Sustainability and Collapse in Past Societies (ARC2123)

StaffProfessor Jose Iriarte - Convenor
Credit Value15
ECTS Value7.5
NQF Level5
Pre-requisitesNot taking ARC3123
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. Have a competent overview of the use and acquisition of practical data
  • 5. Interpret a variety of information forms and assimilate/manage numerical and graphical data

ILO: Personal and key skills

  • 6. With limited guidance manage data and display it graphically
  • 7. Acquire a range of observational and analytical skills which are applicable in the wider world.
  • 8. Contribute to group discussions, ask pertinent questions and co-operate with and learn from peers

Syllabus plan

Whilst the content may vary from year to year, it is envisioned that it will cover some or all of the following topics:

  • Key concepts and approaches in sustainability
  • The archaeology of collapse, transformation and resilience
  • Environmental Archaeology methods to study human-environment relationships
  • Human responses to El Niño in the Central Andes
  • Amazonia: Untouched forest or manufactured landscape?
  • The 1492 Columbian Encounter
  • The impact of agrarian systems in the Near East
  • The Norse colonisation of Greenland: Failed experiment?
  • The Little Ice Age in Europe

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 words1-8Oral and Written feedback
Presentation4020 minutes1-8Oral and Written feedback

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

Original form of assessmentForm of re-assessmentILOs re-assessedTimescale for re-assessment
EssayEssay1-8Refer/Defer period
PresentationWritten copy of presentation1-8Refer/Defer period

Re-assessment notes

Deferral – if you miss an assessment for certificated reasons judged acceptable by the Mitigation Committee, you will normally be either deferred in the assessment or an extension may be granted. The mark given for a re-assessment taken as a result of deferral will not be capped and will be treated as it would be if it were your first attempt at the assessment.

Referral – if you have failed the module overall (i.e. a final overall module mark of less than 40%) you will be required to submit a further assessment as necessary. If you are successful on referral, your overall module mark will be capped at 40%.

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.
  • Bayley, Justine and Watson, Jacqui 2009, Emerging from the appendices: The contributions of scientific examination and analysis to medieval archaeology (Chapter 18), in: Gilchrist, Roberta and Reynolds, Andrew (eds.), Reflections: 50 years of medieval archaeology, 1957-2007 Leeds: Maney Publishing, 363–381.
  • Effros, Bonnie 2003, Merovingian mortuary archaeology: and the making of the early Middle Ages , Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Graham-Campbell, James and Valor, Magdalena (eds.) 2007, The archaeology of medieval Europe: Vol.1 eighth to twelfth centuries AD , Arhus: Arhus University Press. – especially Chapters 8 (Material Culture and Daily Life), 7 (Technology, Craft and Industry) and 10 (Trade and Exchange)
  • Hinton, David A. 2005, Gold and gilt, pots and pins: possessions and people in medieval Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Willemsen, Annemarieke and Kik, Hanneke (eds.) 2010, Dorestad in an international framework: New research on centres of trade and coinage in Carolingian times , Proceedings of the first Dorestad Congress held at the National Museum of Antiquities Leiden, The Netherlands, June 24-27, 2009, Turnhout: Brepols. – especially the article ‘Dorestad Discussed’ by Annemarieke Willemsen and the articles by Chrystel Brandenburgh, Clasina Isings, Luc Megens and Florian Preiß

Module has an active ELE page?


Indicative learning resources - Web based and electronic resources


Available as distance learning?


Origin date

March 2013

Last revision date


Key words search

Societies, Archaeology, Sustainability