Landscape Taphonomy

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Landscape is defined here as resulting from a complex, evolving, and integrated set of cultural, biological, climatological, chemical and geological processes. Landscape taphonomy investigates the the processes by which these interactions are  interpreted over multiple time scales.    

Landscape evolution is often investigated in terms of the interactions of biological and physical processes.   However, not only are most landscape processes experiencing accelerating rates of anthropogenic impacts, humans have played a significant role in almost all major global ecosystems since at least the end of the Pleistocene, and for Europe, Africa, and Asia for considerably longer.   Any functional definition of Landscape must include a human/cultural component.   Operationalizing this tripartite definition (cultural, biological, physical) requires integrated research designed to incorporate aspects of both social and natural science.  It also requires the ability to work at multiple spatial and temporal scales.   Our archaeological research program focuses on developing and implementing a concept of Landscape Taphonomy in which landscape is defined as resulting from a complex, evolving, and integrated set of cultural, biological, climatological, chemical and geological processes.   Investigating landscape emphasizes research into tightly coupled, on-going processes.   In this realm, archaeology provides an appropriate body of concepts and techniques for placing contemporary human actions into analytical domains amenable for integration with the other aspects of landscape formation.  Using the classic definition of taphonomy as investigation of biosphere processes transitioning into records preserved within the lithosphere, archaeology also is in an appropriate disciplinary space to provide methodological and analytical tools for bridging studies of contemporary landscape processes to long-term perspectives (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  Landscape taphonomy model (click on thumbnail for larger image).

This model guides development of the GRSLE project in several ways:

  Landscapes are complex formational mosaics that cannot be seen exclusively as cultural, biological, or physical entities.

  Non-trivial landscape research, regardless of its ultimate goals whether archaeology, geological, or biological must incorporate aspects of each of the major contributory realms.

  Landscape properties are constantly in flux at multiple spatial and temporal scales and require continuous monitoring.

  Methods to research landscapes must be collaboratively developed with significant inputs from disciplines based in the social, biological, and physical sciences.

Combining these perspectives from landscape taphonomy can provide baseline datasets, monitor landscape change, and span many of the gaps that need to be closed between social and natural sciences to provide a unified approach to biological, heritage, and physical resources. This is best described as archaeological ecology, since its ultimate goal is to investigate long-term ecosystem processes in relationship to human actions, impacts, and responses.  This approach is essential to realize the suggestions that long-term preservation of resources must be based on an iterative process of problem identification, response design and implementation, followed by monitoring, assessment, and response re-design. We envision GRSLE archaeological ecology as a valuable contributions to this adaptive management process  at several levels:  first, as providers of baseline data; second, as providing expertise in multidisciplinary project design and implementation, and finally by setting the stage for long-term bundled monitoring programs.  Although the proximate goals of this project are to understand human impacts along portions of a single river drainage, one of the ultimate broader impacts of GRSLE may be to provide a realistic evaluation of adaptive management feasibility across Federal (USDA Forest Service, and USDI BLM), State, and private landholdings.