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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

Science, society and environmental change in the first millennium CE - Symposium

10th January 2020, 09:00 to 17:00, Room 110, Dawson Building, Durham University, by Professor Neil Price (Uppsala University)


We are still accepting postersfor the symposium on innovative approaches to examining environmental and climate changes in the past, and the ways in which individuals and societies responded. We are interested in moving beyond the question of what happened, and in opening up questions about how people living in the first millennium CE responded to these changes – socially, intellectually, and artistically.

Some of the key research questions we will consider at the symposium include:

  • Is it possible to see similar responses in different societies to certain kinds of weather events or natural environmental changes?
  • How can bringing together multiple types of evidence improve our understanding of societal responses to environmental change?
  • How do we approach the problem of scale, since most individuals in the first millennium CE would not have been able to identify long-term climate changes, but would have been aware of wetter or warmer periods within their own lifetimes?
  • What evidence is there for historical scientific consideration of natural environmental phenomena and environmental changes?
  • Were there different scientific interests in regions with different kinds of climates and local environments?
  • How varied were social responses to environmental changes or major natural events in different geographical areas?

Poster presentations: A1 or A0 size, portrait orientation

To propose a poster: Please use our template to send your name, affiliation, title, and an abstract of no more than 300 words to Karen Milek, at

Deadline for abstract submissions: 6 January 2020


To register for the symposium: Please purchase a ticket using the symposium registration site on EventBrite

Registration fee: £20. This includes lunch and light refreshments during breaks.

Registration deadline: 7 January 2020


Keynote lecture: Archaeologies of the Ragnarök? A Sixth-Century Climate Disaster and its Legacies

By Professor Neil Price, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Uppsala, Sweden

There is now general agreement among geoscientists that in the year 536 CE, and for varying lengths of time thereafter, several parts of the northern hemisphere experienced a prolonged solar darkness. This took the form of a loosely-termed ‘dust veil’ blocking the sun’s warmth from reaching the earth, traceable in numerous environmental proxies. Debate continues as to the exact causes, but a growing consensus sees its origins in at least two, and possibly more, volcanic eruptions of unusual magnitude occurring in the period 536-540. Numerous textual sources independently describe what was clearly a cultural disaster of some magnitude, with a range of catastrophic effects including crop failure, famine and civil strife. This scientific debate on the nature of the ‘dust veil’ has absorbed the bulk of scholarly attention, with much of the study devoted to its human impact tending to drastically over-estimate its allegedly catalytic role in long-term geopolitical events. Drawing on both archaeology and text, building on work by the author and many other scholars, this talk will explore the many facets of the ‘Fimbulwinter’ as it affected the late Iron Age cultures of Scandinavia. Focusing on issues of vulnerability, resilience, and their long-term afterlives in human-environmental interaction, the ‘dust veil’ can be seen as both more, and less, destructive than previously claimed.

Other speakers so far:

  • Prof. Andrew Dugmore, Department of Geography, University of Edinburgh, UK:Wizards, Floods, Geomorphology and Memory
  • Dr. Helen Foxhall Forbes, Department of History, Durham University, UK: Explaining and Investigating Rainbows and Rain in Early Medieval Northern Europe
  • Dr. Anna Jones, Department of Geography and Geology, Edge Hill University, UK: River Flooding in the First Millennium
  • Dr. Karen Milek, Department of Archaeology, Durham University, UK: Changes in Human-Animal Relations as a Response to Environmental Change
  • Dr. Julia Shaw, Institute of Archaeology, University College London, UK: Environmental Ethics, Climate Narratives and Conceptualizing the Anthropocene in Asia from a Palaeo-Medico-Environmental Humanities Perspective
  • Prof. Richard Bradshaw, University of Liverpool, UK: A Walk in the Woods in the First Millennium CE.
  • Dr Caroline Petit, University of Warwick, UK: Man and Nature in the Roman Empire: Ancient Responses to Environmental Challenges

Accomodation in Durham

If you require accommodation in Durham before or after the symposium, ThisIsDurham offers information about hotels, B&Bs and guest houses in the area.

Contact; for more information about this event.