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Orkney: Beside the Ocean of Time

Orkney: Beside the Ocean of Time

The action of the sea is constantly reshaping and reducing the islands of Orkney, eroding the glacial till and the underlying sandstone. A continuous gnawing, but with moments of drama that thrust deep time into the full glare of consciousness.

At what temporal resolution should we view human activity? In order to understand the processes of change that shape the landforms under our feet and the resources upon which we depend, we need to think beyond the short-term time-horizons of rapid economic transactions and electoral cycles – the days, months or even years of human time. Yet, if we attempt to place human activity against the backdrop of Deep Time – the vast and gradual time-scale of Earth’s geological history – the temporal span of a human life almost disappears. This presents Science and Humanities scholars with a conceptual challenge. In attempting to understand how communities respond and adapt to landscape change, we need to understand the factors that shape attitudes and behaviour, and the present-day, immediate context in which people narrate their lives. Yet understanding change also requires a deeper time perspective, one that recognises long-term histories of human settlement, in the context of deep time ecological and geomorphological transformations. With short-term time horizons, the understanding of the places where we live can only be in relation to a single point in environmental history; as such we risk locking ourselves into single point assumptions. If we expand our time horizons, recognising environmental fluctuation, we will increase communities’ resilience to landscape change. How, then, might thinking with a Deep Time perspective destabilise present-day certainties, and how might researchers work together to expand the time-depth of their work while remaining sensitive to the temporality of human experience?

This project brings together perspectives from Social Anthropology, Literature, Archaeology, Palaeoecology, and Geology, working in collaboration with Orcadian artist Anne Bevan and our project partner, The Pier Arts Centre, to find innovative ways to investigate and represent time-depth in landscape, using Orkney as a model. The project will develop and pilot an interdisciplinary methodology that will enable new insights into Orkney’s rich literary, geological, palaeoenvironmental and archaeological heritage, which is coupled with contemporary concerns over coastal erosion and the political and economic importance of energy generation.


Research Questions:

1)      How do communities respond and adapt to landscape change?

2)      What is the time-depth of people’s engagement with place?

3)      How do we make deep time visible?



Niamh Downing, Literature, Falmouth University

Richard Irvine, Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Carina Fearnley, Science and Technology Studies, University College London

Tony Krus, Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre

Lourdes Lopez-Merino, Institute for the Environment, Brunel University


Project partners:

Anne Bevan, Artist

The Pier Arts Centre


The project, part of the AHRC Science in Culture Programme, will culminate in a public Festival of Deep Time, in April 2017, which will include an exhibition, and a series of public workshops, talks and field-trips, that will enable us to undertake further ethnographic fieldwork, by involving the community in a dialogue about perceptions of time-depth and landscape change.


Cambridge Interdisciplinary Research on the Environment is a group that was initiated following a successful AHRC Network grant within Social Anthropology which created an interdisciplingary netwook on Climate Histories. Following the success of this network an interdisciplinary seminar series was funded by CRASSH from 2011–2016 to continue work on this theme. This series was co-convened by the Departments of Social Anthropology, Geography, and the Engineering Department's Centre for Sustainable Development.

The series brought together people from a range of academic and non-academic backgrounds including the sciences, arts, humanities, and social sciences, and those working within policy, industry, activism, education, and media and continues as an occasional series hosted at the Mongolia & Inner Asia Studies Unit.

The connections and networks made through the discussions in this series formed the backdrop against which some funding bids were developed and the projects that resulted are also featured on this site.