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Theorising the Natural Archive

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This article discusses the use of the ‘natural archive’ (for instance, ice cores, pollen samples, dendrochronology) to supplement historians’ traditional, documentary sources. It first explores the way insights from the archival turn have forced historians to interrogate not only their sources’ provenance, but also the sources of those sources: the origins of the archives themselves. This critical approach to archives – looking at archives as objects of analysis – can be applied to archives assembled from natural specimens as well. I examine two examples of natural archives (herbaria and ice core collections) and show that they have subjectivities and social mediation similar to archives that contain paper records. The archival processes of acquisition, appraisal, ordering, and description (as well as deaccessioning) are all mediated by cultural concepts. I examine both herbarium specimens and ice cores to see how their creation and assembly into archives results not in an objective reflection of natural phenomena but rather in subjective assemblages. I conclude by appealing to historians to draw on these sources in an era in which the distinction between human history and natural history is collapsing, but to treat the provenance of ‘natural’ sources just as critically as that of documentary ones. By broadening the sources they use and thinking archivally about all of them, historians can avoid reifying the distinction between the natural and human worlds and confront the challenges of writing history in the Anthropocene.
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Keywords: archival turn; herbarium; ice cores; natural archive; palynology; pollen; proxy archives; taphonomy

Appeared or available online: December 7, 2019

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