Saturday May 20th,  2017 Morning Sessions - 9am-12pm


Session: “Flowing, Morphing, Making: Ontologies of Water in Archaeology”


Session Organizers:

Kacey C Grauer, Northwestern University


Dil Singh Basanti, Northwestern University


ABSTRACT: This session brings together scholars to discuss a substance ubiquitous in our diverse regional backgrounds: water. Contemporary issues such as NODAPL serve as a reminder that water is not neutral, but inseparable from the human experiences of power, ideology, sustenance, identity, conflict, and more. Water is everywhere, in everything, and continuously morphs in and out of different forms. It flows and creates connections, yet it also maintains separations. By these properties, water becomes a substance of possibility: in interacting with water, people are exposed to a medium by which they can extend themselves into new worlds. Water can be a means through which humans exercise power over one another – rulers reaffirming their divinity by bringing rain in times of drought, or congress passing bills to control water flows of communities. Water can also be an index of sociality – the gathering place for weary travelers at the oasis, or the reservoir of a “chief” from where people enter into “civilization” from lawless lands. It can be a veil over parts unknown, hiding monsters or passages to the underworld, or it can be the medium of contact and trade – an open ocean as an index of freedom or opportunity for those landlocked into stagnation. But water can also be violent, destroying homes or bringing slavery, and ending worlds altogether. Through these materialities, water can become many different things and generate many different realities for the people it engages. Watery landscapes and flowscapes allow us to access these ontologies in the past. As water does not fit neatly in the category of natural or cultural, it may be an ideal medium to challenge Cartesian dualisms and explore relational ontologies. Water defies several binaries: functional and ritual, passive and active, natural and supernatural, static and fluid, visible and invisible, present and absent. Water permeates all things, even troubling the human/nonhuman dichotomy and boundedness of the body. Papers in this session will consider water in light of indigenous rights, political ecology, relational ontologies, materiality, and its agentive capacities. We also invite papers that consider how current day ontologies of water influence archaeological interpretations of the past. Session format: each presenter will have 20 minutes: 15 minutes to present their paper and 5 minutes to answer questions. Subject to change based on participation numbers.



 Inidividual Papers:


Waters without Borders: Pocket Bajos as Assemblage at Aventura, Belize


 Kacey C. Grauer, Northwestern University


Archaeologists have demonstrated that several binaries were arbitrary for the ancient Maya, such as inside/outside, utilitarian/ritual, and natural/cultural. In this paper, I examine a binary that has been associated with studies of ancient Maya landscape: wet/dry. If, as previous research suggests, the ancient Maya did not have a binary ontology of water, then it follows landscapes were likely not demarcated into specific wet and dry locales. I make the case that by considering landscape features to be assemblages, rather than discrete entities, archaeologists may circumvent the problem of presupposing such categories. Presenting the Maya city of Aventura, Belize as a case study, I argue that using the analysis of ancient plant remains to identify water allows archaeologists to conceptualize landscapes as assemblages. I present preliminary paleoethnobotanical data from recent excavations to demonstrate that karst depressions (pocket bajos) in the city center of Aventura were neither water-holding reservoirs nor firmly grounded agricultural fields; rather, these spaces were assemblages of water, plants, animals, insects, dirt, rock, ceramics, architecture, and people. Although not composed solely of water, pocket bajos were not devoid of water, and thus were still imbibed with the power water carried in ancient Maya ontology.




Flows of Water, Flows of Power at Bodiam Castle


Matthew Johnson Matthew,  Northwestern University


 Understandings of water in the Middle Ages have ranged from the symbolic (in Christian thought), to the humoral (earth, air, water and fire), to the aesthetic (as creating formal landscape settings in which buildings are framed and reflected) to utilitarian categories (bridges, fishponds, watermills). This paper tries to draw some links between these different areas of scholarship. It is a small, initial move towards an integrated political ecology of water in which different aspects of water as a substance, its gathering, control and distribution, are considered relationally and dialectically. Specifically, I think about flows of water at the medieval castle of Bodiam in southern England at a series of scales: the damming of the moat or lake that surrounds the castle; the millpond, mill and fishponds beyond; the manipulation of the course of the river Rother and the creation of an artificial leat or stream; the catchment area of the Rother and the long-term history of the deepening of the channel; and flows upstream to Robertsbridge Abbey and downstream to the maritime ports of Rye and Winchelsea. The paper concludes by exploring the ontological status of different (land)scape categories usually treated as commonsensical – ‘river’, ‘floodplain’, ‘tidal estuary’, ‘marshland’, ‘sea’ – and their relationship to energy flow and the constitution of power in late medieval or feudal social relations.




