North Atlantic Encounters:
Perspectives on Climate, Culture, and History
Proposal for a Cooperative Research Program

Tom McGovern CUNY NABO

A North Atlantic Encounters Concept:   The past millennium has seen the spread of hunters, fishers, and farmers from a long-settled mainland and coastal archipelagos in the Eastern North Atlantic and North Sea into the depths of the great grey ocean and to the gateway to North America. The early Viking age saw multiple culture contacts resulting in the formation of a hybrid North Atlantic culture in northern Scotland, Ireland and the Faroes that spread westwards to Iceland, Greenland, and Vinland.  Understanding the dynamics of the Norse diaspora, successful and failed Landnám events, and the diverging pathways of Iceland and Greenland has been a core subject for multiple research teams and their work has produced breakthroughs in our understanding of the human ecodynamics of settlement ca 750-1000 CE.

 Researchers have also advanced understanding of the medieval and Early Modern North Atlantic, when rich documentary sources become widespread. Multiple projects across the North Atlantic have crosscut the prehistoric/ historic boundaries, making use of expertise ranging from ice core paleoclimatology to Icelandic saga scholarship.  Increasingly, environmental historians and humanists are making effective use of climate change data now available at the human scale of years and seasons, and climate impacts are being woven into histories of human political and economic changes.  There is real interest in a comparative program centered on the period ca 1200-1900 CE that would connect the deeper past to modern communities and their heritage of landscapes and seascapes today.  We need to connect periods and research communities to go beyond traditional scholarly divisions by period and specialty, and many recent meetings and workshops have had just such linkages as their theme.

  A shared focus upon the lived human experiences of the past and the social processes behind long term dynamics of societal resilience, rising inequalities, and social and natural capital management is bringing together the interests and research agendas of a wide spectrum of scholars and disciplines active in North Atlantic research. Disciplinary silos are opening, and we are discovering that some of the digital tools (GIS, data discovery, visualizations of all sorts) that are effective in cross-field communication are also effective in public engagement and empowerment.  At the same time, we recognize the urgent threat posed to both science and heritage by accelerating loss of sites due to sea level rise, rising soil temperatures, and increasing storminess across our region.

Old paradigms that focused primarily upon climate change as driver or enabler of human societies in marginal environments have been increasingly displaced by the recognition of complex entanglements of local humans, animals, and ecosystems with economic and political forces operating on larger scales. The spread of European communities to Greenland and beyond in the Viking Age is now seen as much about commercial walrus hunting as search for pasture, and the different impacts of the high medieval proto-world system that provided new markets and new political structures are recognized as key divergence points for pathways to survival or collapse of local island communities. The post-medieval incorporation of North Atlantic communities into imperial systems (Danish, French, British) both divided and connected communities experiencing commercialized modernity in a period of intense climate fluctuation and rapid technological change.  Many excellent projects are already contributing to a better understanding of these large questions, and recent meetings and workshops have flagged up many common interests and similar approaches (especially the integration of rescue archaeology, paleoecology, environmental history, education, heritage and public engagement).

The time seems ripe for a cooperative program that works to link and (when appropriate) coordinate multiple field, lab, archival, and digital projects and initiatives to provide a fresh look at the forces shaping the communities of the North Atlantic through time and the lived experience of human actors.  Taking on the “longitudinal perspective” of historical ecology, a program goal would be to connect the experiences of our northern communities on the millennial scale, combining understanding of local with regional and global scale processes and events. The program would thus crosscut traditional periodization as well as barriers between science, humanism, academics and local and traditional knowledge bearers.  It would seek to connect not only disciplinary scholars but local communities actively participating in the discovery and rescue of their heritage.  It would directly connect to global environmental change research and education programs and engage with existing programs, organizations, and initiatives seeking to mobilize the long-term perspective of the past to aid future efforts towards sustainability.

  Steps forwards:  The North Atlantic Encounters concept has evolved for the past three years, and many teams are already actively contributing to one or more aspects of these inter-connected research themes.  There have been group discussions at the Society for American Archaeology and European Archaeological Association meetings, at IHOPE sessions, and in the Humanities for Environment HfE Observatories program Sigtuna meeting. There have been some excellent field -based connections between projects (memorably the Iceland-Orkney links sponsored by the Icechange project in April 2018 and the Delaware Valley symposium workshop sponsored by NABO and DataARC in May 2018).   There is already considerable interest in getting conversations going between islands and across disciplines, and we already seem to be sharing students and specialists and producing publications and theses on these topics.  It seems a good time to share ideas and resources more directly and take our good meetings and excellent conversations to the next level.

 What next: The HfE Circumpolar Observatory is taking up the North Atlantic Encounters concept as a core activity, as is the IHOPE Circumpolar Network group.  Connections are being built between existing and newly launched field projects in Orkney, Hebrides, Iceland, and Greenland in the summer of 2019, and the NAE concept is featuring prominently in the NABO 2019 workshop.  Looking forwards, we hope to expand current links to the Princeton U based CCHRI program and potential IHOPE networking with Oceans Past Initiative, PESAS, and SESYNC.

We will apply for conference and workshop grant support to try to move our conversations forwards and will of course use the NABO network (and website) and its allies to try to move our cooperation ahead.  Your ideas, comments and critiques are most welcome, and we would very much like to engage with more teams and scholars interested in these topics.  Please join in!