Manifesto for archaeology of flow
Map of part of the Lower Mississippi meander belt (Fisk 1944, United States Army Corps of Engineers)
Flowing water, like air, tends to be regarded as immaterial. Anything that is fluid, anything that flows, is not usually counted as material culture, no matter how culturally shaped and manipulated it might be. Once accepted as archaeological matter in its own right, however – once incorporated into the archaeologist’s way of seeing – flowing water and other kinds of material flow can radically transform the perception of past landscapes, adding another dimension to archaeological interpretation.
The following manifesto for archaeology of flow is an extract from a new book on the archaeology of rivers and other flows of materials. It argues that rivers - the 'dark matter' of landscape archaeology - are just as susceptible to archaeological and historical analysis as more solid parts of landscapes are.
Matter can be in any one of three main states: solid, liquid or gas. In the archaeological study of landscapes, solid matter takes priority. Pick up almost any book on British landscape archaeology and you will find solid materials highlighted, with flowing liquid and gaseous materials cast into shadow. Rivers and streams are the dark matter of landscape archaeology (but no less vibrant for all that). Running through the heart of landscapes, shape-shifting and state-changing as they go, they are rarely subjected to the kind of cultural analysis applied to solid materials. Flowing water tends to be regarded as part of a natural background against which past cultural activity shows up, next to which sites are located, onto which cultural meaning is applied or into which cultural items are placed, rather than having any cultural dimension in its own right. Yet human activity, in the form of modification of rivers, is inextricably bound up with the so-called ‘natural’ water cycle. As dynamic entanglements of natural and cultural forces, rivers have the potential to re-shape (our understanding of) landscape and our understanding of it. This manifesto presents six interlinked reasons for bringing the dark matter of landscapes into the domain of archaeological study.
1. Rivers are cultural artefacts
Rivers, especially in densely populated countries like Britain, are some of the most culturally modified of all landscape features. But in using the term artefact, I do not just mean that rivers and their flow have been artificially shaped. I also mean that, in being manipulated and controlled to some extent, their flow is used to shape other things. Through watermills, flow was deployed in the past to shape numerous materials and turn these into artefacts too. More recently, electricity generated from hydro-electric power plants on rivers has been turned to countless uses in shaping every aspect of the modern industrialised world. River flow has even been utilised in wartime as a weapon. Modified and manipulated rivers have also gone on to change the shape of deltas, floodplains, and other large-scale landforms.
2. Rivers are partially wild
No matter how shaped, controlled and managed they may be, rivers also have a wild aspect that is not entirely predictable, can act in unforeseen and surprising ways, and have the capacity at least temporarily to escape from culturally applied forms. That wildness means that any attempt to control flow will not simply be the application of a cultural force onto an inert and passive substance, for flowing water is an especially vibrant kind of matter that can act or respond in sometimes unforeseen and surprising ways, requiring counter-responses. It makes any human involvement with rivers more like a wrestle, an intertwining, a confluence, an enmeshment, an assemblage or an entanglement. Whatever metaphor we use, it is this dynamic merger of natural and cultural materials and agencies, ravelling and unravelling through time, that makes the archaeological study of rivers so interesting.
A detail from geologist Harold Fisk’s series of 15 maps of the Lower Mississippi floodplain (Fisk 1944, United States Army Corps of Engineers) showing present and former courses of the river. Its course greatly straightened today, for the last two thousand years the Mississippi has been writhing around like an eel caught up with a fishing line. Entwined with the snaking, looping channels are numerous archaeological sites, political boundary lines (which shift as the river moves) and traces of past cultural interventions in patterns of flow and river movement.
