Saturday, 25 January 2014

Fish, fish, fish!

What is our perception of past hunter-gatherers? That they lived in harmony with the nature? If so, why the world-wide project has on the history of fishing found out that the human history is littered with instances where people have not realised that they basically overfished or killed their fish stock to extinction. The images about the fish market or storage room workers in Hamburg moving huge carps at the end of the 19th century or the banks of conk shells on a Caribbean beach tell their story. It just may be in the human nature that we do not know when to stop in time. Even if there is now a moratorium on fishing cod in the North Sea the fish has disappeared and not come back. We may have conservation efforts, but sometimes they come too late.

It is interesting to hear that the whole project started when a [historian] friend of Poul Holm has wandered into an ecologist conference in the American East Coast – as you do as an historian – where ecologists tried to figure out among themselves how to approach historical ecological data and were clueless. Since then historical and archaeological projects from Indonesia to the Central America and South Africa, not to mention the Baltic Sea project where Cambridge was involved, have presented historical records, analysed fish scales from geological deposits and looked for fish bones from archaeological excavations. The trends are unbelievable. Even the giant turtles were hunted to extinction from some of their historical nesting beaches before the Conquistadors arrived.

HMAP project home page

This History of Marine Animal Populations has created information nobody knew that would be essential. It makes archaeologists and historians feel good, since we are useful for scientists. They could not find the historical fishing catch records from a Russian monastery by the White Sea. Archaeologists and historians have a long-term perspective that has been lacking from the ecologists who tried to study animal populations with laborative experiments that are fruitless when you need long-term understanding about the human-animal interaction. My now retired professor always said that archaeology is as useful as bird song. How wrong he now seems!

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Archaeology meets nuclear power

Professor Cornelius Holtorf (Kalmar) has always been involved in interesting projects. First he created a web site of megaliths for his PhD, then he visited Las Vegas with his archaeologist’s hat on and now he is involved in thinking what to do with nuclear power station fuel. In principle it is all about our future and how archaeologists think (or not about the future). Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg work together with the Swedish SKB that handles nuclear fuel in order to study how archaeologists mark things and if archaeologists can plan for future.

Even if the project ‘Hundred thousand years forward and backward in time: archaeology meets nuclear fuel storage’ mainly approaches the questions theoretically and studies archaeologists’ attitudes, it is clear that this is a very serious question to which contemporary archaeology can contribute. There will be so many questions about how to keep the memory of these sites in the countries where the decision has been made to bury the fuel down to the ground or to the bedrock where it has to be held safely for eternity. How the people will keep the memory of the sites alive? How these sites can be marked in such a way that the future generations can understand not to go there even if they have lost the memory of the site? How has the human cognition evolved and do we have to take into consideration the future developments? Will the future human being read and perceive as we do? What kind of signs will be effective? What signs signify death and danger?

The project has interviewed a series of professional archaeologists who work in heritage management and asked how far they make plans and how far do they plan the future of heritage management? It turned out that the consciousness of the preservation for the future is surprisingly low and it seems that the average time people are thinking ahead is about five years – if they have time to think from managing the heritage fulltime. The beacon of the light in future consciousness seem to be Unesco, but that is not that surprising when one considers that they manage the World Heritage Sites that are managed and preserved for the future. Otherwise, archaeologists seem to expect their heritage management duties to continue.

However, the recent financial trends are not very promising and one can turn to history and wonder, if this is the slow downhill paralleling the one faced by the late Roman world. Will it all be about slow stagnation and cutting down again and again? In such a case, one may have to be prepared...

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Review writer

My thoughts are being directed more firmly to the coming months after concentrating on the Christmas - and a winter cold. I have managed to flip through the two books I have promised to review for different journals. Sadly, I failed to get the new Veii volume for review; somebody else was a couple of hours quicker than I was. Thus I failed to get the volume for free... Nevertheless, I have read two books on the Mediterranean, spiced with the descriptions and analyses of surface collections and other methodologies. Both worthy books, but luckily for a reviewer, each of them with some aspects that require commenting. Naturally, the immense value of both books is without a question for various reasons.

It is not always so easy to write a review. When the texts are meant to be for a 'general archaeologist', but there is a specific point one wants to raise, it can be tricky to keep it in 1000 words and simple. One also has to find a right tone and right words in order to convey the idea that one understands the choices made, but it would have been helpful to expand or add something to certain sections. Every now and then one finds a specialist topic lacking a basic reader or founding study - or an author making unintentionally a wrong argument, since a field is not general knowledge. Well, now I have to cut my drafts or ideas to half and get these reviews to the review editors at some point in January.