Traditionally, historians understand causal relationships as involving multiple interrelated social, economic and political factors, whereas climate scientists think of environmental impacts in terms of simpler causes and effects. Archaeologists will often have to wade through detailed evidence from excavations and field surveys in order to reconstruct events or adjustments in economic activity, warfare or the quality and quantity of crops.
All three specialisms have a degree of uncertainty and subjectivity, but the best way to reduce these problems is for the different specialisms to work together on this common project.
Historians and archaeologists have increasingly had an interest in comparing their data with those from natural sources such as trees and ice cores which preserve an archive of the weather and climate for hundreds of years, and with pollen which can tell us about past land use (trees, weeds and so forth).
For example, work has begun on looking at the Roman world, and the relationship between the climate and the Empire’s rise and fall. Work has shown that in Rome, when the climate was warm and relatively stable the Empire rose, and during periods of an unstable and cooling climate the imperial economy and the state that it supported started to break down. Although these climatic effects are distinct, the relationships between social-economic, environmental, cultural and political factors needs to be clarified.
So, can the Environment, specifically climatic disruptions, affect human societies and political systems?
Professor Neil Roberts from Plymouth University, along with other colleagues, is investigating this topic in Late Roman (Byzantine) Anatolia – modern Turkey - by looking at written, archeological and palaeoenvironmental records.