Reply To: The Archaeology of the Commons

Author Replies
Ylva Lundkvist Fridh # Posted on December 5, 2015 at 11:01

Current Debates 27 Oct: The Archaeology of the Commons (2013) by Karl-Johan Lindholm1, Emil Sandström2 & Ann-Kristin Ekman
Reflection by Ylva Lundkvist Fridh

This paper contains many interesting aspects. One very interesting, at least to me, clarification is done in the definition, where the researcher emphasises that a common should not be confused with “open access” but is rather a sort of cooperatively managed resource. The classical example of the “tragedy of the commons” is more a discussion about what can happen with an open access resource rather than a common. To understand that Hardin was discussing open access resources and that Ostrom was discussing cooperatively managed resources seems very basic to avoid confusion in the ongoing academic debate about the commons.
Once a common in defined as a cooperatively managed resource the researchers can identify many “man-made” resources – like roads, shielings, iron production and mills – as commons. Lindholm et al do also include examples as meadows and big game hunting. These are historically known to have been cooperatively undertaken activities in medieval Sweden. This is maybe not the kind of natural resource that is normally considered in the debate, where things like rainforest, fish populations and other more “nature-made” resources are in focus. But any way, these are examples of how communities have jointly managed resources to make their livelihoods.
The main question for this paper is if an archaeological landscape approach is fruitful for research about commons. The hypothesis set up is “that commons are archaeologically manifested by site distributions that contain a variety of cooperatively undertaken land-use activities coupled to distinct areas”(p.11). Large game hunting was done by digging pits, which can still be traced in the landscape. A no longer existing shieling is difficult to spot, but the researchers instead look for place names that indicate that there has once been a shieling there. Iron production sites as well as mills have left more visible traces (and also place names) and many such sites have been identified in the research area. After mapping all these sites the researches can conclude that the visual examinations “reflect clustering tendencies” (p. 23). They also observe that it is not unusual that a cluster contains all types of activities that are indicative for cooperative resource management.(p. 30) The researchers concludes that the archaeological landscape approach functions at least from a spatial perspective, but has some problems with the time aspects (the time span for different activities is not identified).
For my own thesis, focusing on the theoretical discussions and narratives about the origin of money, I can see interesting connections to Lindholm et al’s paper. Just like when it comes to the debate about the commons, there is a theoretical (maybe ideological?) divide between ideas about the role of private – national – cooperative. One money-theory emphasise that societies without money did not conduct a form of inefficient barter but where well-working gift economies. The idea about a “tragedy of the commons” can be connected to ideas about that if the state, or a private person, does not own a resource it will be used in an inefficient or wasteful way. The research of Lindholm et al shows that before private ownership very sophisticated institutions of joint management where widely practised. This can be provocative to a mind that is costumed to the very strong current ownership institutions.