W.P. 1: Crisis Studies


Maslow (1943) identified food and water as most elemental of basic human needs, followed by safety and shelter. It is only when these needs are satisfied that other higher needs are pursued. In general, a crisis is a situation in which a number of people who had taken basic satisfactions for granted must now adapt and go in search for these material needs. It is usually brought forward by an unforeseen event or chain of events, such as a war, an earthquake, drought, hurricane, flood, or other hazard, with which political, economic and social systems are unable to cope, especially when the event interacts with latent social vulnerabilities. Such situations can generate effects on every level of society. There are, of course, many types of crises – military, financial, political, economic, environmental, social etc. – and all leave imprints at various scales on those that are affected. More specifically, crises are considered as a systemic failure interposed between the environmental hazard and subsistence risk-buffering strategies. When archaeologists and historians use the word crisis, they imply more than simply hard times; rather a conjuncture of phenomena that indicate abnormality of a structural or systemic nature. Crises can be regarded as ‘deeply felt frustrations or basic problems with which routine methods, secular or sacred, cannot cope’ (La Barre 1971: 11). Crisis implies instability with a potential for an evolution in different directions: either things become normal again afterwards or the situation deteriorates. In the latter case, the possibility of radical change, catastrophe, collapse, revolution or devolution is strong.

Olson (2000) and Olson & Gawronski (2010) have developed a framework for analysis of disaster events leading to political crises within modern state contexts and the responses offered, including capability, competence, compassion, correctness, credibility and anticipation. They have illustrated how and why disasters become so rapidly political. Pulitzer Prize winning author Jared Diamond (1997, 2005) has studied crisis and collapse using a series of historical contexts and provides a multicausal theory with special attention to environmental components (‘ecocide’) including environmental changes, deforestation, soil problems, water management, overhunting and overfishing, effects of introduced species, overpopulation, institutional and cultural failures and hostile neighbours. Basically, he sees the main causes as the exhaustion of common pool resources (‘Commons’).

To some extent, he repeats earlier work by Tainter (1988) who argued that diminishing returns on investments in energy, education and technological innovation combined with environmental degradation lead to crisis and eventually to collapse. Page (2005: 1055) has simply argued that ‘climactic variations spell trouble…a civilization existing on marginal land, isolated from others, that does not strictly control population and suffers climate change will probably collapse’. It is in fact this last element – climate change as a provoker of crisis – which nowadays receives the most attention, nourished by a growing awareness of present climate change and global warming. Scientists have, for example, become more interested in examining the impacts of long-term climate change on social unrest and population collapse (McMichael 2011; Zhang et al. 2011). Zhang et al. (2007; 2011) have tried to quantify this by combining high-resolution palaeo-climatic information with data on the outbreak of war and population decline in the European and Chinese preindustrial eras. They convincingly argue for a close link between cycles of temperature change and long-term fluctuations in population and the frequency of wars.

Further analyses show that cooling impeded agricultural production, which brought about a series of serious social problems, including price inflation, then successively war, famine, and population decline. Their findings suggest that worldwide war–peace, population, and price cycles in recent centuries have been driven mainly by long-term climate change. The findings also imply that social mechanisms that might mitigate the impact of climate change were not significantly effective during the study period. Climate change may thus have played a more important role and imposed a wider ranging effect on human civilization than has so far been suggested.

In any case, crises lead to various reactions partly because different levels of society are affected in different ways and the recovery process is discriminatory. Hence, crises will intensify pre-existing social, political and economic differences and conflicts will arise both because of the allocation of resources for rehabilitation and the allocation of blame (Driessen 1995; 2002). Butzer (2012) blames poor leadership, administrative dysfunction and ideological ambivalence as aggravating circumstances, accelerating collapse, and provides a conceptual model for historical collapse, situating the variables and processes of stress and interaction.

(after Butzer 2012: 3636, fig. 1)


The specific aim of this WP is to develop a methodology adapted to archaeological and historical sources to detect a series of parameters that can be regarded as crisis-reflective. Indeed, changing socio-economic and environmental conditions and the various responses to them are bound to leave an imprint on the material and historical record of a society since they combine a potentially destructive agent from the natural and/or technological environment, a population in a socially and technologically produced condition of environmental vulnerability and attempts towards rehabilitation (Oliver-Smith 1996: 305). It is the task of the archaeologist and the historian to identify these.

