Terra Mobilis: Fire and Ice Colloquium (2009)

Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World.

Dec 4-6, 2009.

Brown University, Rhode Island Hall 108

Some say the world will end in fire, Some say in ice… (Robert Frost, 1920)

Vesuvius in Eruption (1817)

The perceived threat of a changing environment is a key concern for contemporary political, scientific, economic, social and individual considerations and overlaps nearly every sector of human life and investigation. This workshop focuses upon two extreme examples of a mobile, mutable, and potentially dangerous Nature: volcanoes and glaciers.

Each provides seemingly antipodal natural phenomena; the fiery explosion of a volcanic eruption can induce rapid, catastrophic change over relatively bounded areas while the icy bulk of a glacier produces creepingly slow but massive changes over the vast landscapes over which they inch. This, however, is confounded, complicated, and reversed at times as glaciers can shift and calve rapidly and catastrophically while volcanoes can erode imperceptibly yet drastically or can create global climate changes through eruption materials.

At stake in discussing such events is the parallax between geological time versus human time and the cultural perception of natural phenomenon. While many cultures throughout history have placed a premium upon stability and a lack of change, the history of the Earth is marked by radical change and flux. This workshop intends to examine and query the uneasiness attached to the concept of changing environments and the malleable interfaces between nature and culture.

Participants are invited to examine issues of time (slow vs. fast/human vs. geological), changeable natures, and how human life intersects in particular with volcanoes and/or glaciers or in more general terms with the larger ‘natural’ world. These considerations can go beyond Earth to consider planetary natures. The intended goal is to discuss examples from a sample of cultures and time periods, drawing on insights provided by the arts, earth sciences, and social sciences.

FRIDAY DEC 4 – KEYNOTE. 5:30. Professor Emerita Julie Cruikshank (University of British Columbia)

Do Glaciers Listen? Melting Glaciers and Emerging Histories in America’s Far Northwest

ABSTRACT: Memories of the Little Ice Age in northwestern North America (roughly 1550-1900 A.D.) remain vivid in oral histories transmitted in indigenous communities near the Alaska-Yukon border. During the 18th and 19th centuries, enlarged glaciers in the Saint Elias Range provided travel routes for Aboriginal traders crossing from the Gulf of Alaska coast to the interior Yukon Plateau. In the 20th century, both Canada and the United States designated National Parks in this glaciated region, displacing indigenous residents from these territories; those parks are now encompassed within a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Melting glaciers are now revealing material evidence that reinvigorates longstanding oral traditions about human history and environmental change, posing new questions for cross-cultural and interdisciplinary collaborations. The paper will discuss how recent discoveries and collaborations among Aboriginal peoples and scientists reinvigorate discourses surrounding science and politics, concepts of ‘nature’ and ‘culture,’ and how local knowledge is co-produced in such encounters.

Keith Edmier (artist, New York City) basalt lava pour at RISD, to which colloquium participants were able to visit following the keynote speech and opening reception.


8:45 Coffee and light breakfast

9:00 Karen Holmberg – welcome and introduction

9:15 Girolamo F. De Simone (archaeologist, St. John’s College, Oxford) – THE AMBIGUOUS FORCE OF VESUVIUS AND THE TENACIOUS WILL OF MAN

ABSTRACT: The study of the Vesuvian area usually focuses on the eruption of AD 79 and its short-term effects in a very narrow area – the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. This paper broadens the chronological and spatial frameworks by analysing the long-term effects of the eruption in ancient southern Campania. Additionally, an archaeological map of sites in the environs of Vesuvius and an overview of the settlement pattern before and after the AD 79 eruption will be presented in detail. This study consequently analyses the changes in production, distribution, and economic networks after the Plinian eruption up until the AD 472 eruption.

Matching archaeological data (ancient sources, archival documents, and evidence from new excavations) with information from related scientific disciplines (volcanology, palaeohydrology, palaeoclimatogy) this paper describes the complex interplay between humans and the environment that developed after the catastrophe. One important aspect of this was the formation, transformation, and manipulation of marshes.

