Posted by: Johan Normark | September 29, 2009

Outlining an archaeology of water

No, this post is not about underwater shipwrecks, water management and the like. These are all anthropocentric and hylomorphic perspectives that have been dealt with by other researchers.  For example, in Mayanist studies water tends to be seen from primarily functionalistic and idealist perspectives. Scarborough, Lucero, and others have explored the water management aspects and political control, cave specialists and others emphasize the ritual importance of water, palaeoclimatologists see the access of rain and moisture as determinant of societal development. Sometimes one can combine all these factors into the great narrative of Maya culture. For example, Tomás Barrientos argues that the end of the royal dynasty and settlement of Cancuén in Guatemala (in AD 800) involved a termination ritual where at least 32 people were killed and thrown into a sacred pool of water near the entrance to the palace. This probably polluted the sacred water of the pool. If one elaborates this, we can integrate the drought hypothesis that is believed to have initiated the endemic warfare in the upper Pasión river area with water management, ritual and political aspects.

WaterHowever, has any archaeologist looked at water from “its own” perspective? What non-linear histories of water can we detect from an archaeological perspective? More precisely, what assemblages do water form with other multiplicities?

As Protevi argues, we can talk of the Earth as consisting of several spheres/strata (hydrosphere, lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, noosphere [“human thought”]). These are distinct but mixed. Water is never pure other than as an industrial product and even then it needs to be kept in a container not to be “polluted” by microbes, spores, minerals, etc.

This mixing of strata forms new assemblages. Our very constitution as physical entities is the result of processes of assembling (deterritorialization and reterritorialization). In ATP (A Thousand Plateaus) Deleuze and Guattari argue that when the fish left water to explore land it carried water on its inside instead, in the amniotic membranes that protected the embryo. Basically, the fish folded water inside itself to form a new habit. The new organism (an amphibian) became deterritorialized in relation to the exterior milieu but in order to remain it needed to reterritorialize on its interior milieus. This is the Hypersea where life on land is a deterritorialized sea. In this perspective, land organisms are also variations of the sea.

I am therefore concerned with the way water is a creative fluid. Water in itself comes in three forms depending on its level of intensity: gas, liquid, and solid. Its differences in temperature and density allow material flows that create other assemblages that may lack long-term duration but still have long-term effects in other assemblages. For example, king Karl [Charles] X Gustav of Sweden (1654-1660), made a risky by highly successful march across the Danish Belts in 1658. His surprise attack on Denmark was made possible because of the ice that covered the Little and Great Belt. As a result, Denmark lost its eastern part to Sweden, and so it remains today due to that cold winter 350 years ago. The ice was an actant in Latour’s sense but this was because of its solid form. In a more intensive state it would have been fluid or the ice would have been less thick, which would have changed the whole outcome of the war. Water in gas form made it possible to create steam engines and vast networks and assemblages of railways and cities a little more than a century later.

However, it is in its fluid form that water forms assemblages which may be of interest to archaeologists (apart from the obvious water management studies mentioned before). As mentioned in an earlier post, liquid water was used to form more solid (less fluid) materials such as buildings (sascab and stucco) and ceramics in the Maya area. Some of these material assemblages also became containers for water in the formation of assemblages of larger scales but shorter duration (ceramic bowls that contained liquid used in a short-term ritual event). Not only is water a fluid that needs to be controlled and sometimes solidified or turned into vapor, but so are other components of the assemblages as well. The humans participating in construction, ceramic production, and ritual activities are also either highly fluid (“nomadic”) or solid (“sedentary”) in these processes.

According to the Hypersea idea, land organisms are apparatuses of capture, the sea is captured within its membranes. On top of this we find the State as an apparatus of capture. This is where the water management studies come. It is here where we find striations of the landscape on various scales. One way to escape the striating forces of the State apparatus is to capture deterritorialized water from rain or the few rivers, springs, cave ponds that were not in control by the State. Water itself finds its line of flight from all apparatuses of captures or it dissolves them from within.

As I hope this show, water need not become captured by anthropocentric narratives of various sorts. We have a capability to dig deeper into the fluidity that is the source for life.



  1. Wonderful, Johan!

    Perhaps one could argue that water has the ability to work as a (conceptual) catalyst in large-scale assemblages such as cities, and even civilisations – that is, on a level of complexity way above chemical reactions. Water can obviously transport, transform, bring together and dissolve flows of energymatter in machinic assemblages without exhausting itself in the process – the basic concept of a catalyst. (This is due to waters immanent properties, of course; such as being fluent at common earth surface temperatures, but bifurcating into gas and solid forms at quite reachable levels of intensity; being an “universal solvent”; having an exceptionally high heat capacity; requiring high levels of energy to split; and so on.)

    In other words, I suggest that if we study the morphogenesis of human societies as we would study a (morphogenetic) chemical reaction, we will frequently find water as the active catalyst.

  2. Indeed. I would also emphasize the “negative” effects of water. Water has the capacity to isolate populations, such as the Prehispanic Americas. This had disastrous effects when the Spaniards came and roughly 90% of the Amerindian population died because of the lack of immunity against Old World diseases.

    Water also affects the way the agricultural cycle(s) emerge and therefore the calendars. The 365 days calendar called haab in the Maya area derives from the word ha (water) (something rarely discussed in the 2012 circus). A study of water’s involutions to other entities and assemblages will at the end include almost everything. I need to set an artificial limit somewhere.

  3. So, water (the sea) was both an untraversable void AND the eventual mediator of disease (and conquistadors)! 🙂

    Yes, water is everywhere, for sure. However, a limit here is not necessarily artifical, unless your ambition is to catalogue waters presence everywhere and in everything… But what you seem to be doing is applying apropriately abstract concepts that are novel to the commonsense or Royal idea of water in archeological studies. Any such concept is its own natural limit.

  4. Common sense thinking is predominant in my field (as I guess it is everywhere). Unfortunately, this is not the common sense in Bergsonian way (which is located between representation and thing). Royal science concepts in archaeology like Culture, Nature, Human, Non-human, etc. are abundant, even in supposedly postmodern approaches.


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