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Anthropology Graduate Student Graham Callaway Publishes an Article on 'The Archaeology of Living Things'

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Anthropology graduate student Graham Callaway recently published an article entitled The Archaeology of Living Things (Vivifacts) in Virginia and Beyond in ‘Environmental Archaeology: The Journal of Human Paleoecology’. For this graduate student spotlight, Graham talks vivifacts, ecology, and historic landscapes, and outlines some of his novel approaches to understanding past human relationships with plants and animals.

Tell us a bit about yourself: what is your background in terms of education and work?

I was a William and Mary undergraduate, studying archaeology and Chinese language. I later did a certificate program in Geographic Information Systems at ODU and then a master's degree at the University of Arkansas that also had a spatial analysis focus. I've worked as a compliance archaeologist and was also on the cultural resources team at NASA for a bit. Additionally, for several years I was an organic farmer, apprenticing with a few different farms and eventually running my own business growing vegetables.

In what ways has your background – including your experience in organic farming – shaped your approaches to archaeology as part of your PhD and previous work in cultural resource management? What new perspectives and ideas do you feel you bring to the table as a result of these experiences?

It was while I was farming that I became interested in the idea of living plants and animals as objects of heritage. As part of the ongoing local food movement, there is currently a lot of interest in the small farm community in reviving endangered plant varieties and animal breeds. In many cases, these “heritage” varieties fell out of use either because new varieties were introduced that were desirable in some way, perhaps a higher yield for instance, or sometimes just because large-scale buyers wanted a standardized product. Many of the efforts to bring back old varieties focus on their connection to particular places and traditions, with Slow Food's “Ark of Taste” being a famous example. Thinking about heritage in this way changed the way I approach archaeology, and while I was a crew chief doing cultural resource management, I started recording plants in the field and making that part of my site descriptions. Part of what I'm doing now is trying to encourage archaeologists to pay attention to what living plants and animals can help them understand about the past.

Can you tell us what a ‘vivifact’ is, and give us a couple of examples?

The term “vivifact” was coined in a 2015 paper by Nicholas Kawa and colleagues, and in their original usage referred to living things that had been modified by humans but continued to persist on the landscape. My recent paper proposes an expanded definition, including any living thing the appearance, features, or distribution of which can be understood as the product of past human action. So, that takes in things like culturally modified trees (as the term was originally used), as well as “unmodified” plants that were established in a particular location by people and also living populations whose characteristics are the result of past breeding programs.

One of the core arguments in your article is that the study of vivifacts of different types can be united using a system-focused approach. Can you give us an explanation of what you mean by this, and how it applies to both plants and animals?

To me, thinking about systems is part of looking at living things through an archaeological lens. For example, a single culturally modified tree might be a record of a single event in the past, but many trees across a landscape that have been modified in similar ways allows you to start getting at historic forestry practices, past social orientations towards trees, ecological changes, and so forth. As with non-living artifacts, often those bigger patterns are more helpful for answering our questions than any single example would be.

Your discussion of the integration of evidence from “living analogues” alongside more traditional forms of evidence used by archaeologists (artefacts, written documents, oral traditions etc.) is a critical part of this article. Can you summarise the rationale behind this approach and the ways in which researchers might implement these ideas to transform their approaches to historic landscapes?

The idea of “living analogues” does two things. First, it offers archaeologists a way of making interpretations from living plants and animals even in cases where there is not a direct connection between any extant population and the one that would have existed in the past time period of interest, for instance if it is in the very distant past or in cases where extinctions have occurred. Second, it encourages archaeologists to work from experiences with living things when making interpretations. This is particularly important with animals. Far too often, archaeologists do not attempt to reckon with the ways animals actually behave when talking about spaces they would have been present in, leading to simplistic or sometimes very far-fetched interpretations. My discussion of living analogues offers ideas about how to identify the most similar extant population to a lost historic one and suggests ways that this can help us make better interpretations about the past.

At the end of your article, you note that the greatest obstacle to widespread engagement with these potential sources of data is lack of training among field archaeologists. What are your recommendations to current practitioners interested in rectifying these gaps in their knowledge?

Some of these skills can be self-taught to a large extent. For example, in my opinion identifying plants is no more difficult than identifying any other type of artifact, and there are many excellent resources online and in print to help you learn to do so. I'm also hoping to publish another short article soon detailing field methods for vegetation survey, with the idea that a novice could use my guidelines to design their own project. Additionally, this is an arena in which collaboration can be very fruitful, and archaeologists might productively work with ecologists, biologists, foresters, and of course local residents in their research areas to help them identify the plants and animals that are found there.

In what ways do you see this research as helpful to those engaging in agriculture, farming, land management, and other vocations beyond archaeology?

In the small farm movement, there's a lot of rhetoric about the importance of raising heritage varieties but usually not a very clear articulation of why it is important. Often there will be a vague gesture to these populations as a “genetic resource” or a description of the traditions surrounding them without a clear articulation of why that makes them worth saving. To me, recognizing that these populations are valuable in the same way that a historic building or an archaeological site is valuable is quite powerful, and I think the idea that they're working to preserve something that can help us learn about the past would resonate with a lot of people in that movement. I'd also add that recognizing living plants as a part of the landscape with the potential for historic significance could add an important layer to land management considerations. Finally, living history museums are often interested in questions of how accurate their depictions are, and obviously what I'm doing could be helpful there.

Thank you Graham for your comprehensive answers and fascinating perspective! If you are interested in learning more, you can read Graham’s paper by following this link.