Symposium front page

Down by the water

Interdisciplinary symposium on the role of water transit points in past societies

Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, Helsinki, 6-8 November, 2019

Symposium rationale

Waterways have been key factors in the development of societies from prehistoric times to nowadays, particularly due to their role as vectors for cultural interactions, material exchange, and transmission of knowledge. The fluidity of these highways of transport and communications is tightly linked to the presence of transit points: spaces with unique geographical characteristics that acted as nodal points between different communities. Transit points are thus defined as places of intense social contacts, putting objects of physical geography into the domain of social sciences and humanities.

Human activity on or around water transit points

The subject is challenging, as many activities that happen in the aquatic spaces seldom leave substantial archaeological traces behind due to the nature of the activities (for example, some actions take place on board vessels), or the inaccessibility of the archaeological remains (for example, submerged or silted spaces). In some instances, the location might have been obscured by lack of remains, but the impact of those interactions are visible in other ways, such as nautical technology or language exchanges.

River networks and linguistic interactions

Rivers are particularly relevant to language exchanges, as they have been crucial in defining language contact areas in such diverse parts of the world as Amazonia, Northern Europe, and Siberia, among others: in some cases, riverside locations are known to be areas of linguistic similarity resulting from long-term exchange relations between speakers of unrelated languages or from a population spread along a river path. In other areas, riverside locations can be areas of the most linguistic diversity if they serve as a marketplace to which temporarily gather representatives of the otherwise geographically distant language communities.

Establishment of legal frameworks for human action

The complex nature of human exchanges in these kind of locations have resulted in the need to develop legal frameworks to mediate interactions, many of which reflect the multiculturality and multi-legality of the actors involved. Taking all this into account, an interdisciplinary perspective with a focus on human-environment interactions is necessary. This sort of approach can help set forth more nuanced theories regarding the relation between social systems and their environment, using data obtained through different disciplines such as iconography, law, computer modelling, ethnography, geography, history, linguistics, environmental sciences, and so on.

Sea-river transit zones

While in spaces like the Mediterranean sea-river interactions are included in economic models, in other regions traditional upstream-downstream models, such as Bronson’s model for Southeast Asia, disregard unique environmental and human conditions of each area; and many other areas of the world remain yet undescribed from the perspective of their waterways.  By engaging with interdisciplinary theoretical approaches like the maritime cultural landscape, boat biographies, or language contact studies, researchers will be able to recognize the impact of maritime or fluvial cultures onto their social framework and bring a balance to the narratives of the past in regions with amphibious landscapes.

Organizing committee:

Elisabeth Holmqvist-Sipilä, HCAS 
Olesya Khanina, HCAS/ Institute of Linguistics, Russian Academy of Sciences
Emilia Mataix Ferrandiz, HCAS
Veronica Walker Vadillo, HCAS