Telling interdisciplinary stories about past climate change

A view of the town of Vernazza in Northwestern Italy. A new interdisciplinary research efforts seeks to better understand the connections between climate and human societies in the Mediterranean over history. Photo: Nicolas Grevet via Flickr
Apr 2016

At a meeting in Greece, a team of historians, archaeologists and climate scientists embarked on an unprecedented effort to study past Mediterranean climate and society. We talk to three experts about the promise and challenges of doing this type of interdisciplinary research.

In 2014, a group of archeologists, historians and natural scientists met in Costa Navarino, Greece — a Mediterranean destination lauded for its azure ocean and rich cultural history. Setting aside, this wasn’t an ordinary project meeting. The group had gathered to talk about breaking down the barriers between them that had been built by decades of increasingly specialised scientific traditions, theories, methods and languages.

The conversations that took place over those few days weren’t always easy or understandable for all. One natural scientist said: “When I sit in a group of archaeologists, and they start to talk about ceramics and pottery and everybody understands what time in history we are — I don’t have a clue!” But what emerged was an agreement to conscientiously work together to generate new knowledge and pose new hypotheses and questions that may not yet have been asked about Mediterranean climate and society. The effort was part of the Past Global Changes (PAGES) project, a global research project of Future Earth.

The researchers left Greece and started collaborating on a myriad of research projects. Those included combining archeological evidence with historical texts to better understand how societies in Asia, Africa and Europe adapted to climate change. The researchers published their findings recently in a special issue in Quaternary Science Reviews. Some of the interesting findings include that Constantinople’s socio-economic system was vulnerable to climatic changes only when there was political unrest, and that Early farming communities in Southwest Asia were resilient to rapid climate change.

But the biggest thing to emerge from this collaboration may have been the approach. In a paper published in the same issue, Adam Izdebski and his colleagues illustrate the way that archeologists communicate with other archeologists, and how that is both similar and different to the way historians communicate with other historians and climate scientists with other climate scientists.

The way experts talk to each other isn’t just important for the future of research, Izdebski’s team concludes. Society’s ability to solve some of the world’s most complex problems depends on researchers seeking knowledge from non-traditional, and even unusual places.

Below, we talk to three experts — a natural scientist, an archaeologist and a historian — involved in this interdisciplinary experience and what they learned from the process.

The natural scientist

Karin Holmgren is a Professor of Physical Geography at Stockholm University and was the editor of the special issue in Quaternary Science Reviews. She shares her thoughts about how different disciplines think about time, and how they write:

The most common challenge is when we’re speaking about time. Because we use absolutely different ways of defining time and when we want to compare processes from history, from climate, and from archaeology, it always becomes confused.

I’m talking in before present (BP) scale, and historians and archaeologists talk in AD/BC scale or in terms of ages: Hellenic times, Byzantine times. Natural scientists or climatologists have big difficulties in relating a specific historical time period to an exact timescale.

Karin Holmgren in the Korallgrottan, or Coral Cave, in Sweden. Cave features, such as stalactites, hold information about past climate conditions. Photo: Karin Holmgren

Another thing about time is that we mean different things when we are talking about short timescales and the long timescale. When I talk about a short timescale, I might think about the last two thousand, three thousand years. And for a historian, that is an enormous amount of time.

Sometimes when we’re speaking to each other, we don’t realize that we don’t understand each other.

Take the title of our paper. There were words that I have never used in science. For example, “consilience," which is the second word in the title. That was new to me. "Narrative" is something that, before I started to work with historians and archaeologists, well I thought this is something for children’s stories.

And then I have to say, “What does this mean?” If you’re not afraid of asking when we don’t understand each other, then we increase our knowledge, and we increase our joint knowledge.

Another interesting difference is the way we write. A natural scientist is taught to write very concisely. So you should really try to strip everything down and write a short and to the point paper. For historians and archaeologists, the language, how you write, I think is more important. And they write much more lengthy — it’s like writing novels. They like books. We like short papers published in scientific journals.

This sort of collaboration might take some more time, but I think it is necessary. If we can get a better understanding about how nature and culture are interconnected, then I think that would improve our possibilities to better forecast and adapt to future challenges.

For example, one of our papers looks at societal change in the Neolithic period — which some experts have proposed might be related to soil erosion because of increasing population. Our examination of the data actually suggests that the erosion might have been a result of lots of earthquakes. If we hadn’t met the people of different disciplines, we wouldn’t have come to see that possibility.

The archeologist

Erika Weiberg is a researcher at the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at Uppsala University in Sweden. She talks about her fascination with the “craftsmanship” of climate science and the trouble with graphs and tables:

Erika Weiberg explores an archaeological site. Photo: Erika Weiberg

I don’t see climate when I excavate. I need to have that information from somewhere else — from the natural scientists.

