About the project

What is natural heritage in the Anthropocene? What is a sustainable relationship between nature and culture? And, how can one think constructively about natural processes such as change, instability and loss?

These are some of the questions that Relics of Nature is concerned with.

Nature, and by extension natural heritage, is mostly defined as something essentially “natural” and beyond human impact. Yet, the way natural heritage features in media and current discourses, it is depicted mostly as either threatened by human influence or in need of human curation and stewardship. This is not least true for natures of the high North. Despite their remoteness and distance from polluted urban centers, it is not least in these northern regions that the effects of human impact on planetary ecosystems are most clearly visible. Hence, with the advance of climate change, an idyllic view of nature as pure, intact and “out there” is becoming increasingly distorted.

Relics of Nature is concerned with this development and asks: what becomes of natural heritage in a changing world? Is it, at present, necessary to rethink the conceptual and material preferences associated with natural heritage landscapes? And, what does the mostly taken-for-granted term of “sustainability” really imply in contexts of environmental change? Rooted in the disciplines of Archaeology and Critical Heritage Studies, Relics of Nature will answer these questions through explorations of carefully selected case studies in the high North, including in Iceland and Svalbard/Norway.

Basalt columns in Stuðlagil canyon, Efri-Jökuldalur, east Iceland. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir

Project description

Concern for nature is today largely driven by anticipation and fear of future los: loss of land to sea, of habitat, biodiversity and so forth. This is not least evident in the heritage sector where improving management reflects the predominant reaction against these bleak prospects. The future of nature is increasingly depicted as dependent on human stewardship and notions such as sustainability and conservation incarnate how preventing loss, change and intrusion is at the very heart of heritage management projects.

Since the early 2000s the field of Critical Heritage Studies has contributed vastly to a rethinking of heritage notions and practices, where one outcome is that heritage is increasingly understood as a process–as always dynamic and subject to contest and alteration. This rethinking, however, has largely focused on cultural heritage and a similarly extensive scrutinizing of natural heritage has not followed suit. Despite its current relevance on the verge of the Anthropocene–a new geological epoch characterized by intensive human impact on planetary ecosystems–a rethinking of the notion and phenomenon of natural heritage is still largely wanting. It is this untimely lack of critical reflection on natural heritage that directs the aim of this project.

Natural heritage and nature-culture relations

Natural heritage is mostly defined as natural – that is, not man-made – features, sites and areas that constitute outstanding value from the point of view of beauty, uniqueness or science, or which conservation is significant for sustaining valued flora and fauna. The nature of natural heritage, thus, is often seen as free of and opposed to cultural incursion, and as something ideally balanced and constant, rather than subject to change and breach.

Furthermore, while heritage sites of mixed natural and cultural significance have been recognized for a long time, the preferably idyllic and harmonious hybridity supposed to characterize such sites may be claimed to rather reinforce than blur the deeply rooted distinction between nature and culture in heritage understandings. This is clearly reflected in the distribution of UNCESCO listings where at present, 869 out of the 1121 world-heritage sites listed are defined as cultural, 213 are natural and only 39 are mixed (ibid.). Apart from speaking to the strong cultural bias of heritage understandings and the binary thinking grounding the separation of natural and cultural heritage, this equally accentuates the serene ideals constituting an “acceptable” merger of the two.

This bias has also affected attempts to include nature and natural heritage in critical heritage studies, bringing to attention, for example, indigenous concerns and other “alternative” understandings of nature and landscape (e.g. Rose 2003, Dorfman 2012, Meskell 2012), or explicitly targeting the constructed divide between nature and culture (e.g. Olwig and Lowenthal 2006, Fredengren 2015, Harrison 2015). Despite a concern for nature, such undertakings are mostly driven from an a priori cultural (heritage) point of departure, where a rethinking of natural heritage in itself is not the main objective, and the natural is still largely wedged to scales of cultural measure (Morton 2007, Jørgensen et al. 2013, Lorimer 2015). Significant relations between humans and animals/plants/landscapes, thus, frequently become bridged on such culturally–and positively– loaded phenomena as kinship, communion, and reciprocity (Latour 2004). This is not least conspicuous in heritage contexts, where the ideally positive and balanced depiction of nature and nature-culture relations is repeatedly articulated through designations such as “nurturing”, “well-being”, “sustainability”, “continuity”, “health”, and “resilience”. Concerns with nature, in other words, have mostly involved making it part of our realm, through a delegation of values deemed as culturally significant and desirable.

