I’m often asked about the lessons that archaeology can offer the populations of today. In particular, people are interested to know about research on past sea-level and climate change. In general, I am sceptical that archaeology has anything much to offer. Population levels today are so much higher than they ever were in the past and our lifestyles are so different. We are consumers to an extent that just did not exist in the early postglacial. We expect so much more and, at the same time, we are no longer flexible in the way that we once were.
The people of prehistory were able to move and adapt in ways that would be unthinkable today. Archaeology can show us the sort of changes that they made, but it does not tell us much about how to achieve the same sort of equilibrium in the context of today.
To compound the problem, we rely on elements of the world that they avoided precisely because they recognised inherent fragilities. In this way many of our biggest cities are located along vulnerable waterfronts, we consume great quantities of water for so much more than drinking, we cultivate food on land once deemed too boggy or too marginal, and our transport systems are fixed and inflexible.
Developing technologies have led us to believe that we have the answer to everything. that we can control the world around us. We are only slowly learning that that is not the case.
It occurs to me that an interesting exception lies in the current interest in Rewilding.
Rewilding Britain say that ‘Rewilding is the large-scale restoration of ecosystems where nature can take care of itself’. It goes on to say that it seeks to ‘reinstate natural processes’ and encourages ‘a balance between people and the rest of nature where each can thrive’.
The use of the prefix ‘re’ indicates the significance of an ethos to hark back to the past. Rewilding is about the reintroduction of species, both plant and animal, and the use of ‘natural’ management processes in order to drive a landscape that moves away from the intensive human-centric focus of recent centuries.
It seems to me that there is an inherent flaw in this vision. Surely rewilding should be about moving into a better future rather than harking back to the past.
For example, there is little indication of how rewilding might sit within the urban landscapes of twenty-first century Britain. Rewilding Britain has several examples of rewilding projects, but they all take place in rural, even remote, settings. The sorts of locations where people were talking of the power of wilderness not so long ago. And yet, if rewilding is really to offer a way forward (and I do think it had much to offer), it has to offer something more dramatic than the conversion of wilderness.
True wilderness is rare, even non-existent, in Britain today. I’m glad to see increasing recognition of the way in which people have shaped every corner of this land over the last ten thousand years. From the highest mountain top to the lowest bog, nowhere has escaped the influence of our ancestors. It does still slightly alarm me, however, that many seem to seek a return to a cosy, imagined, past. A past before all this modern ‘nonsense’ of environmental destruction and human fragility occurred. That past does not exist.
It occurs to me that archaeology does have a strong role to play here. That role is brought to the fore with the advent of rewilding. Archaeology holds key information relating to species history: just what is it appropriate to reintroduce and where? How did different animal species relate to people? How did people relate to animal species? What influence might different population levels bring? Archaeology can tell us not only when a species became extinct, but how. We can use it to make sure that the species we encourage were really there in the first place; there have been cases where people made assumptions about woodland, for example, where pollen analysis has shown tree cover to be absent. It can help us to investigate not just the rewilding of remote areas, but the practicalities of denser living in a new world.
True rewilding will make considerable demands on all of us. But it is not all doom and gloom. We have, for example, become used to an abundant diet that makes use of a seemingly endless choice of foods. Yet many of those foods derive from exotic origins and carry considerable cost. At the same time, we have abandoned a startling variety of local foods. Perhaps if we were prepared to eat slightly less and make use of a wider range of the wild and seasonal produce that grows closer to home, then we could cut the environmental cost of living. To date this has been a middle-class aspiration for those of us with money and time to seek out expensive local ingredients. Rewilding could change that, but only if it goes further than simply changing the appearance of our surroundings. If it is to succeed then rewilding has to develop new systems, new economies wherein the values of western society are altered.
Rewilding has to look forward not back. It is not so much about restoring ancient grazing patters, or ancient woodlands as about using our understanding of them to create a totally new landscape for the people who will come after us.
The alllure of the past is strong, but it is also dangerous. The past is an imagined place, often regarded as safe and protective. It provides a vision of comfort for those unsettled by the uncertainties of today. Those who lived through ‘the past’ would, I am sure, have been quick to put us right in no uncertain terms. It is our misfortune that we can never meet them.
Archaeology can help us to understand both the present and the past. And it can help us to think about the future. Information about the past can be used to help construct a more viable future. I’m interested to see this sort of information rising in significance today and hopeful that some will take it up. Whether they will have to power to recognise the scale of change necessary and convince the rest of us to accept it remains to be seen.
Archaeology, it seems to me, is central to this.
And, in a nice postscript, my attention has just been drawn to a recent paper on Wildness in the free-to-read journal Internet Archaeology.