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Deep Time and Human Time

Archaeologist, Christina Fredengren and geologist, Alasdair Skelton discuss human time and deep time.
We are talking about activities such as mining, road building or urbanization- -that has made the human become a major geological actor- -that has effects on deep times and deep futures. Increasingly, we need to tune in better to deep time periods and possibly also to mix- -the history writing of humans with that of geological processes. Here, we are sitting at the rocks of Visingsö- -where we can definitely start our discussion on deep time. Many westerners had in the early modern period understood- -time as not being particularly deep. This was based on Bishop James Ussher’s reading of the Bible. His calculations said that the Earth was created in 4004 B.C. This was the world view for some people at the time.
But, through geological examinations, for example Hutton, came to the conclusion- -that the Earth was so much older than that. And we are sitting here at the rocks, and you, Alasdair have a way of talking and showing- -this deep time to us. -Hutton did his work in Scotland. He looked at particular formations. We are now sitting on another formation on Visingsö in Sweden, in lake Vättern. And what Christina and I are sitting on is a sedimentary rock. We are sitting on a layer. That layer is a moment in time. I like to think of sedimentary layers as the pages of a book. The first page of the book is the one furthest down.
Then, as we go up we see each of the layers- -upwards, it’s the next page, and the next page, and the next page. Those pages are the book of time. They are telling us the story of time. In each layer, we can read about what the world was like. As we go upwards in the sequence, we come forward and ultimately we would come to today- -but that would be a very long way up as these rocks are 700 million years old. And the planet itself is actually 4.5 billion years old, and not only from 4004 B.C. I, as an archaeologist, work with deep time sequences- -but not as deep ones as you do in geology.
I can read other layers of the soil- -of the rocks, and see what types of formations that have been moved by human hands or machines. We need to start tracing the anthropogenic movement of masses, stones and rocks etc. During the last 11 000 years, we have been living in the Holocene period. During these times, the climate has been relatively stable. And so has the environment. This has meant that not only humans, but also animals, have thrived- -several civilizations have grown and faded- -but now, we are entering the Anthropocene- -where these conditions really are about to change. I turn to you, Alasdair, what is the Anthropocene from a geological point of view?
-When I think of the Anthropocene, I need to see it in the framework- -of how we look at geological time. We divide geological time into eons, which are very, very long- -eras, which are a bit shorter, periods, and ultimately into epochs. The Anthropocene is an epoch, that is the smallest division of geological time. It started, probably, in 1950- -when a lot of the world changed in a way that we will see in the geological record. So it means that when we look into the rocks many million years from now- -there will be a record from this time that will be permanent.
If you imagine a geologist in a hundred million years, they will see that line- -which will be the start of the Anthropocene. It will be so clearly defined by human actions. So what does the Anthropocene mean to you as an archaeologist? -As an archaeologist, I suppose the Anthropocene is an epoch that I would need to seriously- -consider in order to question what on earth is human. Because the human, as we have seen it maybe for long periods of time- -is mainly a culture actor, but here the human is also a geological actor. So, the arrival of the Anthropocene has left archaeologists and humanists in general- -with big questions around “what on earth is a human being?”.
And who is actually included within this Anthropocene concept? Often it is so that all these environmental challenges are caused not by the people that are- -bearing and carrying the load of them- -we are continuously discussing who is actually at stake. And who is included within the small bracket of being human? And who is actually left out? For me then, as a humanist, it is a question about justices and injustices- -that are set rolling as we are set into this Anthropocene period. And as a matter of fact, we are in a Great Acceleration since the 1950s. A number of indicators, both geological, and also social and economical are spiking. The greenhouse gases are increasingly disturbing us.
The energy consumption is increasing and the inequalities of the world are alarming us- -at many different levels. But it is also a time where we should not be completely without hope. We think that, through other ways of imagining futures, being creative- -and also doing something about this condition, we can do something about it to find new hope- -in the situations that seem to be going completely the wrong way.

This video was filmed on location on a rocky shoreline at the southern end of an island called Visingsö which is situated in the middle on one of Sweden’s largest lakes, Vättern. Archaeologist, Christina Fredengren and geologist, Alasdair Skelton, explain how our ideas about deep time have changed since Bishop Ussher determined that the Earth was around six thousand years old based on his readings of the Bible. Alasdair explains how sedimentary rocks form the pages of the book of Earth’s history, and Christina explains how layers in soil track the growing and fading of human civilizations. Together, Christina and Alasdair share thoughts on the Anthropocene from perspectives of the humanities and geology.

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