Category Archives: Blog

Empires of Emptiness: What the past tells us about desert warfare in the Sahara – at a time when it is being fought

Dr Berny Sèbe
Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Post-Colonial Studies
Principal investigator of the ‘Outposts of Conquest’ project (

Empires of Emptiness: What the past tells us about desert warfare in the Sahara – at a time when it is being fought

When it comes to fighting jihadists in the desert, forget about the buzzwords now commonly associated with radical Islam elsewhere: social networks, internet recruitment or online propaganda. Of course, cybercafes are not entirely absent, even in the most remote oases, so cyber-recruitment and e-propaganda are not entirely irrelevant, but there are more important aspects to the picture to be taken into account when it comes to war in the desert.

The main courtyard of the fortress of Zirara, Algeria. Photo Yacine Ketfi.

At least, these are the preliminary conclusions of a research project I am leading at the University of Birmingham (in collaboration with Prof. Alexander Morrison, at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan), which examines strategies of colonial conquest and administration in arid environments, through the case-study of desert fortresses. Back in the nineteenth century, policy makers in London, Paris or Moscow faced questions and challenges which were not so dissimilar to those which are asked today when it comes to, let us say, Libya or Mali.

When French forces decided to renovate and expand in 2013 an old desert fortress in the barren sandy plains of Madama, in the far north-east of Niger, in an attempt to control human, trade and trafficking fluxes between the deeply unstable Southern Libya and the rest of the Saharo-Sahelian belt, they actually emulated what their predecessors had done a century before. The construction of fortified bases from which military power can be projected has been a regular feature of modern desert warfare, and even drones and supersonic fighter jets have not made this form of effective territorial control redundant.

The challenges any army trying to confront an ever-elusive enemy like jihadist fighters are reminiscent of those faced by nineteenth-century empire builders. How can vast and sparsely populated spaces be controlled effectively? How can potential allies be distinguished effectively from die-hard hostile forces? Which strategies will ensure that the arrival of a new player able to flex its muscles does not provide a massive recruitment boost to the opposing party? What is the most effective balance between mobility and brute sedentary force?

Views towards the palm grove from the fortress of Taghit, Algeria. Photo Yacine Ketfi.

This is where the past can teach present strategists a few lessons: not only in terms of where fortresses can be located effectively, but also how they are best used to enhance impact: as intelligence centres as much as logistical bases, and also as symbolic statements which foster local support. In a context where traditional values of sometimes violent masculinity prevail, airpower is often seen as a proof of weakness: it can only be chosen by those who seek to evade direct, virile confrontation. In the nineteenth century as much as today, fortresses assert a stern determination to act effectively on the ground, and guarantee and can generate further rallying.

Past experience also tells us that fortresses can only be effective if they are located at strategic places which cannot be easily avoided: they become more a statement of vanity if they can be easily bypassed. Tactful management of human relations is needed to ensure that they do not become the embodiment of a much-despised foreign presence. And crucially, they are effective only if they can operate as springboards from which military power is projected – with camel-mounted troops then, and all-terrain jeeps and lorries now.

The architectural structure of the Bordj of Erfoud East, Sahara. Photo Berny Sèbe.

More generally, the past tells us that the Sahara has its own socio-cultural dynamics based on centuries of subtle negotiations between various competing communities, and that this complex human fabric has to be understood if any form of durable settlement is to be found. Local susceptibilities are also best taken into account, to avoid antagonising those who have to be seen as partners rather than obstacles. This is the reason why collateral damage is all the more significant in such societies which have long-term memories. The way in which Sahara nomads in general have also tolerated or even supported the French presence after having resisted it in the first place, can also teach us a lot when it comes to devising strategies for long-term peace and stability in the region: local population need to be clearly the net beneficiaries of the return of peace, and take an active part in it. The Pax Gallica worked in the first half of the twentieth century because it was locally co-opted and offered prized rewards. In the twenty-first century, jihadist movements

Anyone reading Winston Churchill’s observations about the Afghans in his debut book The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1897) will be struck by how relevant some of his observations have remained. In spite of the staggering speed at which the world changes, it seems that the past can still teach us a lot, especially when looking at such specific environments like the Sahara or the Himalayas. It is probably not a coincidence if the French, who had the benefit of a century and a half of military operations in the Sahara, have been able, against all odds, to achieve in Northern Mali in less than a year what an international coalition led by the United States has been unable to get in Afghanistan in a decade.

The ‘Outposts of Conquest’ project (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) has given rise to an exhibition which is being shown until 16 December 2016:

Empires of Emptiness – Fortresses of the Sahara and the Steppe’, in the Footprint Gallery at Jackfield Tile Museum, Ironbridge Gorge TF8 7LJ. Open everyday from 10am until 5pm.  Admission is free of charge.

The walls of the fortress of Turkestan, built by the Khanate of Kokand. Photo Berny Sèbe


Report on AHRC/LABEX Franco-British Research Workshop 1

Northcott 1Fondation Royaumont, Val d’Oise, France 16-17 January 2015

By Michael Northcott,

A Franco-British Research Workshop of grant holders from the AHRC’s Care for the Future grant call and LABEX’s (Laboratory of Excellence) grant call ‘Les passes dans le present: histoire, patrimoine, memoire’ was held at the former Cistercian Abbey of Royaumont 20 miles north of Paris in January 2015. The Abbey was built in the thirteenth century and patronised by Louis XIV. It is situated in a large walled enclosure of gardens, water features and stone buildings. Over the centuries the monks instituted some remarkable hydrological features. The abbey is situated between two lakes on raised ground Northcott labex 2and water from one lake flows through the Abbey grounds and buildings and out to the other lake, Along the way it was stone and sand filtered for drinking water, its flow was used for a mill, while separate channels combined with settlement pools and small weirs were used to separate and cleanse waste water. The resultant water use and supply was very advanced for its era while at the same time the channelling of water around the site considerably enhances the beauty of the buildings and grounds. I was reminded of the similar use of water in the Alhambra at Grenada and indeed the Abbey is an interesting example of Islamic influence on French ecclesiastical aesthetics. This influence is acknowledged in the commentaries provided by the Royaumont Foundation – who are the present owners of the Abbey – on the gardens in which it is pointed out that until 1100 monastic gardens were working gardens providing foodstuffs, herbal medicines and beverage related plants to the monasteries. Northcott labex 3But under Islamic influence the uses of gardens as places of contemplation, and for aesthetic appreciation, became more prominent and vestiges of this turn can be seen income of the restored gardens at Royaumont. The Abbey also had managed woodlands for fuel which can still be seen to the North of the present site.