The main question is: Are archaeological data reliable crisis indicators? If so, what kind of data corresponds to what kind of crisis? This WP will therefore first build up a theoretical framework, exploring whether archaeological sources in general can be used as reliable indicators to reconstruct crisis situations. It will do so in a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary fashion. It will explore ancient and recent crises and their material impact, both at short-term and long-term scales. It will attempt to construct a typology of archaeologically relevant crises. In detail, we propose to identify adaptations or changes in different domains of material culture that are prone to reflect stress-induced phenomena (Driessen 1995; Zuckerman 2007), an archaeology of adaptive strategies and cumulative responses in different cultural domains, suggestive of a period of stress (Driessen & Macdonald 1997).

Crisis archaeology has recently been reinvigorated within the current economic framework (Pilaar Birch & Wallduck 2011). Certain events and processes will leave an imprint in written sources but only when these are studied diachronically. Likewise, long-term processes that do not immediately affect social groups can still be reflected by diachronic adaptations and modifications in settlement patterns, ‘warchitecture’, demographics, subsistence practices, ritual activity, elite symbolism etc. We give prime attention to these long-term changes even if they may have been provoked by short-term events that have left no imprint in the archaeological or epigraphic record. Institutionalised crisis responses such as fortification systems, for example, are only relevant as they often originally reflect an immediate reaction to a temporally and contextualised crisis situation.


This WP provides the theoretical backbone for the LBA study area, but is not limited to it. It looks for cross-cultural comparisons of stress-induced archaeological features and tries to learn from contemporary society as much as from other scientific approaches. It continues earlier interests within the Centre d’étude des mondes antiques (CEMA-INCAL) on understanding specific archaeological and historical phenomena, similar to Destruction (Archaeological, Historical and Philological Perspectives), an international conference held at Louvain-la-Neuve in 2011 (proceedings in press, expected December 2012). As such, the specific actions undertaken by this WP involve:

  • An analysis of existing crisis studies;
  • A literature study on crisis reflections in the archaeological record;
  • The organisation of punctual seminars by experts in crisis study and parameters that can have provoked crisis (climatologists, psychologists, environmentalists, migration specialists etc.);
  • Convene major international meeting to discuss archaeological parameters of crisis situations;
  • Suggest topics related to crisis studies for MA and PhD dissertations in archaeology and historical studies; moreover, crisis archaeology will be the theme for the transversal seminar for all MA archaeology students during 2014-2015.

Expected outcome

Certain features of the archaeological record should present rewarding approaches to detect crisis situations. These can be classified in different domains:

  1. Environmental hazards including climate changes, volcanic winters (such as that caused in the Late Bronze Age by the Hekla eruption on Iceland), floods and earthquakes can leave imprints in the environmental and archaeological records. These effects need to be identified through the combined analysis of stratified archaeological sequences, architectural remains, historical sources and Holocene sedimentary archives. Archaeological destruction layers and architectural damage can in this sense provide evidence for ancient earthquakes (Jusseret & Sintubin 2012) and flood events (e.g Wiseman 2007). Detailed analysis of Holocene coastal, fluvial and alluvial sediment successions can, on the other hand, reveal abrupt environmental changes associated with climatic fluctuations, as well as volcanic and tectonic events. Societal effects of short-term climatic and hydrological instability are most successfully revealed by combining archaeological evidence (settlement pattern analysis) with palaeoenvironmental data (sedimentary facies analysis, palynology) (cf. Kaniewski et al. 2012). Written sources can inform about periods of drought, famine and exceptional events related to the environment (earthquakes etc.).
  2. Crisis Architecture? The construction of refuge shelters, squatting and barricades, subdivided housing, cheap material repairs, loss of monumentality, access restriction, permeability changes, protective measures etc. are some of the detectable archaeological features which may suggest a situation of stress. Building activity – then as now the backbone of a thriving economy (Fletcher 1997; Driessen 1995) – needs to be studied in detail for its intensity. In this sense, energy investment, the categorisation of architecture in terms of expenditure, seems a methodologically sound analysis. Crisis architecture (also dubbed ‘warchitecture’) implies a combination of a decrease of energy input in production and maintenance, a change of original function and a change of original plan and this within a temporal perspective (Driessen 1995: 67). Features of destruction and abandonment of settlements with attention to density of occupation as well as the functionality of sites seen against a diachronic background (what type of sites is abandoned? What functions are added to a site?) also inform on crisis situations. Since the built environment provides cues for behaviour, we also consider architecture as a means of nonverbal communication. In as much as socio-cultural forces are responsible for the concept and design of structures, they also influence their subsequent changes. Written sources can be used to explore the building activity during particular periods.
  3. Subsistence Crisis: Cultural responses to risk and uncertainty (Halstead 1992: 111-114) include reduction in population size and distribution, crop diversification, but also direct and indirect storage and a tendency for hoarding, disrupting the exchange system and mobility in general. The increase of and attention to centralised storage and production systems may suggest attempts to remedy temporary shortages or to prevent future situations. In antiquity, although sometimes caused by climate changes, subsistence crises are often more likely to be the result of changes in the delicate balance of risk-buffering mechanisms which were developed to cope with frequent but unpredictable fluctuations in crop yields and food supply (Gallant 1989; Garnsey 1989). Written sources can inform on famines or central interventions to avoid social unrest.
  4. Diseases and Epidemics: Despite their mention in ancient sources (especially during the reign of Akhenaton (14th c. B.C.), when Cyprus and the Hittites also suffered from a plague), not enough attention has been given to the possibility that epidemics or diseases caused societal disruptions (Goedicke 1984; Panagiotakopulu 2004). Palaeoanthropological studies can potentially have an input here.
  5. Fragmentation: Scapegoating related to crises often leads to a disintegration of central authority and decentralisation followed by the constitution of new groups and an increase in political cohesion in local groups accompanied by regionalism (Dynes 1975).
  6. Migration and mobility: the presence of foreign objects or other material features is usually explained as a result of some type of exchange but we should examine which role migrations played in the transmission of ideas and practices and what were the effects of migrations on the material culture of past populations (Anthony 1997; Burmeister 2000; Hakenbeck 2008)? Shifting domestic behavioural patterns (e.g. in cooking or weaving) may reflect the settling of migrant population and a gradual mixing (cf. Yasur-Landau 2011: 248-253).
  7. Crisis Cults: Crises also have impact on religious and ritual practices (La Barre 1971). When a society undergoes stress, official cult will often react by means of an intensification of normal ritual behaviour but when this fails to reinstate normality, scapegoating and victimisation may lead to the springing up of crisis cults – ‘all religious movements that expect imminent, total, ultimate, this-worldly collective salvation’ (Trompf 1990: 1). Crisis cults then are ritual reactions by social groups that try to cope with a problem which routine secular or sacred practices cannot master (Driessen 2001: 362). This should translate into the archaeological and written records of a society.
  8. Other features: Disruptions in normal contacts and communication (e.g. the going out of use of road systems or harbour installations) and hoarding horizons (e.g. the hiding of valuables) (Knapp 1988: 167; Driessen & Macdonald 1997) are some of the other features in the archaeological record that have been used successfully for the identification of crisis-induced practices, especially where human agency rather than environmental stress is involved.

Planning and deliverables

  1. Series of informal punctual seminars (3/year) on specific themes as mentioned above: crisis cults, migration in the archaeological record, ‘warchitecture’, environmental degradation, etc. for which an international expert will be invited for an introductory lecture. Our intention is to start with local specialists of the Académie Louvain including paleoclimatologists, psychologists as well as pollen specialists, specialists on land degradation, environmental crises, etc. Access will be free so as to involve archaeology and history students and general audiences as well as construct trans-disciplinary links with colleagues of the hard sciences. Internal reports and reviews of the informal workshops will be announced and discussed on the website.
  2. Organisation of a 3-day International conference on Crisis reflections in the archaeological record. The aim of this meeting will be to cross-culturally interrogate features of the archaeological record that have been convincingly used to suggest crisis situations, especially in contexts where historical sources abound. Publication of the Proceedings of this international meeting and at least one paper in a peer-reviewed international journal.