In a landscape which is unstable and continuously changing, humans and nature operate and interact with different paces. Therefore the concept of catastrophe – a useful tool for historians to ‘divide up’ the past into phases – becomes problematic and encourages the creation of a new historical narrative.

9:45 DISCUSSANT: Susan Keitumetse (archaeologist/environmental studies, Brown University and Okavango Research Center, Botswana)

10:15 Prof. John Grattan (archaeologist/earth scientist, Aberystwyth University) – EUROPEAN MORTALITY CRISES AND THE LAKI FISSURE ERUPTION

ABSTRACT: Until recent years the impact of the Laki Fissure eruption was mainly thought to have been confined to Iceland, where the self evident catastrophe which followed the eruption led to the deaths of over a quarter of the population. From the late 1980’s researchers began to consider that volcanic eruptions could influence cultural trajectories and environments worldwide, first adopting volcanogenic climate change as the mechanism of choice and then developing paradigms which sought to determine the fate of volcanic gases in the environment, in short interpreting volcanic eruptions as huge badly regulated chemical plants pumping effluent into the atmosphere. From this development it was inevitable that the Laki fissure eruption of 1783 would draw attention. Beyond doubt locally catastrophic it was also, in respect of the volume of gases emitted, one of the largest volcanic eruptions of the Holocene and thus an interesting case study. In a matter of years researchers had established the impact of volcanic gases and derived aerosols and acid rain across a wide area stretching from Scandinavia to North Africa and from Britain to Poland.

The eruption in effect caused the biggest air pollution event recorded in history, dwarfing, until recently, humanity’s efforts to pollute the earth. With acid rain and fog came damage to crops and insects, but also to human health. There are numerous accounts which clearly describe the health impacts of volcanic gases such as sulphur and contemporary writers were in no doubt that the strange air was responsible for many deaths. These were reported, with an air of panic across Europe. Writers described a “constellation of disease” which “swept many men to their tombs” and feared the end of the world was on hand.

The association of eruption and mortality seemed to be confirmed when quantitative research in parish burial records in Britain and Europe confirmed that a mortality crisis had indeed occurred and many tens of thousands of people had perished, mainly children, but also mature adults. This event was initially interpreted as wholly volcanogenic in origin, but research presented here for the first time indicates that although the association of the volcanic eruption and mortality crises was real enough, the forcing mechanism may have been indirect. Rather than the result of cardiopulmonary stress it appears that the influence of the eruption’s environmental forcing mechanisms was wielded in more subtle ways. Studies of dozens of neighbouring parishes spread across several counties of England suggest that the eruption influenced trends that were already inherent in the environment and population and that pre-existing vulnerabilities were exploited by the eruption, causing environmental stresses, illness and death. Rather than one direct volcanic cause of death there appear in fact to have been many. This case study is a warning to us of how extreme events may influence societies and cultures in unusual and unexpected ways; there is no reason to suspect that we are immune to such events and influences in the modern world.

10:45 DISCUSSANT: Caroline Karp (Environmental Studies, Brown University)

11:15 COFFEE BREAK (15 minutes)

11:30 Rev. Dr. David Chester (theologian/geologist, University of Liverpool) – VOLCANIC HAZARDS AND CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY

ABSTRACT: Both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures interpret disasters. Discussion did not end at the close of the biblical era, however, but has continued throughout Christian history and a number of Leibnizian models of theodicy have been developed. In the past few decades there has been a sea-change in both Christian attitudes towards disasters and in the ways in which losses from volcanic eruptions are viewed by hazard researchers. From the perspective of the latter, an approach that envisions volcano-related disasters as being primarily caused by extreme physical events has been largely replaced by one in which disasters are studied as social constructs, with an emphasis being placed on human vulnerability. From the perspective of Christian theology, greater prominence is now given to viewing disasters as events that represent human sinfulness which is manifested in national and international disparities in wealth, poverty, hazard preparedness and disaster losses. Greater focus is placed on Christian praxis, rather than merely trying to understand the nature of divine responsibility. It is argued that these new hazard analytical and theological perspectives are synergetic: allowing on the one hand churches, their members as well as their leaders, more fully to engage in disaster relief; whilst, on the other, enabling civil defence planners more effectively to use the often considerable human and financial resources of Christian communities and their charitable agencies.