The title of the workshop was ‘Delving back into the past to look into the present and future’ and the main aim was to explore interconnections between the AHRC Care for the Future and LABEX Pasts in the Present research calls. Both grant themes sponsor modes of representation of the past from interdisciplinary perspectives. A number of the presentations raised issues relevant to the AHRC Environment and Sustainability theme, and I will just highlight these. A fuller Northcott labex 4discussion of presentations is available in the blog by Lucy Veale at Sophie Richter-Devro, from the University of Exeter, in her presentation on her research into the oral history of Bedouin women in Palestine highlighted the difficulties of writing or documenting flexible, ever changing oral traditions, and the dangers of ‘freezing’ narratives and communities. Paulo Jedlowski, from the University of Calabria, in a philosophical presentation on ‘Memories of the Future’ drew on the work of Koselleck in examining portrayals of ‘future presents’ and ‘present futures’, for example in science fiction novels and films, and discussed how such past imagined futures might underwrite intergenerational connections. Intergenerational connections were also addressed by Richard Haynes, from the University of Stirling, whose presentation on sports heritage in Glasgow demonstrated the use of archival research, geo-referencing and mapping activities with school children to engage with communities across generations. The presentation of Carry van Lieshout from the University of Nottingham on the ‘The Power and the Water’ project linked historical with contemporary research around water management, access and the environment, and revealed conflicts and solutions of the past that may be useful today. Lucy Veale of the University of Nottingham gave a presentation on the Extreme weather project in which she highlighted the importance of archive, datasets, memory and narrative in framing present-day responses to extreme weather. Northcott labex 5Religious understandings of temporality, and specifically deep time, was tackled by Michael Northcott, of the University of Edinburgh, who described the way geological time – as invented by James Hutton and Charles Lyell -displaced human intergenerational history from earth or natural history, a displacement that the new geological epoch of the Anthropocene reverses in ways that are generative of cultural imaginaries of climate change and species extinction. A presentation by Carlos Lopez Galviz, School of Advanced Study, University of London, compared the nineteenth century development of the urbanscapes of London and Paris, and the role of futuristic imaginaries in their respective shaping. In a helpful summative comment Andrew Thompson observed the importance of recognising the multiplicity of imagined todays, tomorrows and yesterdays in our respective projects.

Northcott labex 6The joint workshop was an excellent example of Franco-British cooperation and a new initiative for AHRC and LABEX. Andrew Thompson and director of the LABEX theme, Marie-Claire Lavabre, in their concluding remarks also indicated their clear and joint intention to launch a joint funding call between AHRC and LABEX for research projects involving collaboration between researchers from the Care for the Future theme and the LABEX ‘Les Passes dans le present’ theme.


Between cultural and natural heritage

marianna-dudleyby Dr Marianna Dudley, University of Bristol. Cross-posted from The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts with Futures blog

Between cultural and natural heritage

Dudley 1 chateau

“Fairytale castle”, chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Chenonceau is a chateau worthy of a fairytale princess. It has turrets and gardens and galleries – and a river running through it. Built between 1514 and 1522 on the site of an old mill, it became the home of Diane de Poitiers, mistress of King Henry II. Diane loved the chateau, and built the bridge over the river. On Henry’s death in 1559, his widow Catherine de Medici demanded that Diane exchange Chenonceau for her chateau Charmont. Catherine built the galleries upon Diane’s bridge, and ruled France as regent from the building. Renaissance intrigues, not fairytales, brought this building to life.

Foundation Royaumont, a former abbey. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Foundation Royaumont, a former abbey. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

I was in France following an AHRC-Labex Franco-British workshop, where Care for the Future project members were brought together with French Labex counterparts, to discover each other’s research and discuss possibilities for future collaboration. The 2-day workshop was held in a former abbey transformed into a cultural centre – the Royaumont Foundation – to the north of Paris, a stunning setting for the ‘Delving Back into the Past to Look into the Present’ workshop.

The workshop was the result of an initiative by Andrew Thompson, director of the Care for the Future programme for the AHRC in Britain, and Ghislaine Glasson Deschaumes, director of Les Passés dans le présent (the Laboratoire d’excellence based at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre la Defense, France). The two funding schemes had such close themes – Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past, and The Past in the Present: History, Patrimony, Memory – as well as an emphasis on working with external heritage partners, and supporting early career researchers, that Andrew and Ghislaine have taken the opportunity to forge collaborative links between the two. Future funding will allow members of the two schemes to connect and apply for funding for joint research projects.

Carry van Lieshout and I were there to represent ‘The Power and the Water’, describe our research and be alert for potential links with French researchers present. My paper, ‘Between natural and cultural heritage, and human and natural archive’, discussed the importance of placing environments and natures at the heart of our understandings of heritage – as they have been historically, for example in the conservation movement in the UK and the global national park movement. It suggested that the language of heritage acquires new meaning when situated in a public sphere with many and multiple ties to place and nature – heritage breeds, heirloom vegetables, and keystone species are just some of the vocabulary used to add value to things by invoking heritage both cultural and natural. I suggested that, as historians and heritage professionals, we should be alert to the natural archive as a source and site for history, in addition to the cultural archive, and continue to place importance on landscapes, animals, ecosystems, natural cycles – and the histories and cultures they inform – in our discussions of heritage. In her paper ‘River or Ruin? Connecting Histories with Publics’, Carry explored how different valuations and understandings of an intermittent river and its heritage are playing out in the Peak district, and suggested that to widen our understanding (and expectations) of heritage-in-place to accommodate both natural and human interventions might allow contestations between past, present and future use to move forward.

Splendour of the interior of interior of Chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

Splendour of the interior of interior of Chateau Chenonceau. Photo: Marianna Dudley.

After an intense two days of workshopping, I took some time to see more of French heritage in situ. Thus, I ended up at Chateau Chenonceau on a bitterly cold January morning, fully absorbed in the Renaissance splendor of the house, from the kitchens down below to the roaring fires that brought life (and much-needed warmth) to bed chambers and sitting rooms. This was cultural heritage at its best.

But then, in the gallery exhibition, a quote from Marguerite Yourcenar stopped me in my tracks, and brought the natural heritage of the chateau, somewhat hidden beneath the weight of tapestries and brocades and copper pans, back to the fore:

Let’s look at it from a new perspective, leaving aside these very well-known figures, these silhouettes on the magic lantern of French history… let’s think about the countless generation of birds that have flocked around these walls, the skillful architecture of their nests, the royal genealogies of animals in the forests and their dens or their unadorned shelters, their hidden life, their almost always-tragic death, so often at the hands of man.

Take another step along the paths: let’s dream about the great race of trees, with different species taking over in succession, compared to whose age four or five hundred years means nothing.

Another step further on, far from any human concerns, here is the water in the river, water that is both older and newer than any other form, and which has for centuries washed the cast offs of history. Visiting old residences can lead us to see things in a rather unexpected way. (Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (1962)

Yourcenar, the French writer and first woman to be inducted into the Académie Française (in 1981), looked beyond the materiality of the chateau to connect its history with that of the surrounding lands and waters that supported it, and suffered for it.[1] Her words spoke to me as an encouragement for environmental historians to raise the profile of the natural archive, and as a reminder that we are far from the only ones to seek and value natural heritage alongside other manifestations of history. I look forward to the opportunities that the initiative between AHRC and Labex presents for us to connect with French scholars with similar convictions and research interests. Sincere thanks to Andrew, Ghislaine, and the AHRC/Labex staff for bringing us all together, and starting conversations that are sure to develop.

[1] ‘Becoming the Emperor: How Marguerite Yourcenar reinvented the past’, The New Yorker (February 14, 2005)

ENTANGLED PASTS: 7 things you should know about the recent pasts of France and Britain, in the wake of the attack on CHARLIE HEBDO.

