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? With special focus on the High North, Relics of Nature aims to explore understandings and manifestations of natural heritage, as well as relations between natural and cultural heritage, in the context of a rapidly changing world.

Natural heritage and nature-culture relations

Nature, and by extension natural heritage, is typically defined as something essentially “pure” and beyond human impact. Contradicting this narrative, however, is the way natural heritage is portrayed in media and current discourse as either threatened by human influence or in need of human curation and stewardship. This is especially true for natures of the High North, places where, despite their remoteness and distance from polluted urban centers, the effects of human impact on planetary ecosystems are most clearly visible.

In light of the Anthropocene, a re-evaluation of the perspective that nature is inherently something removed from what we define as “cultural” processes, achieved in part through the examination of the interconnectedness of natural and cultural heritage, is thus becoming increasingly vital.

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

Since the early 2000s the field of Critical Heritage Studies has contributed vastly to a rethinking of heritage notions and practices. One outcome of this re-thinking is that heritage is increasingly understood as a verb – as always dynamic and subject to contest and alteration. This has involved replacing an understanding of heritage as essentially representative of a past enclosed in docile things, monuments and sites, with the alternative of seeing heritage as, predominantly, process and practice (Harvey 2001, Pétursdóttir 2013). In other words, heritage is increasingly understood as the engagement between people, things and landscapes, and hence as something constantly in becoming.

Following this reorientation, the social significance of cultural heritage is currently measured not only in how it holds memory and facilitates recollection, but equally in how it creates a venue where pasts can be critically negotiated to help build favourable and sustainable presents and futures (Holtorf & Högberg 2015, Harrison et al. 2016). Heritage, in other words, has become increasingly dynamic and future-oriented.

This rethinking, however, has largely focused on cultural heritage. Despite the fact that representations of nature – the “conceptual natures” of nature, so to speak – have been dissected and challenged (e.g. Morton, 2007, Lorimer 2015, Tsing et al. 2017) such critique has hitherto had limited effect on understandings of natural heritage and even less so on studies of its concrete manifestations. It is this untimely lack of critical reflection on natural heritage, and its negligible place in Critical Heritage Studies scholarship, that forms the main target of this project.

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

Objectives and methods

Rooted in archaeology and heritage studies, and drawing on the Environmental Humanities more broadly, Relics of Nature will focus on selected case studies in the High North, combining fieldwork and discourse analysis, to work towards the project’s threefold primary objectives:

  • 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
  • Strengthen the voice of the humanities in urgent environmental research and discourse

Comparing the physical composition of the selected heritage landscapes and their management and maintenance (through archaeological fieldwork), with their representation as natural heritage (through analysis of archives, literature and discourse), will provide rich and comprehensive datasets uniquely suited to meet the project’s objectives.

The synergy involved in braiding the concrete and conceptual in critical analysis constitutes the novelty and value of the project’s academic impact, and equally reflects its founding postulation: namely, that concrete reactions to current environmental challenges must be convoyed with a profound rethinking of underlying understandings of nature and nature-culture relations.

To successfully reach its objectives the project is structured into three overlapping themes. These are:

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 sphere. This makes these theoretical strands especially fruitful for the objectives of Relics of Nature.

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


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Harrison, R. et al. 2016. Heritage futures. Archaeology International 19: 68-72.
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