Open Source Computing and GIS in the UK

Travels in a digital world

On Archaeology and Rivers

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I’ve spent the best part of the day musing (whilst working, obviously) about this article, on rivers as archaeological artefacts. It’s a really good article, on how we perceive rivers in archaeology, given their pesky tendency to change course, texture, size and so on.

It suggests that we tend to think of rivers as primarily natural features, part of the landscape and full of nice ducks and fishes. Or, in archaeological terms, we treat them as environmental features and subject them to a barrage of scientific techniques designed to test their sediments, so we see them as nothing more than receptacles for more interesting things that have fallen in, such as bugs, seeds, people, boats, etc. We don’t tend to take notice of them as cultural features in their own right, as we would a road, or even a field.

I’m not sure that I totally agree that rivers get ignored as cultural features, after all I’ve spent the best part of two years on projects where the river was a fairly central feature. However, I do think we could perhaps do more by them, give them the credit they deserve, after all in prehistoric times (and more recently in some areas) they were the primary transport network, and have always been social and political boundaries, supplies of food and drink, and the location of most of the industry.

With my database-head on, I think we need a method of describing them in a way that embraces their flexibility and dual nature. They are never just going to be one thing at a time, which makes it difficult to use standard methods of classification. To classify a standard archaeological feature, such as a mill, we would tend to say that it had several phases of use that follow on from each other, but at any one time it has one primary function. Obviously this isn’t going to work for rivers! Another approach would be to split a river up into sections, and define a different use for each section. These would need to overlap so that you could show multiple uses.

I’m not going to take this much further right now, but it has made me think a little more about rivers and how we look at them, and I will try and apply this next time I get one in a project…

So, here’s to rivers and all that sail on them/fall in them/use them/draw pictures of  them/write stories about them.