Prof Charles Forsdick (Leadership Fellow, AHRC Translating Cultures) and Prof Andrew Thompson (Leadership Fellow, AHRC Care for the Future)


1. Charlie Hebdo is part of a long tradition of dissent in France. Its genealogy can be traced back to the satirical press at the time of the French Revolution. In February 2006, Charlie Hebdo shot to global prominence with its depictions of the prophet Mohammed. But since its launch, the anti-establishment magazine has had plenty of other targets in its sights. Hara Kiri, the publication banned in 1970 for its irreverent take on the death of Charles de Gaulle (and which Charlie Hebdo succeeded) was firmly opposed to French colonialism, particularly during the final stages of the Algerian War of Independence. And much of that French empire was of course in the Muslim world. Jean Cabut (known as ‘Cabu’), cartoonist and shareholder at Charlie Hebdo, a founder of Hara Kiri, and a victim of the 7 January 2015 shootings, linked his own politicization and pacifism to a period of conscription in Algeria in the 1950s. It was also while a conscript in Algeria that Wolinski, another victim of the killings, first came across an advert for Hara Kiri that attracted him to the publication. For more on the history of Charlie Hebdo and its predecessors, see the Exeter Centre for Imperial and Global History.

2. British and French laws on racial and religious discrimination differ in key respects. In Britain, legislation relating to incitement to hatred is applicable to all faiths and creeds and rooted in a multiculturalist tradition. In France, the situation is more complex. Although the offense of blasphemy was abolished during the Revolution, the penal code and press laws relating to freedom of expression still prohibit defamatory communication, or that which incites ethnic or religious discrimination. Legislation passed in France in the 1990s also outlaws declarations that seek to justify or deny crimes against humanity, most notably the Holocaust. In 2007, a French court cleared Charlie Hebdo and its director Philippe Val of defamation charges – filed by the Paris Mosque and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France – relating to the magazine’s re-publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that had originally appeared in a Danish newspaper. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, a number of people have been charged with and convicted for ‘defending terrorism’, under legislation that removes the focus from laws relating to freedom of the press to the criminal code. The tension between such convictions and the commitment to freedom of expression has not passed without comment.

3. Britain and France are still struggling to escape their colonial pasts. This is not only true of how parts of British and French society view immigrants but equally how many immigrants view them. The shanty towns which housed many Algerian immigrants in France after the Second World War were terrible places to live. They were regarded by the French authorities as a danger zones and colonial officials were brought back from North Africa to monitor the conditions affecting Algerian immigrants and the political threat they represented. The association of such precarious housing with marginalization continued until at least the 1970s, and some argue that the housing situation of several migrant communities in France still today reveals continuity between the post-war bidonvilles and the contemporary banlieues. Britain never developed the equivalent of shanty towns, although first generation immigrants from its former colonies struggled to gain access to social housing and often had to rent rooms in dilapidated properties in run-down inner city areas.

4. Despite the recent ramping up of political rhetoric on immigration it is worth reminding ourselves that politicians have not always pandered to public prejudices. Take the classic case in Britain. During the heightened racial tensions of the 1960s, Enoch Powell delivered his famous and inflammatory “Rivers of Blood” speech, a widely publicized attack on the levels of immigration which deliberately cast doubt on the capacity of immigrants to integrate. But at precisely the same time Britain’s first Minister of Immigration, Maurice Foley, was touring the country, warning of the dangers of the growth of extremism. Foley drew attention to the fact that in many parts of Britain immigrants had largely been ignored and abandoned. He called for a common humanity, especially greater respect for immigrant’s own traditions and culture. Similarly in France, two decades later in the 1980s amidst renewed controversy over immigration, the rise of the Front National was challenged by SOS-Racisme, an anti-racist group founded in 1984. Many SOS-Racisme activists have since become prominent if not uncontroversial PS politicians: Harlem Désir, for a time First Secretary, is currently the French Secretary of State for European Affairs; Malek Boutih, former president, is an MP. SOS-Racisme, although not escaping criticism for its Republican and assimilationist stance, has played a key role fighting racial discrimination. It regularly acts as plaintiff in discrimination trials and actively challenging prejudice in both social and legal spheres.

5. The dynamics of the debate about immigration in Britain and France share more in common than we care to admit. Debates regarding French republican identity and British multiculturalism relate to the political will to move beyond a rhetoric of integration to affect a genuine accommodation of migrant communities. In France, the rigidity of a centralized republican model that requires assimilation is countered by an alternative notion of a ‘république métissée’ [hybridized Republic] that maintains core values whilst accepting the necessity of adaptation to twenty-first century cultural shifts and population flows. In Britain, the multi-cultural model is increasingly discredited in the eyes of many because it is said to encourage cultural separation. Repeated calls for “core British values” are offered as an antidote. But when asked to define those values, there is perhaps some irony in the fact that “tolerance” is often top of the list. In Britain and France, some critics of current government policy discern a persistent structural racism with colonial roots.

6. The flashpoints between migrant communities and the rest of British or French society have changed considerably over the last half century. Inter-racial relationships and mixed-marriages were once of far greater concern. Today the markers of integration (or its perceived absence) are more likely to be Islamic customs and practices (codes of dress, treatment of women, religious imagery), attitudes to which may differ among Muslims as well as between the Muslim and non-Muslim parts of the population. In France, intermarriage was met with hostility in the earlier part of the twentieth century, especially after the First World War. Attitudes have since changed. The 1999 census suggests that 38% and 34% of male and female married immigrants, respectively, are intermarried (including around 30% of those of North African heritage). A recent study has indicated that despite perceptions of its active multiculturalism, Britain may in fact have less immigrant assimilation through marriage than is sometimes suggested. Britain has a lower number of mixed marriages than France: it was reported that 8.8% of British marriages include one foreign-born partner compared with 11.8% in France.

7. There are a lot of myths about immigrants not speaking the language of their host country that recent data dispels. The 2011 census in England and Wales has allowed detailed mapping of linguistic diversity – in particular the super-diversity associated with many urban wards. The census revealed that, of the 8% (4.2 million) of residents aged three years and above with a main language other than English, 79% (3.3 million) could speak English very well or well; only 0.3% of the population (138,000) cannot speak English, with the majority of these likely to be recent arrivals. Comparable data for France is not available as national statistics are not permitted to reflect markers of ethnic diversity. The 1999 census nevertheless posed questions to a sample of 380,000 adult respondents about their family situation, including one relating to the languages in which their parents spoke to them before the age of five. The results suggested that 940,000 people consider Arabic to be their mother tongue, but these figures do not capture actual language practice and only reflect the activity of those born before 1981. In both national contexts, it is clear that acquisition of English or French remains a key element of social cohesion, although, for differing reasons, multilingualism is still seen as more of an impediment than an asset.


AHRC Care for the Future and Translating Cultures, jointly with the Institute for Government, have just published a major report on the role of history in policy making.

Future Pasts? Sustainabilities in West Namibia

Professor Sian Sullivan, Bath Spa UniversitySian Sullivan
PI of Future Pasts
With Mike Hannis (BSU), Angela Impey (SOAS), Chris Low (BSU) and Rick Rohde (Edinburgh)

Perhaps inappropriately for a blog on ‘Debating Time’, I am late in submitting a post to introduce Future Pasts. My excuse is that the invitation to contribute a post was sent when I was living in west Namibia, some distance from internet access – at the settlement in this photo.

Sullivan 1

Please click on photos to enlarge

This is a place called !Nao-dais in Damara/≠Nū Khoen gowab (language), and Otjerate in oshiHerero. The family of Suro, the Damara woman with whom I have worked on and off for twenty years, have herded livestock at !Nao-dais for decades. Currently they are joined by a Himba pastoralist family from Kaokoveld to the north of this area, who inhabit the cluster of huts to the left of this image. These diverse Namibians are also being asked to vacate the(ir) land. A series of affidavits shared with me in October, associated with companies investing in wildlife tourism operations in the area, frames ‘sustainability’ in terms of a landscape aesthetic of ‘pristine, unspoilt wilderness’, marred visually and ecologically by the ‘eyesore’ of local people and their dwellings.