I’m a prehistorian, so I don’t have any texts to relate to. I work with material culture: things that we dig up from the ground. And the things that we dig up, we find them in layers of other things that they are related to. They relate to things we find horizontally, which were probably being used at the same time. But they also relate up and down to things in other layers that were earlier or later.

All archaeologists are also historians in a sense. I’m interested in the history of people living in the period or the place I’m studying. So it all revolves around people and how they use the material culture or the things around them. And how they form a livable environment within their settlements and their natural landscapes.

I want to understand the natural landscape, of course, but this is when we really need the natural scientists coming in to help us. What I find most interesting or fascinating with climate science, or natural science, is the craftsmanship of how they can get to this picture of understanding how the natural environment has changed over time. And how they can put this into such detail with the methods available to them.

We need to find ways of presenting different data in a way that all kinds of thinkers can relate to. Take graphs, for example. The natural science’s graph is often very difficult to understand for an archaeologist or a historian because they’re data rich and displayed differently than we are used to.

A first step can be combining different datasets into one figure as we show in an example in this paper. In this table, the authors have overlaid different datasets from the different fields on each other, as they relate to each other. So at the top there are natural science graphs, then we have some archaeological graphs, and the arrows are the historical time-points. I think this is more easily read by more disciplines.

A graphic merging information from climate archives (top) with archaeological (middle) and historical (bottom) data. Graphic: Izdebski et al. 2016

The next step is to somehow merge it into one single display.

Many would think that we are generalising. Because we are, of course. We can’t go into the details we are used to. I’m heading one of the papers in the same special issue on the Peloponnese in Greece, and we’re trying to integrate what we have on climate, environment, archaeology and history. You could probably write a whole book about each century of this region. And trying to cover 7,000 years in twenty pages — well, some would say that we generalised too much.

We need to generalise to find the points of interest between different disciplines. But then, when we have those points, we can go back and de-generalise and add complexity to the question.

I started to work interdisciplinarily in 2008 and am presently working on a collaborative project with a Classical historian and a paleoclimatologist. And so far, it’s really rewarding. We help each other to think in different ways. The discussions that we have open up new questions on old material.

The historian

Adam Izdebski is an assistant professor of Byzantine and environmental history in the Institute of History of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and he is currently at Princeton University as a Visiting Professor with the Humanities Council. He talks about the report he published in the special issue of Quaternary Science Reviews and how it illustrates the importance — and difficulties — of doing interdisciplinary research:

In this paper, we show that all the different disciplines of knowledge and research that deal with the past are, in some sense, historical.

It does not mean there is some sort of imperialism on my side because I’m a historian. But it means that, at a very basic level, we are doing the same thing. It’s only when it comes to particulars, I would say, that we begin to differ.

The ideal way we could work across disciplines is that we start together from the stage of the project design. From the very beginning, the project we undertake should consider questions that are interesting to the representatives of all the disciplines.

"All the different disciplines of knowledge and research that deal with the past are, in some sense, historical," says historian Adam Izdebski. Photo: Adam Izdebski

This takes place rather rarely. At the moment when you have projects with people from other disciplines, the whole framework and the way the questions are asked starts based in one discipline. People from the other disciplines are invited later on because they have some expertise that is necessary to help solve some of the questions that have been uncovered from the data.

But when you have a plan to work with other disciplines from the very beginning, you can adjust to each other. It also helps a lot to overcome this problem of communication, of the rhetoric that you use in different disciplines. Because when you interact from this early stage, you already determine the way to talk about it together.

I think that very few teams have actually undertaken something like what we recommend in the paper. Perhaps nobody has really tried it: Involving historians, archaeologists and scientists on equal basis from the very beginning. But this is why this paper was necessary. You can only answer complex questions in depth and truly explain some of the phenomena we observe when you’re acting together.

A joint publication culture could come into being in two ways. The most obvious is to start new journals that would publish the type of articles that we are interested in and that would accept all kinds of disciplinary discourses and rhetoric styles that are important to us. This, however, already took place a few times and often resulted in either a journal becoming dominated by the mode or style of one field or becoming a medium of debate for a new subfield. So it did not really result in a change of the publication culture. 

The second, more risky and demanding way is to persuade the editors of the existing journals in our fields to accept journal articles that look different, that present research specific to several fields and merge research methods and styles of writing. I think this solution makes much more sense, as we will be able to reach the large majority of researchers who remain deeply rooted in their own disciplines.

So, why should it matter? Because otherwise I think that it would take us much more time to answer the very important questions about how societies in the past responded to climate change. This would be very useful knowledge for our debates on how we should face climate change right now.

To read about some of the discoveries that emerged from this effort, see our earlier blog post here. You can also read about more recent news from PAGES here.