Time and Water, Climate and People

Submitted by Sonja Johnston on Wed, 03/18/2020 - 11:32

Ben Akrigg (Ph.D. University of Cambridge, 2006) is Associate Professor of Classics and one of JHI’s Faculty Research Fellows. His research has focussed on the economic history and historical demography of the ancient Greek world. His project at the JHI is titled Energy, Economy, and Environment in Ancient Athens and will investigate the history of energy in the ancient city-state of Athens in the first millennium BC with the aim to advance our understanding of Athens’ economic, social and environmental history, and to contribute to contemporary discussions about energy transitions and about the interactions between human beings and their environments. Ben provided the text for this post.

Ben’s presentation at a recent Thursday Fellow’s Lunch achieved a couple of different, but connected, goals. The first goal was to illustrate in general terms how historians of pre-modern (roughly pre-AD 1500) periods can usefully contribute to discussions about climate change and energy within the humanities. In particular, he wanted to stress that there is a value to including timescales in between the relatively recent past (and the contemporary) and the much more distant pasts represented by the history of human species as a whole and by far deeper geological time.

The other goal was to try to bring together explicitly two related themes that have run through previous presentations and discussions: water and time. We have encountered water as a shaper of landscapes, a resource, and a destructive force. We have been repeatedly confronted with the multiple temporalities of the climate crisis and made to think about how we as humans structure and make sense of our experience of time. The two have been linked when phenomena of water such as tides, ocean currents, floods and seasons have come in to our discussions of time, but Ben wanted to make the interconnections more explicit.

Ben started this by drawing on Fernand Braudel’s appropriately marine metaphors of time in his seminal work on the Mediterranean and the water “clocks” used in democratic Athenian law courts. He then illustrated some of the interconnections between time, water and energy by taking a more extended look at Roman London. The trajectory of the industrial revolution and the modern economic and political geographies of the UK were shaped to some extent by the foundation of this city. The story of its foundation and development is one that was intimately shaped by surface and ground water, and much of its preservation is owed to waterlogged archaeological deposits. It is also one that could only have transpired in a particular climatic context in the early first millennium, one that permitted the Roman empire to organise and exploit the resources of an organic energy regime in unprecedented ways. Ben suggested that these connections are clear and easy to trace in that specific time and place, but sketched how broadly similar lines of enquiry could be pursued in contexts, specifically in the Greek world of the first millennium BC.