Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Weathered history: what ancient countrysides can tell us about climate

Catherine Kearns

Today’s media increasingly serves us clickbait climate histories. Headlines prompt us to read how the city-states of the Maya collapsed because of drought, how massive empires like that of the Neo-Assyrians or Akkadians buckled from the pressures of aridity and famines, or why Genghis Khan’s armies were successful due to abundant rains across Mongolia. Such accounts have captivated us by combining data from ice cores, tree rings, or lake sediments with archaeological and textual evidence to tell stories about historical climate, typically of the doom-and-disaster kind. And in many of these stories, which sensationalize academic research for clicks, we are meant to see a direct connection from the deep past to our own troubled present, and possibly disastrous future: are we, the globalized societies of late-capitalist modernity, in the midst of ecological devastation, the next to fall?

But clickbait climate histories and the research behind them often tell exaggerated stories of imperial ruin or societal resilience, which rely on a linear way of connecting past and present and pit humans against weather phenomena like storms, droughts, or typhoons. They often focus on the top of society: the kings, armies, or institutions like temples or banks that could, or could not, cope with changing climates. And they end up correlating patchy or dissimilar forms of evidence to synchronize dry climates with crisis and collapse, or vice versa. Are these the only ancient climate histories we can write? What would it look like to start smaller, with the evidence of past communities working fields and animals, cutting trees, quarrying for stones and mining metals, who were encountering and perceiving changing climates through rhythms of everyday life and social ritual?

To begin, we would need to reframe our research questions to think seriously about the (ancient) weather and not just climate, as an aggregate of regional weather patterns. People experience and perceive weather phenomena and construct ideas about climate unevenly, in material and ideational ways. Responses to weather speak not just to social or cultural ideas of prosperity, value, health, belief, or risk, but also to economic or political inequalities. Non-urban communities are increasingly proximate to and impacted, oppressed, or challenged in diverse ways by ecological and climatic disturbances related to industrial development, resource extraction, pollution, and sea level rise, among myriad others. Take a recent example: the horrific flooding occurring in the late summer of 2022 across Pakistan, where calls for international assistance for devastated communities and sectors of the economy, already impacted by the legacies of colonialism, must contend with ongoing instability within the federal government. How we normalize shifting climates in the context of such disparities works at different tempos: from observing warmer summers to confronting the increasing severity of momentous, destructive events, which disproportionately impact vulnerable or marginalized communities. Our surroundings are themselves changing in varied timescales: seasons, years, decades, centuries. It is all the more important to use interdisciplinary methods to avoid oversimplifying human-climate interrelationships, ancient or modern.

By studying landscape formations in the deeper past through archaeological evidence, we stand to learn how the weathering of everyday experiences and material environments catalyzes new political and socio-economic relationships and ideas of climate. Such work should avoid unethically mapping the neoliberal, globalized conditions of today onto the past, or predicting that humans are hardwired to respond in the same ways to similar weather events. We ought to be wary of embracing a nostalgia of pre-modern environments and a fear of dangerous future ones. Drought, for example, does not immediately lead to or cause conflict. Rather, we can push the evidence to make claims about uneven power relationships and interactions of multiple forces driving landscape transformations and to call for more attention to studying diachronic patterns to contemplate our contemporary anxieties. Rural histories are particularly compelling contexts to examine in pre-industrial periods when agricultural regimes and other kinds of rural labor – logging timber, quarrying for building materials, mining metals and herding animals for textile production – were instrumental to processes of state formation and status-making. In this sense, the archaeology of rural landscapes is important to studies of the history of urbanism, to attend to the ways that communities in and outside towns and cities managed, experienced, and normalized understandings of weather and environment.

In The Rural Landscapes of Archaic Cyprus, I examine the traces of rural lifeways on the island of Cyprus to consider the messy and often complicated dimensionality of human encounters with changing climates and environments. During the ninth-fifth centuries BCE, I argue that rural communities were creating landscapes in novel ways through shifts in land use, forms of social gathering and community building, and the increasing demands of towns and markets. Our current understanding of the regional climate of the eastern Mediterranean during this period, rough as it may be, suggests a turn to wetter conditions after the eighth century BCE, which would have meant fewer inter-annual droughts and more water availability on this semiarid island. It was also a period of changing ideas of wealth and status, with the emergence of more crystallized forms of social distinction and novel kinds of power and statehood. And the evidence from numerous archaeological surveys and excavations suggests more settlements and population growth, the expansion of agricultural areas, and signs of growing urban-rural ties through economic networks, ritual sites, and mortuary grounds for kinship groups. From these sources, we can rethink stories of human-environment relationships at different scales and from multiple vantage points: agricultural processing sites, mines, harbors, or towns. We can start to see that emerging states did not have monolithic, subject hinterlands: rural landscapes were diversely constructed, taking shape through local and regional processes of urbanization and social stratification, economic integration, and environmental change.

Climatic shifts did not create the rise of the Archaic state on the island, and wetter conditions did not cause or determine social inequalities and wealth accumulation. In thinking about historical narratives of state formation, the book asserts, instead, that human–environment relationships materializing within household and state politics introduced practices that cultivated new norms of settled life, status, and community, which some took advantage of for social and political gain. The complicated intersections of social change with shifting environments evident across Cyprus during the ninth to fifth centuries highlight how antiquity is one richly textured locus for examining weather and climate as mediations of human experience. And the interesting stories of rural places and communities, which reside outside the predominant narratives of clickbait climate histories, are ripe for analysis.

Horses graze in the stubble of fields near the village of Asgata, Cyprus, during the particularly dry summer of 2014 (photograph by author)
The Rural Landscapes of Archaic Cyprus by Catherine Kearns

About The Author

Catherine Kearns

Catherine Kearns is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics, University of Chicago. She conducts fieldwork on Iron Age sites in Cyprus with the KAMBE Project, for whic...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!