Scratch beneath the surface of one small place, then, and we find very different conceptions of what it means to live well within an environmental context, linked with differing views about what values should be transferred forwards to the future, and about how this might best be enacted. Juxtaposition of these and other cultures of sustainability in the west Namibian context provides the fulcrum around which the Future Pasts project pivots.

The full title of our project is Future Pasts in an Apocalyptic Moment: Green Performativities and Ecocultural Ethics in a Globalised African Landscape. In this introductory blog I will introduce our project and intentions by explaining the key terms of our title, beginning with the last term, which locates our project geographically.

A globalised African landscape

We are working in west Namibia, where three members of our team – myself, Rick Rohde and Chris Low – have conducted ethnographic research going back to the early 1990s. This is a dryland, postcolonial context that covers the contemporary administrative regions of Southern Kunene and Erongo. On the map, places in west Namibia that feature in our research include – from north to south – Sesfontein, Palmwag, Brandberg, Uis, Okombahe and Gobabeb.

Sullivan 2

Click to enlarge

Although much of this west Namibian landscape is frequently imagined and marketed today as untouched or unspoilt, and thus as pristine wilderness, it has long been inhabited by diverse African cultures who have also been entangled with wide-ranging networks of trade and exchange. For more than two hundred years west Namibia has been entwined with specifically European and North American commodity markets and strategies of resource extractioninvolving the products of living entities such as whales, elephants, rhinos, and ostriches, as well as inorganic resources such as diamonds, copper and guano.[1] In other words, the context of our research has long-been a globalised African landscape: connected with and shaped by desires from afar, which have left their marks on places and peoples through colonialism and now through the application of a strongly neoliberal (i.e. market-oriented) developmental pathway.

An apocalyptic moment

Since gaining independence in 1990, Namibia has seen some new versions and intensifications of earlier market realities, now noticeably inflected by the imperative to be ‘green’. This imperative is linked with apocalyptic frames. As philosopher Slavoj Žižek has affirmed, ‘we live in apocalyptic times’[2], as the accelerating ecological alterations of the Anthropocene move us beyond known collective human experience[3].The apparent rush towards eco-catastrophe and its containment, however, is also a productive social milieu[4], populated by creative responses and diverse attempts at sustainability or ‘green’ solutions. Enduring fear that the landscape of west Namibia is on the brink of ecological collapse and catastrophe – through ‘desertification’, climate change and species extinction – creates specific apocalyptic frames that invite innovative sustainability interventions aimed at resolutions of environmental crisis.

Green performativities

These apocalyptic frames are stimulating a performative revisioning of economic activity as ‘green’, within dominant neoliberal ‘sustainable development’ formulations given new impetus as a globalising ‘Green Economy’.[5] Green economy solutions to environmental concerns embrace the modern linear, (frequently stagist),[6] developmental time of progress,[7] proposing sustainability interventions that suture economic and ecological trajectories to fit within a structuring discourse of ‘green economic growth’.

Using a combination of discourse analysis of policy texts[8] and interviews with key actors, we are exploring and theorising the constructions, rationalisations and performances of a series of market-based green performativities unfolding in the west Namibian context against an assumed universal background of homogenous, chronological time. These include: the commodification and repackaging of KhoeSan rock art heritage otherwise connected with the specific cultural ontologies of extant peoples[9]; animal trophy-hunting, or ‘killing for conservation’[10]; the commoditisation of ‘natural products’, or ‘selling nature to save it’[11]; and the proliferation of regional uranium mining activities construed as producing ‘green uranium’ as a low-carbon energy source, the direct impacts of which will be mitigated through a new conservation technology called biodiversity offsetting[12].

Ancestral times

These developmentalist green performativities jostle with a range of alternative understandings of environmental change and sustainability, held and practiced by local people with often rather different understandings of ecological and temporal dynamics, of the sources of agency, and of what practices constitute appropriate behaviours[13]. In examining these different understandings we seek to affirm that ‘difference can make a difference’[14], at the same time as recognising the attendant dangers of idealisation and romanticisation.

So for example, I have recently been working with older people in north-west Namibia to map places and cultural histories that have been erased from official discourses regarding land where they used to live, particularly in the Palmwag tourism concession area (see map). This area is frequently described as a ‘first class wilderness area’, but in fact was cleared of people only some decades ago.

Sullivan 3

Click to enlarge

Going into the Palmwag landscape in October and November meant observing certain protocols, in particular around a practice known as tse-khom. This involves talking in the day-time to ancestors, in this case those buried at and associated with numerous places throughout the Concession and beyond. Tse-khom introduces travellers to the ancestors – or kai khoen, i.e. ‘big or old people’ as they are known. In tse khom ancestral agencies are requested to act in the present to open the road so that travellers can see the best way to go. They are asked to mediate the activities of potentially dangerous animals such as lions, who are viewed very much as other ensouled beings who assert their own agencies and intentionality. They are asked for guidance regarding the most appropriate ways to do things, practices that have eco-ethical effects. In tse-khom, the ancestors are souls whose ontological reality means that they can assert various kinds of agency in the present, sometimes over other kinds of agency, such as that of animals.

Sullivan 4

Click to enlarge

In this case, Ruben Sanib (pictured here) of a ||Khao-a Dama lineage associated with the mountainous landscapes of west Namibia, included in tse-khom acknowledgement of a key ancestor hero known in this area as Haiseb, and featuring in broader KhoeSan folklore as Haitsi-Aibeb[15]. The Haitsi-Aibeb/Haiseb cluster of stories and practices are inscribed on the landscape through large cairns found throughout the drylands of south-west Africa, from the Cape in the south to Kunene Region in the north. The image below is of a Haiseb cairn located close to a series of places in the Upper Barab River where Ruben Sanib once lived.

Sullivan 5

Click to enlarge

Haiseb/Haitsi-Aibeb cairns have featured in colonial records since the 1650s, interpreted, perhaps erroneously[16], as symbolically marking the graves of an always resurrecting Haitsi-Aibeb. As part of our intention to trace and theorise particular amodern conceptions and experiences of the west Namibia landscape we are triangulating several sources of information – colonial records, national monuments listings, databases of cairn sites, and ethnographic encounters with local people. Led by Chris Low, these data will be compiled into a region-wide Geographical Information System of Haiseb cairns and their meanings, both past and present.

Environmental change(s)

Developmentalist green economy approaches are also set within controversy regarding linear narratives and understandings of environmental change in west Namibia[17]. We seek to open up such narratives through analysing, extending and possibly exhibiting a series of repeat landscape images gathered by Rick Rohde. These bring archival images of specific scenes from the past together with repeat photographs of these same scenes in the present, thereby permitting sometimes surprising empirical (re)analyses of the materialities of environmental change at these sites[18]. The images below, for example, clearly illustrate processes of environmental change typically associated with pastoral grazing and socio-economic development in this arid savanna region.