As evident through the strata of archaeological time, and which is becoming ever more apparent now at the dawn of Anthropocene (Clark 2017), such harmony is neither exhaustive of what constitutes “the natural”, nor of what actually grounds nature-culture relations. Confronted with an unsettling and increasingly more diverse “natural-cultural legacy” of e.g. a warming climate, melting glaciers, Arctic methane release, increased hurricane frequency, more acidic and littered waters, and micro-plastics circulating our food chains, the ideal of a pristine, balanced and “authentic” nature is ever harder to locate.

While these unsettling manifestations have also affected heritage concerns and debates, motivating most responses, still, is the anticipation and fear of future loss. Funnelled through tropes of risk assessment and preventive policies, focus remains more or less exclusively on how to minimize negative impacts, how to secure and salvage threatened heritage– or, how to keep nature intact and clear of human effluence. In other words, rather than seeing the “Anthropocene rupture” as also challenging how we think of natural heritage and nature-culture relations, the values and ontology grounding its traditional understanding are largely left intact and thus continue to dictate responses.

Importantly, one paradox of the current environmental situation is that despite emphasis on human responsibility what is actually exposed is an increasingly complex and mixed world, which is gradually more difficult to articulate and respond to through anthropocentric tropes of binary thinking (Morton 2010, Haraway 2016). Hence, an urgent question posed by Relics of Nature is to what extent current heritage understanding can eloquently respond to the challenges of the Anthropocene without a profound rethinking of its motivating values and ontology? Or, put differently, to what extent does the heritage sphere contribute to sustaining a nature/culture binary seriously obscuring potential reactions?

The dust road to Askja, Iceland, leading through fields of white pumice. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir


Working through selected case studies, and combining fieldwork and discourse analysis, Relics of Nature asks: what becomes of natural heritage in a changing world? How can we react constructively to processes of change and loss? And, what does the mostly taken-for-granted term of “sustainability” really imply in contexts of nature-cultures and environmental change?

Roooted in archaeology and heritage studies, and drawing on the Environmental Humanities more broadly, the project’s primary objectives are threefold:

  • It will scrutinize the cultural and ontological values involved in a) understandings of natural heritage and b) discriminations between natural and cultural heritage
  • It will investigate how such scrutinizing can inform alternative understandings of sustainability and environmental ethics in the Anthropocene 
  • It will employ the project’s findings in public outreach, and explore how natural heritage may become a more inclusive venue for critical environmental dialogue

Through this Relics of Nature will also:

  • further the place of natural heritage within the field of critical heritage studies
  • strengthening the voice of the humanities in urgent environmental research and discourse

Research themes

To successfully reach its objectives the project is structured into three overlapping themes, each forming the basis for one work package (WP). These are, (i) Sustainability beyond stewardship (WP1), (ii) More-than-human ethics (WP2), and (iii) Affirmative heritage practices (WP3). While defining the project’s explorative aim these themes are also firmly grounded in the theoretical landscape that frames its analytical approach. In general terms this is represented by approaches often referred to under the umbrella of the ontological or material turn, but more specifically object-oriented ontology (Bryant 2011, Harman 2016), critical ecology (Morton 2010), post-humanities (Braidotti 2013, Haraway 2016,) and vital materialisms (Bennett 2009, Barad 2007). In different ways, these strands of thought all strive to reach beyond binary categories and anthropocentric channels of thinking to explore agency and meaning-making beyond the cultural/human demesne. This makes these theoretical strands especially fruitful for the objectives of Relics of Nature.