12:00 DISCUSSANT: Prof. Thomas A. Lewis (Religious Studies, Brown University)

12:30 LUNCH BREAK AND FREE TIME (1.5 hours)

2:00 Ilana Halperin (artist, Glasgow) – PHYSICAL GEOLOGY (A GEOLOGICAL TIME DIPTYCH)

ABSTRACT: Please explain this impulse to me – attempting physical contact with geological time.What is the duration of daily life, the life span of an island, a volcano, your own time floating around on tectonic plates? What does a time span of 300,000,000 years actually mean? My work explores the relationship between geological phenomena and daily life, whether boiling milk in a 100 degree Celsius sulphur spring in the crater of an active volcano or celebrating my birthday with a landmass of the same age. Recent projects take as a starting point a personal experience with an unexpected geological phenomenon. Each project explores the changeable nature of landmass, using geology as a language to understand our relationship to a constantly evolving world.

In the ‘oddities drawer’ in the geology department of the Manchester Museum, I came across a fine collection of lava medallions from Mount Vesuvius – magma pressed between forged steel plates to form an imprint (imagine a waffle iron that uses lava as batter). In the same drawer, a small stone relief sculpture appeared to be carved out of pure white alabaster. In fact, it was a limestone cast created via the same process that forms stalactites in a cave, the residue of a high velocity calcifying process. The plan is to make a geological time diptych – new lava medallions, new cave casts. Slow and fast time alongside each other.

Ephemeral islands, petrified raindrops, volcanic dust from Pompeii, a shared birthday with a volcano. In this talk, I will be your field guide through a series of geological encounters, exploring how certain geological processes have a way of evoking a more personal response to the idea of geological time.

2:30 DISCUSSANT: Prof. Andrew Patrizio (writer/curator, Edinburgh College of Art)

3:00 Prof. Pall Skulason (philosopher, University of Iceland) – FIRE, ICE, AND HUMAN LIFE

ABSTRACT: I have maintained in earlier papers that we here on earth, or at any rate, many of us – especially those of us who live close to nature – become, through our intercourse with our natural environment, ‘earthlings‘: To be an earthling, I have said, is ‘to feel ones life to be bound to the earth, or deriving from it, to feel the earth to be the fundamental premise of one‘s life’. And I based this upon the idea that ‘We stand upon the earth – build, work, and destroy it, if it comes to that – because we are born to the earth and can only find ourselves in relation to it, in the light of it or in its embrace’: a spiritual understanding of the earth, related to a religious, aesthetic or magical understanding and quite different from, although complementary to, a scientific understanding. I have earlier tried to analyze this way of understanding, claiming that nature may impose itself upon us in such a way that we lose touch with all ordinary reality, are struck dumb and become pure awareness. It is through this kind of experience that we become earthlings. In this paper, I review and explain these thoughts in brief compass and then go on to ask how this spiritual understanding expresses itself in the form of life that we develop (or at least may develop) on the basis of it. In speaking of a ‘form of life’ I have something other and deeper in mind than the ways in which we all know that the parameters of our natural environment, and changes in it, can affect the way we live, or even whether we live – how the Little Ice Age, for example, led to the eradication of the Greenland Settlements established by the Icelanders in the 10th century. I mean rather how the spiritual understanding of nature, to the extent that we gain it, can shape our whole conception of the point and fabric of our lives: a conception that controls how we act towards others, towards nature and towards ourselves, and what we think of as the mission of an earthling.

3:45 Jim Head (Brown, Geological Sciences) – Satellite phone call from the Dry Valleys of Antarctica and discussion of ‘Fire and Ice on Mars’

4:00 Karen Holmberg – Closing Remarks

SUNDAY DEC 6 – ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION. 9:00-11:00 – Rhode Island Hall Common Room

contact for further information: Karen Holmberg.

free and open to the public. all interested audiences are welcomed.