Sullivan 6

Click to enlarge

Narratives of impending ecological catastrophe characterise environmental discourse in Namibia. Future scenarios based on general and downscaled climate models under various future scenarios[19] have predicted increasing aridity and drought, leading to degradation, loss of productivity and biodiversity declines[20]. Today, this ‘future catastrophe anxiety’ posits an expansion of desert and arid shrubs into present grassland savannas and a reduction in net primary productivity and economic potential. Understanding the extent and cause of change based on observation and empirical (rather than modelled) evidence is necessary in order to detect and accurately identify trends and threshold events. The relative impacts of land-use and climate change will also be investigated. This aspect of Future Pasts is intended as a means of comparing narratives of future change with empirical evidence and to analyse any resulting disjunction in terms of a political ecology approach.

A developing element of Future Pasts is a collaboration between Rick Rohde and Angela Impey, and a long-term monitoring programme called FogLife, established recently by Gobabeb Research and Training Centre to measure how fog-dependent species of the Namib Desert are responding to global environmental change. This collaboration, entitled FogLife and Visual/Soundscapes: Exploring the past and future ecology of the Namib through photography and acoustics, will utilise archival photographs of the FogLife study area, some of which date from 1876, comparisons with contemporary repeat photographs taken by Rick Rohde (as illustrated in the paired images below), and repeat sound recordings, made by Angela Impey, in order to document changes over time in desert ecology.

Sullivan 7

Click to enlarge

In this element of our project, then, +/- 50 repeat photos will form the basis for statistical analysis of historical vegetation change, with the results correlated with historical climatic variables to provide insights into the effects of climate change, anthropogenic impacts and ecological processes. Repeat soundscape recordings will be made annually for the next four years at selected sites within the Kuiseb, in order to gauge the effects of climate, disturbance and hydrological events on riverine biota. This draws on recent work in ‘soundscape ecology’ which emphasizes the ecological characteristics of sounds and their spatial-temporal patterns as they emerge from landscapes, focusing on the causes and consequences of, and interactions between biological (biophony), geophysical (geophony), and human-produced (anthrophony) sounds. Soundwalks with people residing close to the Kuiseb will enhance awareness and interpretation of environmental conditions and climate change[21], and responses from local residents to repeat photographs will elucidate local knowledge and the symbolic significance of the environment in daily life.

Hybrid analysis

As can be seen, we are applying a range of different methodological and disciplinary approaches to an interconnected series of environmental considerations and associated sustainabilities – hence the identification of our research as a hybrid analysis. Through this cross-disciplinary approach, we seek to fully address ‘environmental change’ and ‘sustainability’ as complex ‘wicked problems’ calling for transdisciplinary imagination[22]. Given our various disciplines, approaches and influences, a challenge is to create analytical and theoretical coherence through the juxtapositions of the different elements of our project.

One way through which we hope to pull these different empirical and theoretical threads together, is by drawing on Mike Hannis’ background in environmental ethics to flesh out what we are calling ecocultural ethics – i.e. an ethical approach that foregrounds cultural variability in ethical assumptions regarding human relationships with the nonhuman world.

Ecocultural ethics

We have coined the term ecocultural ethics because we are interested in the ethical assumptions that underlie different cultural attitudes to the nonhuman world[23]. In particular, and cognisant of producing a set of perhaps problematic dualisms, in Future Pasts we will be analysing and comparing two distinct tendencies in ecoethical framings, as represented by two different but geographically overlapping cultural contexts, or ‘ecocultures’[24].

The first is the complex of so-called ‘green economy’ policies and practices which loom large in our study area, as noted above. The second centres on indigenous, and particularly varied KhoeSan, attitudes to relationships between human and nonhuman spheres. This juxtaposition throws up several sets of theoretical questions, two of which we outline here.

First, there are questions of ethical theory, both descriptive and normative. Does the rise of calculative ‘green economy’ and ‘natural capital’ approaches to the nonhuman world mean that a utilitarian approach is becoming hegemonic in environmental decision-making? If so, why is it that calculative approaches may be considered less problematic in this context than in others (such as medical ethics)? Might it be more appropriate to link human and nonhuman flourishing by way of a eudaimonist environmental virtue ethics?[25] Are there overlaps between this kind of approach and the ways in which local stories and practices may connect the flourishing of humans and of nonhumans?

Secondly we will analyse differing concepts of sustainability and substitutability, particularly in relation to different imaginaries of what should be sustained into the future. How, for instance, might an understanding that all your ancestors are still present in the landscape affect how you interact with and value that landscape and the entities therein? To what extent might varied egalitarian principles of KhoeSan peoples reach out beyond the boundaries of the human?[26]

Future pasts

These considerations bring us back to the first term of our title, namely future pasts. Overall our project is inspired by a framing of environmental conservation – a domain of negotiated activity linked with notions of ‘sustainability’ – by philosophers Alan Holland and Kate Rawles, who articulate conservation as being ‘about negotiating the transition from past to future in such a way as to secure the transfer of maximum significance’.[27] In this definition, then, we already have an indication that:

  • what is of conservation significance needs to be negotiated between different parties;
  • that difference will make a difference in terms of what is considered to be significant, and how practical and policy choices are made regarding conservation;
  • and, thus, that the fields of conservation and sustainability, i.e. of ‘green’ choices, will be infused with antagonism regarding whose pasts, i.e. whose values and ontologies regarding nature-beyond-the-human, become transferred forwards towards the future.

‘Sustainability’ and ‘environmental change’ are infused with productive antagonisms regarding what constitutes the past, what to value and valorise and how, and what configurations of entities and relationships beyond-the-human are deemed possible and desirable in imaginings of ‘the future’. Future Pasts encapsulates these understandings.

Click here for notes and references.

Future Pasts is funded by the AHRC for 5 years from October 2013, and conducted under a research affiliation contract with the National Museum of Namibia. We are also working with Namibian production company Mamokobo Video and Research to generate filmed material to enhance public engagement with our research.

Contact: Sian Sullivan (PI);
Project website (under construction)
Twitter @Future_Pasts #FuturePasts

Delving back into the past to look into the present and future

by Dr Lucy Veale, University of Nottingham, cross-posted from the Weather Extremes project blog lucyveale

AHRC and LABEX – a new partnershipRoyaumont-1-420x210

A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to represent the Weather Extremes team at a Franco-British Research Workshop organised by our funders AHRC, and LABEX (Laboratory of Excellence), a similar funder in France. The title of the workshop was ‘Delving back into the past to look into the present and future’ and the main aim was to explore connections between research funded under the AHRC’s Care for the Future theme and LABEX’s ‘Les passes dans le present: histoire, patrimoine, memoire.’ Both initiatives seek to explore representations of the past from multiple perspectives and disciplines, and have shared priorities and commitments. The programme from the event lists all of the talks and presenters but I thought I would use this blog post to summarise some of the research themes that were considered. If you attended please do add your thoughts or links to project websites etc, and please accept my apologies if I haven’t mentioned you in person.


The location for the 2-day workshop was the beautiful Royaumont Foundation, a former Cistercian abbey built between 1228 and 1235, located near Asnières-sur-Oise in Val-d’Oise, approximately 30 km north of Paris, France. The church of Royaumont (pictured below) was destroyed in 1792 when  the new owner of the Abbey, the Marquis of Travanet, used the stones to build workers’ quarters in the park after turning the Abbey into a cotton mill. At the beginning of the 20th century the Abbey was bought by the Goüin family, who established the Royaumont Foundation in 1964. The impressively restored Abbey is now a venue for a wide variety of cultural activities, particularly summer concerts, and events like the one I attended!