Sustainability beyond stewardship: Sustainability, one may argue, is the mantra of both heritage and environmental discourse and constitutes the quintessence of management and conservation in both spheres (Albert 2015). What sustainability is is rarely discussed in much detail, however, and increasingly less as the concept’s all-embracing validity as good and honourable consolidates (Alaimo, 2012, Baptista 2014). Sustainability first gained its popularity when adopted in the UN report Our Common Future in 1987 where it was explained as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). It is safe to say that this understanding holds true also today and that its message is still of equal significance–and it is not the aim of this project to claim otherwise. What this first WP will undertake, however, is a critical scrutinizing of the concept of “sustainability”, both as generally used in heritage discourses and in the context of the case studies selected. Looking tentatively at how sustainability is discursively employed it often seems to appear in tandem with such concepts as development, management and conservation. As a preliminary hypothesis, this may suggest that it mostly pertains to human guidance/stewardship, whether direct or indirect, and that its aim, thus, is concerned mainly with human wellbeing, centred on what we see as aesthetically/culturally significant, desirable and fruitful. As such, sustainability may also be argued to rest on a (Western) post-enlightenment idea of human mastery over nature, where “mastery” is exchanged for more positively inflated terms such as management, development and stewardship. Without questioning the need for human action, one postulation of this WP is that such anthropocentric understandings may in fact constitute part of the current environmental problem rather than its solution (see Mathews 2003). Thus, drawing on the theoretical frameworks of post-humanities (Haraway 2016) and critical ecology (Morton 2010), an aim is here to critically rethink the notion of sustainability to explore how it may be pushed beyond its human centred pedigree, and to ask: What is sustainability in the Anthropocene? Is it inevitably “pleasant”, favourable or even gainful for us? If so, how can sustainable thinking and management constructively engage with processes that we associate with turmoil, loss and change? And, what other forms of involvement (than stewardship/management) may sustainability in the Anthropocene call for?

More-than-human ethics: Ethics, in form of a quest for wellbeing, preservation and sustainability, is at the heart of heritage projects. The general understanding of heritage as inherently positive, as something important, wanted and deserved, may even be claimed to portray heritage itself as an ethical project; as the means towards a moral end (Olsen and Pétursdóttir 2016, Pétursdóttir 2020). However, this also hints at the normative and dualistic form of ethics that guides heritage projects, where the distinction between fixed notions of right and wrong, safe and threatened, guardian and guarded constitute the incentives for action. In this understanding ethics is an ideal model, an already given code–factual, rational and calculated–but inevitably abstracted from the complex muddle of real environs. The question this thematic WP asks is; does this form of ethics serve natural heritage well? And, is this the form of ethics we need in the Anthropocene–that is, one that appears systematically displaced from the polluted terrains of the imperfect real (Swyngedouw 2011:256)? Exploring these questions, conceptually as well as in the context of the case study landscapes, this WP will investigate the possibility of a less anthropocentric heritage ethics. Following MacCormack it proposes that ethics cannot be based on “a relation that privileges the being of each entity rather than the space between” (MacCormack 2012:257). In other words, rather than seeing it as a project of disentangling the world (e.g. keeping nature from culture), or a means of setting things straight, ethical endeavour will be explored in terms of engagement with the complicated disorder of the real, in a manner Haraway (2016) refers to as “staying with the trouble”. This also relates to the proposal that ethics in a changing world cannot be about static or passive beings, but must be concerned with real entanglements, with the imminent potential of any being to become other, and with processes of deformation, reformation and movement (Grosz & Hill 2017:16).

