Long term, archaeological perspectives of the interactions between people and the environment have great relevance for the present and future as they can provide policy and decision makers with the background to understanding current processes, likely trajectories of change, probable thresholds, tipping points and the likely outcomes of present environmental changes and human reactions to them. While the case for the modern relevance of deep time environmental knowledge is widely accepted, the relevance of past human responses to change is not. Arguments that the past can provide effective ‘analogues’ for modern and future times will never be truly convincing because the present circumstance is so very different from that of the past. Archaeological studies with deep time perspective can, however, have relevance as they provide ‘completed experiments’ that can be used to understand processes of change, and these could be developed as a major theme of Science in Scottish Archaeology.
Recent work in the North Atlantic (McGovern et al. 2007; Dugmore et al. 2009) and the American Southwest (Hegmon et al. 2008) has shown how studies of past societies that track the consequences of their decision-making can have relevance for now and the future. In studying the past it is possible to assess unfolding stories of change at any particular point in time: The story of Rome for example, has very different implications depending at what point in time the study is brought to a close: whether at the time of the final triumph over Carthage, or at the end of the reign of Augustus or with the sack of Rome in 410 AD. It is possible to assess the dislocation and suffering associated with past transformations of society; how the consequences of specialisation and decision-making that develop rigidity traps, can promote hierarchy and, conformity or collaboration and mobility. The existence of appropriate infrastructure and societal ‘connectivity’ can largely determine the degree of suffering related to change. These transformations may be driven by changing patterns of economy, trade, environment, politics, culture or technology and it can be shown that the resilience of societies in the face of change is heavily influenced by previous choices. The path dependency resulting from choices is key and can only be assessed over the ‘longue durée’ (measured in centuries). Only such a time-perspective can track the consequences of different decisions and paths chosen and thus answer the question ‘how did the world get to be as it is now?’). A key challenge is to understand the circumstances when environment may have an effect of society- and this is highly conditional on the social-political-economic context. Small changes may have significant effects on a sensitised system, whereas in other contexts dramatic changes may have comparatively limited effects if societal resilience is significant.
When examining the interactions of people and environment, scale is very important as systems cannot be fully understood by focusing on just one level. Ideally at least three are needed- the scale of the ‘target’ enquiry, and one at a scale larger and one smaller. For example, in the development of resilient communities, policy makers will be aware that the communal scale is best understood by analysis that considers communities, smaller scales (e.g. households) and larger scales (e.g. regions). The development of resilience at one scale may require transformations at another scale where resilience itself may be reduced.
This importance of scale of study to assist general public understanding, to encourage the application of palaeoenvoronmental data to any understanding of modern contingency, and to allow the study of societal development in the past is crucial to this section of the Science Panel Report. The following section is ordered in terms of increasing spatial scale; Geoarchaeology (4.2), archaeobotany (4.3), zooarchaeology (4.4) and palaeoentomology (4.5) all generally find site specific applications whereas Pollen analysis (4.6), on the other hand, can effectively address the environment on a wider scale that is inherent in geomorphological and sedimentological enquiries (4.7). The section on landscape-scale geomorphology and sedimentology argues the need to move from site to landscape scale, engaging with geological and geomorphological approaches to explain the evolution of the cultural landscape. Palaeoclimatology (4.8) explicitly deals with even wider regional environmental changes that in turn have, of course, great importance for the individual site. Each section begins with a brief explanation of the technique in question, Scottish applications and a selection of relevant literature. The current capacity in Scotland is assessed and emerging opportunities discussed.
It has long been understood that archaeology effectively integrated with the study of past environments is the only way in which long-term interactions between people and the environment in the past can be understood. Itoffers an invaluable understanding of the resilience of earlier peoples, of how that might have been developed or lost, how and why critical thresholds in the course of development or loss are crossed, how sustainability over the longue duree was achieved, and the long term consequences of different choices and social organisations. Rich, multi-disciplinary and comparable data sets are needed that can be developed in different ways and interrogated at different scales. These will provide the potential for the enhanced scientific underpinning of current and future policy decisions.