Revisiting the Archaeology of Monsters: Water, Serpents, and Cosmopolitanism in Ancient Ethiopia


Dil Singh Basanti, Northwestern University


This paper looks at how water monsters drove processes of cosmopolitanism in ancient and historic Ethiopia (50–1400 AD). This paper first asks what is a monster, and then reviews the archaeological literature on monsters to understand how their political and social roles become effective. Following this, a case study in Ethiopia looks at why serpent monsters were effective in integrating otherwise rival social groups into a new social-political order. An indexical relationship to water was the central characteristic that defined the serpent monster, and imbued serpent stories with understandings of sociality, community, and authority that reflected social experiences of water as a “gathering place.” This experience of water/serpents is reflected in the archaeological landscape at Aksum (50-700 AD) in northern Ethiopia, and in the material culture, iconography, and place names. This paper then explores how monsters shape realities around the values people held most strongly, and in Ethiopia – through indexes of water – how monsters were really just one way of getting along.




Desert Wealth vs. Water Poverty: From Treats to Opportunities


Fariba Mosapour Negari, Assistant Professor, Archaeological Sciences Research Center, University of Sistan and Baluchestan



All archaeologists who know Shahdad, could understand the water poverty of this important third millennium BC site. Shahdad, which was a major Bronze Age center, discovered in 1968, is located in the vicinity of the desert of LUT with 80000 sq km extent. Many scholars believe that ancient communities emerged and developed subsequently due to reliable water resources, but at Shahdad poverty of water resources was the main problem. This poverty influenced life style during the third millennium BC. Discovery of several hundred ceramic containers with tight rim testify that lack of water resources at Shahdad forced people to store water. This behavior was also caused for craft specialization in ceramic production at this Bronze Age site. Discovery of steatite house maquettes bearing a vessel on roof symbolize poverty of water at the site. Presence of some Mesopotamian symbols such as Enki and  jet of water  on some evidence also intensify the above idea.

Totally, natural environment of Shahdad especially water resources was not reliable to support a site with 400 hectares. The aim of this article is two folded, firstly to assess role of water in formation of symbols, secondly to examine role of LUT desert in the development of this important site during the third millennium BC. Although water resources at Shahdad were adequate for the emergence of the site, they were not able to support its development as one of the most important third millennium BC sites in Southeast Iran. Therefore elites of Shahdad replaced water with desert in their life. Desert, which may seem to be a treat in ancient life, changed to be an opportunity for the development of Shahdad society. In fact, Shahdad wealth thanks to the LUT desert, as it connected different Bronze Age sites in Mesopotamia, Southeast Iran, the Indus Valley, Central Asia, Persian Gulf and Oman Sea as a long tongue of the Indian Ocean.




Among the Tentative Haunters: Archaeology Underwater and Other Non-Sense


Sara Rich , Appalachian State University


As works of art and architecture, traditional sailing ships hold a special place within the human imagination. Their designs were responses to aesthetics, techne, and telos, while their capacity to metaphorize liminality is incomparable. And like architects of ruins, nautical archaeologists are both historians and makers as they rebuild ships from shipwrecks. In processes of quasi-resurrection, ships are often reconstructed hypothetically based on information negotiated from wreckage underwater: where it came from, where it was going, which materials constructed it, when it sailed, who and what it carried, why it wrecked, and how it has been interacting with its underwater environment all along. Yet, to accrue the information needed to perform this miraculous resurrection, underwater archaeologists cannot rely on the primacy of vision as do those who work on land. Indeed, submersion dulls or nullifies each of the five senses classically used in scientific and artistic inquiry. Underwater, sight is untrustworthy, smell and taste non-existent, touch numbed, and hearing dominated by the sound of one's own breath. Other 'non-senses' eerily betray us too. Water undermines the sense of passing time, and even common sense declines with increasing depth. Borrowing its title from the Adrienne Rich poem, “Diving into the Wreck,” this paper will explore how shipwreck and archaeologist are affected by aqueous ontologies, and how roles of haunter and haunted can switch through processes of nautical inquiry.