Environment as agent and actor in Iron Age, Medieval, and Early Modern Ulster
Tina Thurston Principal Investigator
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With NSF support, Dr. Tina Thurston, with US and UK colleagues, will conduct three years of fieldwork in County Armagh and County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, seeking to understand how long-term climate and environmental change interacted with changing political organization and livelihood during the last two millennia in the former polity of Ulster. The project makes a sound claim, both theoretically and geographically, that research in Northern Ireland is not only Arctic by being at the same latitude as Labrador, Canada but, more importantly, that the history of Ulster has much to contribute to a general theory of global human ecodynamics. Ulster, now roughly comprising modern Northern Ireland, first enters the written record via the Iron Age "Ulster Cycle" sagas, while later historic chronicles describe successive waves of new influences: 5th century AD Christianization, 9th century Viking colonization, 12th century Anglo-Norman invasion, and the English Plantation of Ulster in the 16th -17th centuries. Ulster thus experienced a succession of externally imposed political regimes, in addition to homegrown rulers, each with different economic and political goals, impacting local populations in different ways. <br/><br/> Even as political conditions shifted, many climate change effects are also apparent, with impacts that often left socioeconomic systems obsolete, propelled change in every sector, and perhaps ultimately contributed to protection from or vulnerability to external powers. This study views the political development of chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires between AD 300 - 1700 as instrumentalizing natural conditions to strengthen economies, guide policy, and govern, yet the same conditions also led many to falter, fragment, and reorganize. While the research team does examine elite culture vis-à-vis ecological change, the primary goal is elucidating how such changes impacted the ordinary people subject to these regimes, and how they navigated demands for taxes, military service, and other obligations. The investigators also seek data on how individuals and communities dealt with climate and environmental change in their daily lives, by altering livelihood practices, strategizing land and animal management, and implementing new ideas.<br/><br/>The research team points out that past studies have focused too much on the written word, a limited strategy, as Medieval and Early Modern writers frequently biased their work according to their own or their patrons' perspectives, distorting or ignoring many aspects of both rulership and subjecthood. They also fail to describe much about the daily lives of ordinary people. While archaeological work could normally resolve such gaps in textual records, in Ireland most archaeological sites are rendered "invisible" by the predominance of pasture-covered land, making normally simple types of archaeological reconnaissance, carried out in plowed fields, impossible. Only 219 sites reliably dated to the Iron Age, for example, are recorded for all Ireland, out of an estimated number in the tens of thousands or more. The focus has thus been on "visible" above-ground sites, such as castles and forts, associated with rulers or the upper class. <br/><br/>The team makes that case that in many contexts, studies of single sites do not answer questions about long-term regional economic and sociopolitical change; these are better answered by study of shifting or persistent "regional settlement patterns" as indicators of change or stasis, but such patterns cannot be reconstructed for Ireland without implementing new strategies. The PI's career has focused on developing prospection methods to resolve such problems, yielding excellent results in a 2008-2009 preliminary project in Armagh. The project will now expand to the full geographic/temporal extent originally envisioned, in two 20 km2 survey blocks in Armagh and Tyrone, where sequences of socioecological relationships can be well monitored. In 2011-2013 the team will carry out full coverage survey, using ground-based geochemical survey, IFSAR remote sensing, and airborne hyperspectral analysis, all non-invasive, remote sensing methods that perform well with Northern Ireland's impeded visibility, to establish a database from which settlement and population dynamics can be understood, a necessary step before social and political changes can be interpreted. Sites will then be tested, AMS dated, and characterized for site type and usage. Simultaneously, local paleoenvironmental studies will be conducted to establish conditions directly surrounding studied communities, complimentary with extant large-scale Irish climate and environmental data. <br/><br/>The project's ultimate goal is to compensate for historical and archaeological biases toward elite culture by using ethnohistoric approaches and novel field strategies to find the missing record of ordinary people. The dynamic socioecological landscape is both a proxy for and impress of cultural processes. Climate scholars argue that resolution of current global problems lies partly in comparative study with past responses to environmental turbulence. Governments cannot legislate all behavioral and attitude changes; ordinary people play crucial roles in coping with changing milieus. Our study emphasizes interplay between successive rulership regimes and ordinary people's practical management of change, especially under colonial conditions highly relevant to pervasive postcolonial problems today. The research offers Northern Ireland's past as an important case study suggesting links between climate, state, empire, and the interdependence between "rulers" and "ruled" in coping with the disequilibrium that forms the substrate for human life on earth.