The ‘natural archive’ vs. the ‘human’ archive

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week, Prof. Scott K. Taylor is blogging about “Weather and War, Reconsidered.”

In the last post, I mentioned how solar activity, which is observable on earth in the form of sun spots, was to blame for the “Little Ice Age” that worsened the global crisis of the seventeenth century. Other than astronomers observing a low number of sun spots, however, what evidence is there that climate change occurred in the seventeenth century?

In “Global Crisis,” Geoffrey Parker points to two types of evidence, which he calls “the natural archive” and “the human archive.” The human archive consists of the kinds of observations (like sun spot activity) that people recorded: narrative sources like letters, government records, archaeological records such as the sites of abandoned villages, and the early forms of scientific records like weather data. In other words, the ordinary types of historical evidence that everyone is familiar with from their college history courses.

The natural archive, by contrast, consists of scientific measurements taken nowadays. This includes scientists boring into glacial ice to investigate the air trapped inside, scooping out pollen samples from the bottoms of swamps to measure plant activity in the past, looking at stalactites in caves as though they were trees with rings to measure past water levels, and similar techniques. These types of measurements are increasingly used as today’s scientists become more curious and aware of climate change and seek to measure what happened in the past.

Historians have used both types of evidence before, of course, but Parker’s almost 900-page-long door-stopper is a tour de force that bludgeons the reader into accepting the fact that the “Little Ice Age” helped make the seventeenth century truly an “iron century.”

Share This