Sustainability and Collapse in Past Societies (ARC3123)

StaffProfessor Jose Iriarte - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value15
NQF Level6
Pre-requisitesNot taken ARC2123
Duration of Module Term 2: 11 weeks;

Module aims

The module aims to provide an inter-disciplinary understanding for the study of human environmental relations in past societies.  It will introduce you to the concepts of cultural collapse, resilience and sustainability by looking at a wide range of case studies around the world. The module will mainly focus on the diversity of human responses that were triggered by human-induced and natural climatic changes, including catastrophic events. We will pay particular attention to the ecological vulnerability of different socio-political systems within particular environments, human resilience to change and the regeneration of complex societies after collapse. 

ILO: Module-specific skills

  • 1. Understand fundamental anthropological and ecological concepts that are critical for analysing past coupled human environment systems including cultural collapse, resilience and sustainability
  • 2. Understand methodological aspects of commonly used environmental techniques to investigate how humans impacted past environments and how natural climatic fluctuations and catastrophic events have triggered a diversity of cultural responses
  • 3. Discuss a selection of coupled human environment systems examples and their relationship to contemporary sustainability issues

ILO: Discipline-specific skills

  • 4. Demonstrate knowledge of, and ability to reflect on, contrasting archaeological perspectives
  • 5. Have a competent overview of the use and acquisition of practical data
  • 6. Interpret a variety of information forms and assimilate/manage numerical and graphical data
  • 7. Demonstrate comprehension and detailed knowledge of complex issues through essay-based coursework

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 8. Demonstrate techniques of locating, organizing and digesting material to produce, to a deadline, a piece of coherent analysis
  • 9. Acquire a range of observational and analytical skills which are applicable in the wider world
  • 10. Contribute to group discussions, ask pertinent questions and co-operate with and learn from peers

Syllabus plan

1.  Key concepts and approaches in sustainability

2. The archaeology of collapse, transformation and resilience

3. Environmental Archaeology methods to study human-environment relationships

4. Human responses to El Niño in the Central Andes

5. Amazonia: Untouched forest or manufactured landscape?

6. The 1492 Columbian Encounter

7. The impact of agrarian systems in the Near East

8. The Norse colonisation of Greenland: Failed experiment?

9. The Little Ice Age in Europe

10. Seminar presentations

11. Seminar presentations

Learning activities and teaching methods (given in hours of study time)

Scheduled Learning and Teaching ActivitiesGuided independent studyPlacement / study abroad

Details of learning activities and teaching methods

CategoryHours of study timeDescription
Scheduled learning and teaching2211 x 2 hour classes
Guided independent study128Independent study to include reading, preparation for classes and assessments.

Summative assessment (% of credit)

CourseworkWritten examsPractical exams

Details of summative assessment

Form of assessment% of creditSize of the assessment (eg length / duration)ILOs assessedFeedback method
Essay602000 words1-9Mark and written comments
Presentation4020 minutes1-10Mark and comments

Details of re-assessment (where required by referral or deferral)

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-9Refer/Defer period
PresentationWritten copy of presentation1-10Refer/Defer period

Indicative learning resources - Basic reading

BAWDEN, G. & REYCRAFT, R. M. 2000. Environmental Disaster and the Archaeology of Human Response, New Mexico, MaxwellMuseum of Anthropology.

BLEWITT, J. 2008. Understanding Sustainable Development, London, Routledge.

DIAMOND, J. M. 2006. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, New York, Viking.

MCANANY, P. A. & YOFFEE, N. 2010. Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability, and the Aftermath of Empire, Cambridge, CambridgeUniversity Press.

REDMAN, C. L. 2001. Human Impact on Ancient Environments, Tucson, University of Arizona Press.

SCHWARTZ, G. M. 2010. After Collapse: The Regeneration of Complex Societies, Tucson, University of Arizona Press.

SHEETS, P. & COOPER, J. 2012. Surviving Sudden Environmental Change. Answers from Archaeology, Boulder, University Press of Colorado.

TAINTER, J. 1990. The Collapse of Complex Societies, Cambridge, CambridgeUniversity Press.

Module has an active ELE page?


Available as distance learning?


Origin date

March 2013

Key words search

Societies, Archaeology, Sustainability