Friday May 19th,  2017 Morning Sessions - 9am-12pm


Session:  “The Space Between: Beyond Environments and Ecologies as Mediators”


Session Organizers:


Gabrielle Borenstein, Cornell University


Lucy Gill, University of California, Berkeley


ABSTRACT: The environment has long been conceived of within anthropology as a mediator of social practices and material culture. However, this view rests on the assumption that the social and ecological are distinct -- and separable -- spheres when they are in fact relationally co-constructed and always in flux. How then are we to discuss this inextricable permeation of the environment into past and present human experiences and vice versa? This session explores how cultural landscapes are constructed by and through features of the natural world, as well as, from a historical ecology perspective, the fundamentally anthropogenic nature of landscape itself. It expands the breadth of archaeological inquiry beyond sites as they are traditionally defined to incorporate the space between in which people farm, travel, hunt, and gather. Spatiotemporal situations that bridge multiple environments and ecologies can facilitate unique identities and often serve pivotal roles in the development of power relations. Such loci are especially well suited to provide insight into the active properties of environments and ecologies that move beyond mediation. For example, features such as waterways, mountains, and caverns can possess symbolic potential and facilitate integral sociopolitical activity, as well as occasionally introduce instances of disaster. Building upon notions of “entanglement” put forth Latour (2005) and Hodder (2012), this session will move beyond the anthropocentric to embrace an “ecology of others” (Descola 2013), which involves but is not limited to landscape construction and networks of interaction between humans and animals, plants, geologies, soils, and other actors traditionally classified as “natural.” Papers may examine how the environment is inscribed in cultural practice through the lens of culturally constructed material remains and ecofact assemblages. Participants are invited to explore patterns and/or discrepancies between representations and material manipulations of the “natural” world and the semiotic properties and utility of (re)presenting environments in cultural practice, as well as the ways in which traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) constitutes and is constituted by social, political, and ritual lives.


Individual Papers:



Mediating Environment, Landscape and the Supernatural: Reading Religion from the New Zealand Māori and Larger Polynesian Archaeological Record


Ian Barber ,University of Otago


The archaeological landscapes of eastern to southern Polynesia are notable for megalithic temples and images, other than in New Zealand, the largest island group of the region. For archaeologists working in New Zealand this creates a practical and theoretical problem around the interpretation of Indigenous Māori sacred space and associated ritual. Monumental Māori structures are limited generally to modified defensive earthworks (pā) in a practice identified as ‘monumental landscaping’ (Barber 1996). In spite of this, Māori ethnographic and historical records reveal a rich ritual life that referenced complex ideas about the supernatural world. These ideas were and are still expressed in powerful proscriptions and restrictions around mana (spiritual power) and tapu (sacred) environments and objects, including people. I explore this seeming dissonance by identifying less obvious but plausible archaeological signifiers of Māori belief in supernatural influences. Among these are the incorporation of environmental materials, landscape features, boundaries and pā spaces into ritual life. I then review factors of environmental management, scale, politics and agency that may elucidate variation in the religious places and landscapes of tropical and subtropical Polynesia and temperate-climate New Zealand.



Embed(ding): The Materiality of Petroglyphic Semiosis in Nicaragua


Lucy Gill, University of California, Berkeley


Petroglyphs and other rock modifications abound throughout Central Nicaragua, and one component of the Proyecto Arqueológico Centro de Nicaragua’s systematic survey of the valley bounded by the Amerrisque Cordillera and the Mayales River sub-basin has been documentation of hundreds of anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and abstract images inscribed on stone. While some are located amongst mound structures, within archaeological “sites” as they are traditionally defined, many are instead carved in spaces between such sites. Rather than an association with built architecture or artifact scatters, they emphasize “natural” landscape features, including waterways, caverns and unique geologic formations. I argue that rather than treating these extra-site petroglyphs as outliers, they should force us to reevaluate our conception of what constitutes a site with archaeological significance. My frame of reference is instead the historical ecological landscape, the spatial manifestation of the human-environment relation. This includes sites but also the largely ignored space between traditionally-defined sites, in which people farm, travel, hunt, gather and carve. Landscapes here are materializations of these relationships, which are enmeshed, inseparable and palimpsestic, and petroglyphs can proffer insight into spaces that were of some import to its occupants. For example, as a zooarchaeologist, I have attempted to taxonomically classify the zoomorphic forms etched into specific environments, which, in combination with recovered faunal remains, can elicit information concerning pre-Hispanic conceptions of animals and their spatial associations. As embedded, permanent signifiers visible to past and present peoples traversing these landscapes, petroglyphs illustrate the role of landscape as actant, confronting us at every turn and continuing to participate in the sempiternal semiosis of natureculture.




