Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

Periodic Report Summary 1 - INTERACT (INTERACT: Integrating Archaeological and Climatological Datasets: Investigating Global Human-Environmental Interactions)

Aims and Objectives
The main aim of this project is to facilitate systematic worldwide comparisons of how past human populations have responded, over the long-term, to climatic and environmental change during the Holocene period (broadly the past 10,000 years). This period encompasses major environmental changes associated with global warming and sea-level rise at the end of the last glacial period. Moreover, these changes occurred on a scale and in some cases with a rapidity that dwarfs the changes that we are likely to face in the coming centuries, for example sea-level rise of >50m and rapid oscillation of temperatures between full-glacial and full-interglacial conditions, with corresponding dislocations of natural resources and ecosystems. In archaeological terms, these changes are associated with the development of food production and early agriculture on land, and intensification in the exploitation of marine resources at the coast, developments that have resulted in potentially huge quantities of archaeological data relevant to such a study, notably shell mounds – which appear in their hundreds of thousands around the coastlines of the world from about 7000 years ago onwards as the durable expression of coastal settlements, societies and economies – and stone tools, food remains and other material culture associated with pre-agricultural and early agricultural developments on land, some of which extend back to 10,000 years or more.

In principle, such a study, focussing on the human impact of large-scale environmental changes in the past, should provide some practical insight into the potential social impact of present and future climate trends. However, analysis of past long-term trends is hampered by (a) the imposition of simplistic ‘prime mover’ theories of explanation (such as population pressure, reaction to climatic deterioration and so on), and (b) the lack of adequate methods for analysing and comparing, according to a uniform set of standards, the very large data sets typically generated by investigations of disparate archaeological sites and landscapes in different parts of the world, conducted by different teams working within different intellectual traditions, with different research agendas, and with different methods. Point (b) is critical: a proper and sophisticated understanding of the variable human impact of environmental changes and human responses to them demands comparison amongst a large number of examples at a global scale, but that goal will be impossible to reach without the development of compatible and inter-comparable systems for recording and managing the primary data.

This project is designed to address this challenge, and its objectives are, accordingly: to develop flexible recording systems that can be streamlined and analysed in digital form across multiple case studies, taking full advantage of modern computing methods and the multi-proxy sources of archaeological and environmental data now available; to model comparative analysis of time trends in different regions, continents and hemispheres; and to encourage other researchers to adopt this approach.

The approach is being developed around four case studies, primarily coastal because these have generated the largest data sets and have features in common, particularly the prominence of shell mounds. This simplifies the task of developing comparable recording systems and analytical methods, but also poses the challenges of dealing with ‘big data’ which this project is designed to address. The case studies also include one proto-agricultural example.

The coastal case studies are Great Mercury Island (GMI, New Zealand); Weipa (northern Australia); and the Farasan Islands (Saudi Arabian sector of the southern Red Sea). The proto-agricultural case study is the Fayum oasis (Egypt). These case studies represent suitably contrasted geographical and climate conditions, are the focus of recent and ongoing field investigations by the PI (Bailey) and the Auckland host (Holdaway), and have generated large datasets that are available for study. Also, the IOF Fellow has been able to gain direct field experience of all case studies except the Fayum: GMI during the current IOF period; and Weipa and Farasan during earlier visits in his previous research positions. A visit to the Fayum was planned in the current period but is on hold because of the political turmoil in Egypt.

Description of work
The first year of the project has been devoted to the specific objectives and their associated tasks as scheduled in the original work plan, namely to compile and examine the datasets from the four case studies, to resolve issues of incompatibility, to develop and test a common framework for digital recording and comparison – the Common Data Model (CDM); and to design and build a Geographic Information System (GIS) incorporating the CDM, which allows for the integration of different types of information and facilitates interrogation and comparison amongst the different case studies in relation to specific questions, hypotheses and models about long-term human-environment interactions. The IOF Fellow has been able to work on the current excavations at the GMI case study, in order to gain an understanding of how the field data is generated and recorded, has received training from Auckland staff in a number of digital methodologies, and has used the GMI data in a test-run of the CDM.

Description of results so far
All the objectives and tasks for this period have been successfully accomplished, with a logical progression from compilation of data to creation and testing of a Common Data Model, to construction of a flexible GIS, with each subsequent step in the work plan building logically on the preceding one as originally envisaged. The first stage in this progress revealed a number of serious incompatibilities and inconsistencies in types of variables and recording systems between different case studies, for example the use of spreadsheets versus databases. These have been resolved and a number of protocols established as the basis of the CDM to ensure consistency of application within this project and for other users in future research. The GIS database has been designed around a menu of tables that can be integrated within a relational framework. Different tables have been designed to deal with different types of data. Each type of table uses the same format, ensuring consistency between different case studies, but the GIS also allows for the addition of additional table-types to cater for unforeseen needs in future projects, thereby ensuring maximum flexibility.

The IOF Fellow has also published six academic publications on human-climate-environment interactions, organised two international workshops at York to disseminate results, been invited to speak at one international conference, and been a named collaborator on two successful grant applications.

The project is on course to move to the next phase of model building and interpretation but it is too early yet to specify in detail the nature of the final results or their socioeconomic impact.

Reported by

United Kingdom


Life Sciences
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