Franco-British conversationsRoyaumont-2-169x300

The first speakers drew on personal research experience to review the challenges and opportunities of working on Franco-British projects. Franck Collard spoke on assembling teams, and the requirements to acknowledge different ways of thinking about history. Herve Inglebert highlighted the problems of finding a genuinely shared approach, and the importance of taking seriously the different contexts and backgrounds that people have, the language(s) of publication, and translation requirements. Jacob Dahl and Bertrand Lafont drew on examples of historical French and British archaeologists of Mesopotamia to demonstrate how  rivalry between the two nations contributed to success. Berny Sebe also identified similar figures in the two countries, this time in relation to processes of decolonisation, and the new ways that imperial heroes are being used, and given a new lease of life in the former colonies. Jacob and Bertrand’s Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative raised some issues relating to our database of extreme weather, relating to access and digitisation, the use of specialised language, the loss of knowledge in information, and demonstrated how their publications hyperlink back to the source materials, maintaining that important connection. Later speakers also highlighted the changing needs and nature of research in the digital age, and the role of building datasets to answer new questions also came up in the final discussion. Jacob and Bertrand also spoke briefly about their investigations into the modern history of some of these ancient artefacts and the impact on understanding. Some of the documents that we’ve consulted I’m sure have been taken on interesting journeys before ending up in the archive, and it would be interesting to explore more, as well as considering the uses to which they have been put within the archive. Sophie Richter-Devro ‘s paper highlighted the difficulties of writing or documenting the flexible, ever changing oral traditions of the Naqab Bedouin women, and the dangers of ‘freezing’ narratives and communities. Our records of extreme weather have also inevitably lost something of the multi-sensory experience of weather in being written down, but some nevertheless retain genuine emotion. Paulo Jedlowski helpfully drew on the work of Koselleck in discussing ‘future presents’ and ‘present futures’, memories of the future, and imagined futures of the past that might be used to link generations. Our project title uses a Koselleck quotation ‘Spaces of Experience and Horizons of Expectation’ so Paulo’s talk inevitably got me thinking in more detail about what predictions, visions, or imaginations of the future, particularly future weather, our archival accounts contain…

The remainder of the talks detailed projects funded by AHRC or LABEX. I sadly wasn’t able to attend them all as they were structured in parallel sessions so can’t name all of the speakers but will draw out a few points of interest. Charlotta Hillerdal detailed the tricky terminology of archaeology (, whilst traceology on stone tools as revealed under the microscope was discussed by Isabelle Sidera. We are definitely dealing with traces that are left behind in relation to extreme weather events. Sarah Gensburger focussed on memory as a public issue, tracing memory policy in relation to specific organisations and political parties, whilst Arman Sarvarian considered apologies by the state, specifically their timing and language. Marianne Cojannot-Leblanc and Emmanuel Chateau demonstrated the importance of considering future uses of the digital resources in order to ensure future usage and to meet future need, with reference to the Paris Guides. Memory, and specifically intergenerational memory, was the subject of Richard Haynes’ project on sports heritage in Glasgow which successfully used archives, alongside geo-referencing and mapping activities with school children, to engage with communities across generations. Richard’s talk for me, also highlighted the important role that individual biographies and life stories can play in these historical projects – discovering more about the authors of our weather narratives definitely brings the stories to life, and other speakers brought up the possibility of place or building biographies. Another link was that sport, like weather, is something that most people have something to say about! Carry van Lieshout of ‘The Power and the Water’ project detailed the contribution that a historical study could make to contemporary issues around water management, access and the environment, showing conflicts and solutions of the past that may be useful today. Similarly we hope that be exploring perceptions of extreme weather in the past, and time and place specific vulnerabilities, that we could perhaps better understand contemporary impacts of and reactions to extreme weather, addressing themes like resilience and risk. In summing up the first day Andrew Thompson emphasised the multiplicity of todays, tomorrows and yesterdays that are possible. We have already found that our weather data is very messy, offering multiple narratives.

Jean Allain looked at anti-slavery of the past and present, emphasising the importance of definitions, and historical lessons to link the rich past to the present in order to shape the future. Baptiste Buob’s main concern in his film-making was representing the artisan – a violin maker – the influence that the presence of the film maker has, and also the invisible public. During the talk I remember thinking that I  could have watched much more of the fascinating film and fortunately it’s available here: Religious understandings of temporality, and specifically deep time, were tackled by Michael Northcott, and I really liked that he drew on figures like James Hutton and Charles Lyell in setting up his consideration of ‘deep time’. There are more parallels here with our weather narratives, and the often complicated interplay of religious and scientific understandings of particular events. Carl Lavery took us to Hashima Island in Japan, once the base for Mitsibushi and the most densely populated place in the world, closed and abandoned in 1974 as coal gave way to petroleum. Carl detailed a variety of strategies for soliciting memory, particularly ‘thinking like a ruin’. Carlos Lopez Galviz detailed a comparative history of London and Paris, considering the envisioning of the futures of both cities in the nineteenth century, and the paths not taken. Finally the insight that Sandra Kemp offered into the Royal Society soirees was fascinating, particularly the representations of the future that are emerging from the archive, the new inventions and ideas that were showcased at these multisensory events that offered equal promise for science and the arts – again a theme that I think our weather narratives speak too.


Royaumont Foundation

This partnership activity was a new initiative for AHRC and LABEX, but a successful and informative one, in a very pleasant location with lovely people and delicious food! As a team we look forward to exploring avenues for research within the partnership. We’d be very pleased to hear more from any of the other project teams that attended the event that can identify links with the work we’ve been doing, or from other research teams exploring extreme weather in France.


History in the making

The article below was written by Malcolm Lucard and is cross-posted from the Red Cross Red Crescent Magazine. It includes material from an interview with Prof Andrew Thompson, Leadership Fellow of Care for the Future: Thinking Forward through the Past.

History in the making

Photo from

Malcolm Lucard

Internal records from the ICRC’s archives concerning the conflicts of the 1960s and 1970s shed light on a decisive era for humanitarian action.

In a small room in the basement of ICRC headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, historian Andrew Thompson methodically pores through folders full of documents — typewritten mission reports, confidential telegrams and hand-written letters — never before seen by people outside the ICRC.

“It is a process of discovery,” says Thompson, a professor of history at Exeter University in the United Kingdom. “There is a sense of expectation and anticipation not knowing what is going to be there. For a historian, it’s a bit like opening a birthday present, or like going into a candy shop.”

The ‘candy shop’ in this case is the ICRC archives, where Thompson is exploring 40- to 50-year-old records to be released to the public in January 2015 under the ICRC’s policy of making internal documents public in blocks of ten years once 40 years have passed since the events they describe.

Aside from exciting Thompson’s intellectual curiosity, these records offer a deeper understanding of conflicts going on between 1965 and 1975. In particular, they give insight into an area of great interest to Thompson, who took an early look at the records in order to pursue research on the evolution of international humanitarian law and human rights law as they pertain to the treatment of political detainees in non-international conflicts.

“I see the ICRC archive as hugely important for people thinking and writing about the past and present of humanitarian aid and human rights,” he says. “But it’s also much more than that. It’s an archive that allows for studying conflict in all its different dimensions.”

The archives are a treasure trove for historians as they contain first-hand accounts from delegates on the ground, as well as internal and external correspondence, for every major conflict during the period in question. According to Thompson, they offer a perspective not always found in diplomatic or military archives because in addition to political analysis, they show how conflict affects the lives of ordinary people on the ground.