Ecological and Ontological Considerations at Chavín de Huantar, Peru


Matthew Sayre & Nicco La Mattina, University of South Dakota


Humans depend on plants for sustenance, for ritual use (e.g. as hallucinogens or other uses), or for their value. Plants depend on certain material conditions to grow, such as: the appropriate soil, rainfall, and elevation. Plants depend on humans for cultivation and related practices. Yet, humans depend on humans to cultivate or harvest plants at lower elevations and to transport them to higher elevations. In so doing, humans and plants are in an entangled relationship constitutive of the relative placeness (and possibly a more generally ontological identity) of the site. This is apparent at the site of Chavín de Huántar in Peru, in the Tello Obelisk’s iconography, which is saturated with potentially high-value non-local plants, while locally available farmed plants are largely absent (à la Graeber; they constitute Chavín’s locality in a network through trade or gifting). This paper is an ontologically-minded examination (Descola 2013) of the Tello Obelisk in conjunction with an analysis of the plant-animal-human entanglements at and radiating from Chavín de Huántar, which are discernible and entangled in the iconographic and material record (i.e. Hodder 2012). The Tello Obelisk of Chavín de Huántar, a Formative (1000-200 BCE) site in Peru, presents certain issues of interpretation, not least because much of its imagery is unique (not found elsewhere at Chavín). Most suggestively, while plants are only rarely portrayed in Chavín iconography, the Tello Obelisk consists of abundant depictions of plants, nearly all of which would not have been found locally; similarly, nearly all the animals portrayed would have been found at lower elevations. In this paper we examine the traditional ecological knowledge and the external influences that could have contributed to the unique artistic tradition of Chavín de Huántar in Peru.



The Materiality of Mud and Masonry


Michelle Turner, SUNY Binghamton


Chaco Canyon and its hundreds of outlier communities are known for their spectacular stone masonry great houses. As a result, archaeologists have tended to minimize the importance of earthen architecture in this region, often viewing earthen structures as expedient or “local” architecture.  Chacoan-style masonry is associated with complexity, political importance and ritual, while earthen architecture is domestic, small-scale and unambitious. Yet earthen architecture, the construction material of choice in the modern pueblos as in much of the world even today, was common in the Chacoan era and was even used in some great houses. I draw on ideas of social landscape and human entanglement with non-human agents in examining the materiality of earthen construction, particularly in terms of labor organization and power structures, the extravagant use of water, the phenomenology of building and dwelling in an earthen structure, notions of home and tradition, and the inherent plasticity and erodibility of adobe. The organization of labor for large-scale earthen construction, as opposed to masonry, may structure political differences, and the work required for maintaining earthen buildings may inherently mold human lives into seasonal, communal patterns. At my research site at Aztec Ruins National Monument, people built three great houses, linked in a formalized, triangular ritual landscape that not only reflects their cosmology but also physically recreates a portion of the sacred landscape of Chaco Canyon. Within this ideologically complicated landscape, two great houses are the epitome of Chacoan masonry, but the third combines masonry and adobe in ways that challenge our ideas of Chacoan architecture. Moving beyond the idea of expedient construction, to a materialist analysis of adobe and masonry, can illuminate the entangled relations among people, architecture and landscape in the Chacoan world.




