Book Review

Reinventing Sustainability: How Archaeology Can Save The Planet

By Erika Guttmann-Bond. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2019.

This is precisely the positive, creative approach we all need to using the understanding of the past to optimize the resources of the present for a future where species – including humans – can thrive. We humanists cannot let the scientists carry alone the burden of saving the planet from our mistakes. Guttman-Bond makes an excellent case for our work.

The particular value of Reinventing Sustainability is in the examples of archaeological discoveries that illustrate important potential solutions to present day environmental and climate issues. Through her own archaeological discoveries and others’, she highlights traditional knowledge and practices lost or barely hanging-on that can offer the populations of industrial and “developing” nations more reliable food sources, safer and more-resilient housing, and a chance to remain in places now abandoned or about to be. The floating gardens of Mexico, the compost middens of the Shetlands, Middle Eastern qanat wells, and check dams in the Negev desert were exciting examples of stories in our landscape showing us how people in the past wrangled challenging climates while thriving.

I appreciated the author’s explanations of how she, as an archaeologist found and interpreted this material, and her careful descriptions of the deduction process. A strength of this book is her commitment to going beyond telling us what she found to how she understands what it means.

She introduced two concepts I understand but didn’t have names for previously: maslin and intermediary technology.  Intermediary technology means tools and practices appropriate for local conditions and for optimizing lives; ones quite different from widespread adoption of the newest technology to maximize short-term profits. These traditional practices include clay pot irrigation, wetland cultivation using water channels and terraces (in previously unexamined places), the nuances of terracing, and the discovery of sequenced dams and vegetated “islands” for managing water when there was too much or too little.

The description of “maslin” is also an important one – this agricultural approach means planting different but related crops in a field as a hedge against weather or climate changes that would destroy a food source if the field had had only one strain of wheat, for example. In other words, it’s the antithesis of monocropping.

The later portions of the book shift to traditional architectural solutions to heating and cooling, and lighting. These are important as climate solutions – for mitigation and response – and some are used around the globe today in limited ways. These are interesting and valuable, but her archaeological examples are her most distinctive contributions to the field.

Guttman-Bond has a comfortable yet informative writing style. She correctly summarizes climate change in a very accessible manner (not easy to do), and gives the reader a marvelous glimpse of being in the trenches at a dig site.

I recommend this book for courses in humanities and climate change in general, or specifically for archaeology and architecture. It is also useful for land planners and architects looking for historical approaches, and for museum and history professionals making the case for traditional knowledge in climate action.   

Leave a Reply