Watershed moments
In this case, the records offer considerable insight into the Biafran war in Nigeria, a watershed moment for the humanitarian sector, as well as the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours, the United States war in Viet Nam, the civil war in Yemen and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, among many others.

They also show how important principles and precedents in the implementation of international humanitarian law and human rights law evolved in the post-Second World War and Cold War eras, as many colonies engaged in wars of independence and the stalemate between global superpowers resulted in a proliferation of proxy wars around the world.

One area of particular interest to Thompson is how the ICRC’s experiences in places such as South Africa and Yemen (including what was until 1967 the British-controlled State of Aden) helped shape the way human rights and humanitarian groups responded to political detainees. Among the records are first-hand accounts of then-ICRC delegate André Rochat making his first visit to wary and sceptical political detainees in Yemeni prisons.

There is also the very matter-of-fact description of a delegate’s interview in 1967 with a political detainee in South Africa named Nelson Mandela who, along with 30 other detainees, was working in a limestone quarry on Robben Island, one of the more notorious prisons operated by South Africa’s then apartheid government.

The ICRC began visiting ‘security convicted prisoners’ in South Africa in 1963. After that, the ICRC regularly met Mandela on Robben Island and later in Polsmoor prison, until his liberation in February 1990. Mandela mentions these visits in his biography A Long Walk to Freedom.

Notable in the report is Mandela’s frank and even-handed description of prison conditions and a detailed account of the medical conditions of his fellow inmates. But when discussing his own case, he replies simply: “I personally have no complaints.”

Transparency and reflection
Not all the records, however, have been completely sealed until now. Researchers can ask for permission to review unreleased portions of ICRC archives for particular research projects and those involved in events described in the records can ask to look over relevant files.

But the records are not just interesting to historians. They are also a resource for the Movement, as they contain considerable information about National Society actions, and for anyone who might want to appraise humanitarian action and its impact.

“The archives ensure the organization’s ability to take stock of the actions called for by its mandate,” says Jean-Luc Blondel, head of the ICRC archives. “They play an important role in the duty of an organization to be transparent. As part of this duty and in order to benefit from outside perspectives and approaches, the ICRC encourages research and independent critique of its history and the fulfilment of its mandate,” Blondel adds.

“Such an attitude doesn’t come without risks,” he notes. “The examination of dossiers can put into evidence the mistakes in negotiation, the misuse of language or a lack of diplomacy.” In some cases, it reveals certain prevailing cultural attitudes of the time — a lack of cultural sensitivity and even racist undertones in the way some people expressed themselves, Blondel notes.

“In other cases, for example in the Middle East or the Indian subcontinent, some events that occurred more than 40 years ago are still very present in people’s minds today and the analyses or the course of events described then could affect present actions and negotiations.”

Nonetheless, the illumination offered by the past, Blondel suggests, also allows a better understanding of the roots of conflicts and a potential insight into how to facilitate resolution to conflicts or at least engage parties in a positive dynamic towards that end.

The Movement also recognizes the importance of the memories contained in these archives, one reason the Council of Delegates in 2011 adopted a resolution that calls for the preservation of its historic and cultural heritage. This issue will be revisited during the Council of Delegates in 2015.

By Malcolm Lucard
Malcolm Lucard is the editor of Red Cross Red Crescent magazine.

– See more at:

When the Lights Go Out

Trentmann FrankProfessor Frank Trentmann, Birkbeck College,
PI, Material Cultures of Energy: Transitions, Disruption, and Everyday Life in the 20th century. The research group consists of Frank Trentmann, Hiroki Shin, Vanessa Taylor, Heather Chappells and Rebecca Wright.

What happens when the lights go out? During a blackout it’s not only light that you lose. Electric cookers, heaters, TV and the radio stop working, and your computers, wifi and mobile phones will probably be off-line. A major part of our life today depends on the constant supply of energy. Cars might still run but traffic lights might not, nor would lifts, ticket machines, ATMs and the tube.

Such scenarios might appear the stuff of thrillers or routine in Africa and India, but even in the rich world, we have yet to overcome energy disruptions. Just to take a few examples, there were blackouts in Italy and the USA in 2003 and across Europe in 2006. Japan had rolling blackouts in 2011. It can be tempting to think energy disruptions are of recent origin, a problem that started with the oil crises of the 1970s. But this would be too simple. The 20th century is peppered with them.

Understanding the history of these disruptions better is one of the aims of the ‘Material Cultures of Energy’ research project based at Birkbeck College, University of London – the project’s other three themes look at energy futures; how rural spaces were transformed by grids; and how people managed and experienced the transition from one fuel to another. We investigate these themes by comparing the UK, Germany, Japan, North America and India, with their different energy systems, cultures and everyday practices. We are historians and a geographer, who believe a better understanding of the past can be useful for how we think and approach the future.

“More electricity for building socialism”, East Germany 1952. Image: Landesarchiv Berlin.

“More electricity for building socialism”, East Germany 1952.
Image: Landesarchiv Berlin.

How did people in the past respond to energy disruption and what difference did norms and values, technologies and politics make? One thing that is clear is that energy disruption did not affect all energy users equally. In Japan in the late 1940s, families would have seen from their dark homes brightly lit factories, as the country was frantically trying to recover from the destruction of war. In the same period, British factory managers were blaming shortages on “excessive” household consumers.

Past disruptions tell us how unevenly burdens were distributed between different groups of consumers. In a very real sense, the course of disruption was often determined by society, based on ideas about who should have more energy and who less, and who should have it at what time of day or night. Culture and society shaped where and when the lights went out – not just nature or technology. It is therefore no surprise that tensions emerged not only between suppliers and consumers but also among consumers. In historical sources, we can see how different consumers were weighed against each other. After the Second World War, British homes, for example, were far more favourably treated than Japanese households, which until the 1950s were placed at the bottom of the supply list. Yet, people did not always accept their fate. In Japan, dissatisfied consumers organised protest movements. Some just ‘cheated’ suppliers.

Trentmann 2 - MOSI EDA-1659

Electrical Development Association, “No Electric Fires” Campaign, c.1950. Image reproduced by permission of the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester.

Such distributional conflicts also affected the rhythm of day and night, as governments tried to shift electricity use out of peak hours. The lack of energy triggered a reconfiguration of work and everyday life. During the 1946/7 fuel crisis in Britain, waking up late would have meant missing out on hot water and hot breakfast. Household chores needed to be done within specified hours when electricity was permitted, or they had to be done without electrical appliances at all. In East Germany, industrial workers were told to work into the night – in order to shift the peak hours. Such shift work had knock-on effects on eating rhythms, sleeping, shopping and child care that were particularly hard on mothers.

Understanding how past shortages worked themselves out provides vital knowledge in helping us to think about how societies might deal with such situations in the future. In November 2014, we met with international experts at Caltech to look at various scales of scarcity, from scenarios of population growth in the past to the challenge of renewable energy in the future. At the symposium, historians, social scientists, engineers and scientists examined various types of scarcity, including water, food and energy, and the interplay of natural, economic and political forces.

Today, there is once again talk among politicians and energy providers in Britain and Europe about future blackouts and a more precarious allocation of energy. Developing nations cannot expect smooth growth and energy security either. If there is one lesson from the past, it is that it is too simple to trust technology will fix the problem. Abundance and scarcity go hand in hand. Shortages involve politics and culture, as do societies’ strategies to deal with. What people did when the lights went out in the past could tell us something about our flexibility and resilience in the future.