On the Edge(s) of Liminality: When Nature Meets Culture at Black Rock


Gabrielle Borenstein, Cornell University


Throughout time and space, temples have occupied a privileged place in social imaginations. Though temples may take many architectural forms and host a wide range of religious traditions, their function as a locus for collective activity pervades in myriad contexts. In the present – post-secular – moment the need to situate practice in place endures. This is directly evidenced in the construction and destruction of the Temple at Burning Man, an annual gathering of tens of thousands of people in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. Since 2000, the Temple became a fixed monument in the transient Black Rock City landscape. Each year, a new temple is created, used, and then ritually burned. The accelerated rate of installation and occupation posits a unique opportunity to explore the relationship not only between spatiality and sacrality, but also between landscape and practice. Many aspects of the Burning Man temples evoke quintessential temple place-forms. The use of monumental architectonics, adaptation of archaic forms, and incorporation of citations on the structure embed distinct types of meaning into materiality. The power of the Temple from year to year, however, is grounded in more than parallels to traditional places of worship. The Temple engenders a particular form of behavior and elicits a particular type of response among participants because of the greater environment within which it is created and utilized. This paper investigates the role of the natural world in the constitution of sacred place and the performance of sacred practice. It explores the interplay between architectural design and environment to assess the social value(s) instilled not only in the temple(s), but also in the greater landscape of Black Rock City.



Light and Dark: A Phenomenological Reconsideration of Minoan Palace Architecture and Its Relationship to Natural Spaces (Middle Minoan IB-Late Minoan IB)


Tia Sager, University of Toronto


During the Bronze Age, cult activity on the island of Crete relied heavily on the landscape and was focused at peak and cave sanctuaries. As places that have remained relatively unchanged since the Neolithic, caves, caverns, and peak sanctuaries provide a series of phenomena for archaeological investigation: they offer a rare medium for phenomenological experience that has not drastically altered since the Bronze Age. Cave sites and peak sanctuaries can be considered as ‘spaces between’ that teeter on the frontier between past and present, landscape and built environment, natural and cultural. In order to understand the social function of these outdoor sanctuaries and their relationship to palatial centres during the Bronze Age on Crete, a reinterpretation of their active role as mediators for specific kinds of physical experiences is necessary. As sites of cultural, ecological, and cultic activity, the palace centres of Crete are inextricably linked with the natural landscape in a symbiotic relationship that is both physical and symbolic. Although the importance of the relationship between urban and natural is acknowledged in recent works by Letesson and Vansteenhuyse (2006) and Doxtater (2009), studies that consider the natural environment alongside the built environment have yet to become the norm in the field of Aegean Bronze Age archaeology. Campbell (2013) and others have argued that typical Minoan palatial features such as the ‘lustral basin’ were meant to emulate the Cretan landscape, perhaps originating with caves and peak sanctuaries in mind. Reflecting on the parallel rise in popularity of cave and peak sanctuaries and the emergence of palace-centres on Crete, the relationship between the landscape and the urban environment will be questioned. By employing phenomenology and Peircian semiotics, this paper seeks to establish ‘categories of experience’ within Minoan palaces that may offer new ways in which to understand and ‘think through’ the built environment and its relationship to the natural landscape.




Skill and Long-Term Experience at a High Arctic Polynya


Matthew Walls and Naotaka Hayashi, University of Calgary


In this paper, we consider skilled practice as a way of moving beyond the nature/culture dichotomies that underlie many archaeological understandings of human-environment processes. We explore this topic in the context of the relationship between Inughuit and the Pikialasorsuaq polynya in Northwest Greenland. Polynyas are places where the ocean does not freeze in the winter, and they are an important feature of Inuit landscapes across the Arctic. Polynyas offer rich local environments, but ones that are always in flux. Indeed, Pikialasorsuaq is very sensitive to the global climate, and recent years have seen erratic timings and instability with a variety of local consequences. In the present, skills involved in hunting, navigation and skinwork are central to how the Inughuit community perceives and responds in the current context of ecological change. We observe that these skills require forms of embodied knowledge that can only be developed through environmentally and socially situated practice. From an understanding of how these forms of knowledge are co-constructed between generations, we consider the imbrication of the Inughuit community and environmental impermanence through time.