Deep Pasts – Deep Futures A Palaeoenvironmental Humanities Perspective from the Stone Age to the Human Age


  • Felix Riede Centre for Environmental Humanities and Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, Aarhus University



environmental humanities, climate change, archaeological ethics, transformation, collapse, Anthropocene


Coagulating around the powerful notion of the Anthropocene – the proposed geological epoch of the ‘Human Age’ where anthropogenic control of and impact on nature has taken on a magnitude comparable to geological forces – many traditional humanities disciplines are rediscovering the environment as worthy of study. Ranging from eco-criticism to anthropology and history, the environmental humanities are dismantling the founding divisions of academic practice that confine the study of ‘nature’ to the natural sciences and the study of human society, culture, politics and ethics to the social sciences and humanities. Indeed, one of the environmental humanities’ most central contributions has been in addressing the question of ethical involvement when it comes to environmental research that has relevance in contemporary climate change debates. With its long-standing multidisciplinary affiliations and its many outstanding case studies of how the climates of the deep past have affected contemporaneous communities and how these communities have shaped their environs at various scales, archaeology is well positioned to contributing here. Yet, the discipline has so far been marginal in these emerging debates.

Drawing on selected examples from the deepest Stone Age to the most recent past, I attempt in this keynote paper to bring together thoughts about the national framing of archaeological practice, archaeological interpretation and heritage management in Europe with preoccupations about past societal collapse under the umbrella of environmental ethical concerns. I argue ultimately that archaeology and archaeologists should involve themselves in environmental debates and in the wider environmental humanities project, but caution that due diligence is needed when operating in such a politically charged debate where personal and political opinions can swiftly overshadow supposedly objective scientific attitudes – and where sceptics stand ready to exploit such bias as well as the uncertainties inherent in archaeological knowledge. Nonetheless, archaeologists can contribute to contemporary climate debates in numerous ways: by writing articles for journals that influence policy-making upstream, through museum practice, and by collaborating with practitioners implementing climate change adaptation measures. I provide brief examples for these avenues and suggest that by re-orientating environmental archaeological engagements in this way, the discipline can gain relevance and recognition, and make a genuine contribution to solving one of our times’ most wicked problems.


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How to Cite

Riede, F. (2018) “Deep Pasts – Deep Futures A Palaeoenvironmental Humanities Perspective from the Stone Age to the Human Age”, Current Swedish Archaeology, 26(1), pp. 11–28. doi: 10.37718/CSA.2018.01.