Affirmative heritage practices: The first two research themes will serve as important groundwork for this last theme and WP, which will explore the outlines and potentials of what is here called “affirmative heritage practices”. The “affirmative” prefix draws on Braidotti’s (2010) notion of “affirmative ethics” and Domanska’s (2018) call for “affirmative humanities”, which both aim for more positively oriented and empowering approaches to current socio-political and environmental challenges. In the context of natural heritage and heritage more generally, this represents an alternative to the normative perspectives discussed above with the aim of opening debate on taken-for-granted binaries, such as salvation and threat, guardian and guarded, nature and culture. The current environmental and socio-political discourses have the tendency to become permeated with “a hefty necro-political dimension” which has the effect that “[w]e live in a state of constant fear and in expectation of the imminent accident” (Braidotti 2010:142). The same can be said for the “politics of peril” (Brown et al. 2019) dominating the heritage sphere where the focus is largely on vulnerability, precarity and loss. While these prospects are definitely realistic and impending, such “politics of melancholia” may also come to function as “a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Braidotti 2010:142); that is, in their pessimism they may discourage rather than inspire and empower critical dialogue and action. A similar argument has been put forth by Swyngedouw, who claims that when concerns for nature are brought into politics and the public domain in form of a fixed humanitarian cause and with a specific model for what constitutes the “good” environment, the discourse risks becoming “a gigantic operation in the de-politicization of subjects” (Swyngedouw 2011:255). It becomes rigid and defensive, so to speak, rather than inviting, affirmative or empowering (Domanska 2018). Hence, based on a rethinking of sustainability and ethics, opening both towards a more complex and “polluted” image of the world, and as further informed by the two case studies, research under this theme and WP will sketch the outlines of a different and more affirmative/empowering heritage practice. One that is less controlled by the reactive politics of fear and more attuned to involving publics in exploring what natural heritage actually is, as well as possible ways of including it in nature-cultures and human-nonhuman entanglements.

Beach debris on the island and natural reserve of Surtsey, Iceland. Photo: Þóra Pétursdóttir


Methodologically Relics of Nature draws on the combination of critical heritage studies and archaeology, especially landscape-, environmental- and ethnographic archaeology. The project will consist of several components; (a) archaeological fieldwork (including ethno-archaeological field-observations), (b) archive studies and literature surveys, and (c) interviews with relevant stakeholders, scientists, and visitors/users of heritage. The archaeological fieldwork will consist mainly of topographical field surveys focusing on the materiality and literal makeup and structure of heritage sites and landscapes, and of ethno-archaeological observations of how people (visitors, heritage/natural scientists, conservationists etc.) manage, move through and engage with these sites (Hollowell and Nicholas 2009, Hamilakis 2011, Holmgaard et al. 2019). The fieldwork will be oriented towards detecting and exploring the fickle boundaries of nature/culture and how the definition of sites as heritage is made manifest and affects the landscapes in question (Lyons and Casey 2016). Documentation will be conducted through on-site description, mapping, photography, and video. If conducted, excavations or other intervening methods will be limited to test trenching and section clearing for stratigraphic investigation, soil sampling for micro-morphological analysis and surface pick-up of ecofact/artefact samples. Archival studies will concern heritage legislations, nomination- and administrative documents, as well as public media coverage in relation to case studies. Employing methods of discourse analysis this part of the research will focus on how heritage value and understandings of natural heritage, conservation and sustainability is reflected in administrative, political and public discourse (Jørgensen and Phillips 2002, Fairclough 2003). This will be further informed by reviews of current scholarly literature, produced especially within fields of heritage studies, archaeology and environmental humanities. These literature surveys will seek to identify trends and tendencies in relation to conceptions of natural heritage, nature/culture relations, sustainability and conservation.

An important baseline of the analytical/methodological approach is to produce data through comparing the material manifestation of heritage in study landscapes, as detected through fieldwork, with their depiction/articulation in heritage discourses, as disclosed through archival studies and interviews. The synergy between these two aspects, integration of qualitative and quantitative methods (Bryman 2006) and comparison of different data is part of the project’s originality and novelty.


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