3. Human activity and river activity are intertwined
It used to be assumed that river activity and floodplain formation were mainly natural processes, therefore not subject to archaeological (cultural) analysis. But it turns out that many of the standard hydrological models of river erosion and sedimentation are based on studies of streams that – far from being natural as thought – had actually been subject to extensive human modification in the past. Evidence of extensive human intervention in river and floodplain morphology is clear for the modern world, not so obvious for earlier periods. Yet it can be found, for example, in medieval Europe and along the wadis of the ancient Near East, or the monumental levees and raised floodplains of the Yellow River in China. For their part rivers have woven their way into the very fabric of human existence – flowing through the centre of towns, under bridges, beside parks and gardens, into sluices and culverts and cooling towers. Rivers also run through dreams, songs, designs, projects, poems, memories and myth. They are part of the human story.
4. Understanding rivers entails understanding past human activities (and vice versa)
Now is the time to do away with those old physical geography lessons and ubiquitous diagrams that present the hydrological cycle (evaporation → condensation → precipitation → flow → evaporation → and so on) as entirely natural processes, somehow separate from human activity. In intervening in patterns of river flow – either directly (through damming, diversion, dredging, embanking, draining, irrigation, etc.) or indirectly (through deforestation, agricultural practices, etc.) – humans have been a part of the water cycle for thousands of years, effecting sediment flows and landscape formations. Rivers and streams have long been cyborgs (Haraway 1985) or hybrids (Latour 1993) – dynamic assemblages of materials, flows and forces, both human and non-human - while at the same time being part of such cyborgs and hybrids. Human interventions in rivers today are of a much greater order of magnitude, it is true, but these are still on historical trajectories of human-river entanglement originating in the more or less distant past. It might well be asked, how can rivers be understood, and how can effective strategies be put in place for dealing with rivers, if those historical trajectories are not taken into account?
5. Rivers are dangerous, therefore good to think with
As when a river in flood breaks through or over its artificial banks, and carves itself a new channel, flow always threatens to break down the cultural order of things. It is precisely this dangerous and wild aspect of rivers that makes them good to think with. Flow has its own logic, which works in eddies, currents, streamlines, vortices and turbulences, flowing round and over the logic of non-flowing solid materials. It encourages us to break down polarities of thought, such as rigid oppositions between nature and culture, and not to respect too much the boundaries between different disciplines. Adopting a multidisciplinary approach, making use of insights from both natural science and cultural studies, shifting between scales of analysis, looking always for different ways of looking at things, would be entirely in keeping with archaeology of flow. Flow itself challenges us to adopt more fluid and dynamic forms of investigation. To think in terms of flow leads to a greater emphasis on continuities – less on discontinuities. Simply by bringing flow into the scope of study has the potential to change our way of thinking about things radically.
6. Flowing water provides models for understanding other kinds of landscape flows
Water and mud are not the only kinds of material that flow through archaeological landscapes. People, goods, money, vehicles, animal herds, and many other entities exhibit flowing patterns of behaviour, leaving traces in the archaeological record. Nor are rivers and streams the only kind of material feature to channel flow. Paths, hollow-ways, processional routes, staircases, station concourses, signposts, high street banks, fibre-optic cables, turnstiles at football grounds, layouts of streets within a town or city, and so on, all channel material flows of one kind or another, one of these flows being the movement of archaeologists themselves. Even the painted animals in the caves of Lascaux have a flow to them, when considered in the light of the perspective of an embodied perceiver moving through the caves, as opposed to studying them from a fixed standpoint.
What happens if we apply models of flow to archaeological evidence that has previously been understood only as solid material?
Fisk, H. N. (1944) Geological investigation of the alluvial valley of the lower Mississippi River, Report for the US Army Corps of Engineers, Vicksburg, MS.
Haraway, D. (1985) ‘A manifesto for cyborgs: science, technology and socialist-feminism in the 1980s’, Socialist Review 80: 65-108.
Latour, B. (1993) We have never been modern (Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press).
This article is comprised of extracts from a new book entitled Fluid Pasts: Archaeology of Flow by Matt Edgeworth, published in September 2011 by Bristol Classical Press (part of Bloomsbury Academic). The book began its life as an article called Rivers as Artifacts written for Archaeolog in 2008. The 'manifesto' was first presented as a paper in the ‘Manifestos for Materials’ session, TAG, University of Bristol, 2010.