Sustainability and subsistence systems in a changing Sudan

Dr Philippa Ryan, Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, The British Museum, Principal Investigator

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa.

Philippa sampling a 3,100 year old hearth in a large villa.

Professor Katherine Homewood, Department of Anthropology, UCL, Co-Investigator

Nubian agricultural practices are rapidly changing due to infrastructure development, technological and environmental changes. Our project explores how comparisons of present-day and ancient crop choices can inform on risk management within agricultural strategies of small-scale riparian Nile village settlements. Research is focused on present-day Ernetta island (620km north of Khartoum) and nearby 2nd millennium BC Amara West, which was also located on an island during its occupation. Today, as in the past, islands are important due to their agricultural potential. PR blog - amara_west_map_624Compared to further north in Egypt, there are fewer areas of wide floodplain suitable to traditional floodplain agriculture in the Middle Nile Valley.

We have been interviewing Nubian farmers to investigate the characteristics of customary agriculture and in what ways these have been impacted by new farming methods, population movements, dam and road-building – as well as changing patterns of imports and trade. Interviews were undertaken in February and March of this year, and have so far focused on the car- and electricity-free island Ernetta. Several farmers we met were over 80 years old and we have begun to outline several phases of change in crops grown over the last century. Key agents of change have included the introduction of new crops, the shift in irrigation techniques from the water wheel to water pumps (1950s-1970s) and the impact of bird attacks on certain crops.

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

Removing crop weeds from wheat, Ernetta

We have been finding out about customary harvesting, threshing, storage and food preparation practices as well as about land-use and irrigation. We discussed what animals people keep, how this has changed and foddering/grazing practices. Despite the changes, some practices have remained relatively traditional till very recently. For instance, harvesting is still done by hand, and a threshing machine was only introduced to the island in the mid-2000s. There seems to be shifts in farming approaches amongst the older and younger generations of farmers, with a potential loss in knowledge about how particular crops have been used in the past. We are examining our evidence for temporal changes alongside ethnographic and historical sources. For comparative purposes, we are also carrying out interviews in nearby river-bank farms, as well as in other locations in northern Sudan.

The ancient town of Amara West was also originally situated on an island like Ernetta. Geomorphological evidence suggests a river channel north of the site drying during the site occupation, which would have exposed the settlement and agricultural fields to encroaching sands. (Find the complete report here.) The town has well-preserved architectural phases, together with associated plant remains, spanning this timeframe. (For further information, click here.)

Ful (broad bean) fields after harvest, Ernetta island
Ful (broad bean) fields after harvest, Ernetta island

Charred seeds are providing information about a wide range of taxa, whilst phytoliths (opaline silica casts of plant cells) preserve information about plant parts that rarely survive charring. We are studying the plant remains to investigate whether or not the increased localised aridity impacted agricultural and plant-use strategies. Little is published or known about agricultural practices prior to the 1st Millennium BC, and the evidence from Amara West is providing new information about crops grown for the 2nd millennium BC.

The subsistence information from the Amara West and the farmer interviews will be situated within a long temporal review of crop choices in the region. Crop diversification is one way of managing agricultural risk given that using a number of cereals and pulses with different growing tolerances (such as to heat or water stress) helps to buffer against crop failure. This includes reviewing archaeobotanical literature for ancient plant use as well as twentieth Century sources to better understand more recent changes. Combining the ethnographic and archaeological record aims to establish firstly which of today’s crops have a particularly long established history in the region, and secondly whether some of these are being grown less in recent decades.

Animal enclosure, Ernetta island

Animal enclosure, Ernetta island

For instance, hulled barley is found in abundant quantities at Amara West and was grown as a food cereal until the mid-twentieth century but is now grown mostly by older farmers, and only for animal fodder or for making a drink thought to have medicinal properties. This study aims to create a long-term perspective of adaptive solutions and how these are relevant to the future, and aims to record and promote local knowledge of sustainable natural resource exploitation.

Research and fieldwork at Amara West is made possible with the permission of the National Corporation of Antiquities & Museums (Sudan).

Project website

Wheat fields, Ernetta

Wheat fields, Ernetta

Researching Community Heritage – A Connected Communities project

Researching Community HeritageThe University of Sheffield’s Researching Community Heritage project was funded by the AHRC Connected Communities programme to support community groups and organisations to develop research projects exploring their local heritage. Academics were matched with community researchers and encouraged to work together to develop co-produced projects. Groups applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for financial support to develop the project, meaning that they retained autonomy and ownership of the projects and were not reliant on the university for funding. Projects included: working with a homeless charity for young people to research the history of the hostel they are based in; exploring links between the Peak District, India and Hindu culture through research into the cotton trade with Sheffield Hindu Samaj; and a project with Rotherham Youth Service working with Primary School children to find out more about the history of their area through creative approaches to history and archaeology.

The project with Rotherham Youth Service was designed by Professor Kate Pahl from the School of Education and Sheffield-based artist, Steve Pool. Together with researchers from the School of English at Sheffield and postgraduate students from the Department of Archaeology, they designed a series of activities which aimed to engage children with the history of coal mining in their area – as well as Rotherham’s Roman and Anglo-Saxon past. Children were encouraged to step through a ‘portal into the past’ and select a period from history to research. The children wrote, filmed and edited short films based on their research as Professor Pahl describes:

“Portals to the Past involved a group of Year 6 children from St Joseph’s School in Rawmarsh, Rotherham, re-imagining their pasts and their futures in very different ways. The children learnt research methods that allowed them to explore documents, photographs and objects from the past. They then took creative and transformative journeys by travelling through magical portals into the past. They produced stories about historical Rawmarsh based on their journeys through the portal.

The children heard about the miner Arthur Eaglestone and his book ‘From a Pitman’s Notebook’, written in Rawmarsh in the 1920s. They wrote mining poems and sang a Portal Song with Ray Hearne, song writer and poet. They also did an archaeological dig with postgraduates from the Department of Archaeology and visited Rotherham Archives for expert information on Rawmarsh. They became Vikings with Marcus Hurcombe, youth worker, and imagined Anglo Saxon worlds through runes and maps with researchers from the School of English and worked with artist Steve Pool to create films of better imagined pasts through the portal.”

Other researchers have described their contribution to the project and its value for their own research:

I used my field skills to show year sixes how to excavate test pits and shared my knowledge on material culture. I felt I helped the children engage with the artefacts they were finding, and allowed them to see history from a different perspective. I gained experience myself in making archaeology interesting and accessible. Sara Farey, Archaeology Undergraduate

I am researching the work of Arthur Eaglestone, a local author from Rawmarsh in Rotherham. Using these texts with young people in Rotherham schools allows us to discuss the importance of local history and language to their lives. On occasions like this I have appreciated having my notions of knowledge and expertise challenged and found of great benefit discussing what is of relevance or can empower young people who are, and have been historically, put in a socio-economic and culturally deficit position. It is always a challenge working with community partners because of the need to consolidate the aims of the University with community partners in a way that is relevant and useful to both parties. This challenge is for me the most enjoyable part of working on research projects such as Portals to the Past. Hugh Escott, English Language PhD Researcher

The successes of small-scale projects, like these, have led to further collaborations with community groups and subsequent research projects. You can find more details on the project website:

Follow on Twitter: @rch_Sheffield