped with the first year of the new journal, but the articles within this final volume were no less important and the nature of its content provided solid foundations for the development of the new journal and an insight into the breadth of its future scope.

bonefragmentsEnvironmental Archaeology has a broad scope: to consider the interaction between humans and their environment in the archaeological and historical past. Papers published in EA cover a wide range of specialisms including archaeobotany, archaeozoology, palaeoecology, geoarchaeology and biological anthropology. These include special issues on well debated topics such as fodder (EA 1), and dung (EA 18.1), proceedings from international conferences (e.g. EA 3; a collection of papers from the 1994 AEA conference, themed conference proceedings e.g. Worlds apart? Human settlement and biota of islands (2003, EA 9.2), ‘Sea changes: environmental archaeology in the marine zone’ (EA 13.2, 2008), ‘Early agriculture in uncertain climates’ (EA 15.2, 2010) and the ‘Environmental Archaeologies of Neolithisation’ (forthcoming in 2014). Contributions also present new data on important topics that are still debated and contested (e.g. seasonality, early crop cultivation). Several contributions have reported new discoveries (Capper seeds in Medieval Bruges by Cooremans in EA 4, black mulberry pollen in a Late Bronze Age well at Sint-Gillis-Waas in Belgium (Gelorini & Bourgeois, 2005, EA 10.1), species introductions such as the House mouse to Shetland (Nicholson et al., 2005; EA 10.2), finds of rare/extinct insects (Scarabaeoidea) in British Holocene assemblages as reported by Robinson in EA 18.2 and early pre-Roman fig seeds in archaeological wells at Mas de Vignoles IX, near Nîmes, southern France (Figueiral and Séjalon, EA 19.1, 2014).

Individual contributions cover a diverse range of related issues including, for example aspects of the archaeology of fishing from an examination of the discussion of fishing booths and strategies in Medieval Iceland (Amundsen et al., 2005), to fish bone analysis of Neolithic cod and herring from Late Stone Age sites (Olson & Walther, 2007, EA 12.2), to selective use of Cornus sanguinea L. for Neolithic fish traps (Out, 2008 EA 13.1), isotope evidence for the consumption of seaweed by sheep (Balasse et al., 2009, EA 14.1) and Upper Palaeolithic fishing in the Fucino Basin, Central Italy (Russ & Jones, 2009; EA 14.2), and fish exploitation I NW Belgium (Van Neer et al., 2013). Other themes that run through the archive and published as individual contributions include landscape and vegetation reconstructions, aspects of faunal processing, economies and methodology, diet, health and food, the preservation of bioarchaeological materials, the environmental archaeology of mining and metallurgy and the environmental archaeology of early buildings and associated structures (wells, cesspits etc).

schultingTheoretical contributions also form a significant part of the EA archive. For example, Brothwell considered stress as an aspect of environmental archaeology (1998, EA 2), while Schulting discusses the validity of two models of environmental change at the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition (2010; EA15.2) while van der Veen et al. (2008~) discuss the introduction of new foods into Roman Britain and the role of these foods in expressions of cultural identity.

Other contributions report on important methodological advances. For example, the publication of Montgomery et al. (2010) signalled a considerable advancement in understanding of the time resolution of strontium deposition in teeth, thus facilitating more valid interpretation of isotope analyses for tracking the movement and trade of animals in the past. This innovative study made two major contributions. Firstly it compared results from two modes of sampling and analysis: LA-MC-ICP-MS and TIMS, the former targeting fine 400 µm craters through laser ablation and the latter using a larger hand-cut transverse enamel sections. Results demonstrated that the increased spatial resolution in terms of sample area was not mirrored by improved resolution in terms of the strontium response profile. Most importantly, results indicated that strontium becomes incorporated into enamel over a period in excess of 12 months, perhaps through both long term retention of strontium in the skeleton and recirculation of the body’s strontium ‘reservoir’. This clarifies the temporal resolution of strontium isotope analysis and puts into question like for like comparisons with lighter isotope systems. Thus, the development of the journal now provides an important focus for high quality, peer-reviewed publications in environmental archaeology.

The AEA also continues to inform its members with more general news and debate via its Newsletter, published quarterly and through its website.