The Social Life of Sediment

Giacomo Parrinello*

Everybody in the business knows it: the timing of scientific publications in the humanities is long. It can take several months between submission and acceptance of a paper, years between submission and publication. But when a piece it’s finally out, it feels great. And if the piece is not a single paper, but a whole special issue, it’s even better!

This is why I am truly happy to announce that, after two years of hard work, the special issue of the journal “Water History, entitled “The Social Life of Sediment” is out. This issue, co-edited by myself and Matt Kondolf, fluvial geomorphologist at UC Berkeley, is a milestone of the project. It collects a selection of the papers presented at the international workshop “The Social Life of the Sediment Balance,” held at the University of California Berkeley in May 2019 and convened by myself and Matt Kondolf. The workshop was the launching event of SHIFTING SHORES and was co-funded by the UC Berkeley Social Science Matrix/Sciences Po collaboration and a grant from the France-Berkeley Fund. It gathered an international and diverse group of scholars in fluvial geomorphology, environmental history, historical geography, political ecology, STS, all working at the intersection of sediment and society in river systems and deltas. The special issue presents the research results first discussed at the workshop and further elaborated in the following year through the interdisciplinary collaboration between participants.

The issue as a whole brings into focus the need —and value—of looking at sediment as a social object and sediment transport as a thoroughly historical process. Rivers are made of sediment as much as of water: they move sediment from the mountains to the sea, and in the process they produce river habitats, agricultural soils, coastal landscapes, and more. Fluvial sediment transport, however, has been changing worldwide due to human actions and infrastructure, from dams to dredging, from sand and gravel mining to changes in forest cover. Some rivers are deprived of sediment and as a consequence, their deltas are shrinking and sinking. Others have experienced an increased transport of sediment. This anthropogenic alteration of sediment fluxes is one of the principal markers of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch characterized by human influence at the planetary scale. The alteration of sediment transport in rivers (and the resulting transformations of river systems and deltas) cannot be understood without taking into account the social and historical processes that have caused that alteration. Likewise, the history and politics of river and deltas in the modern era cannot be fully understood without putting sediment at the center of the inquiry, and taking into account the alteration of sediment transport.

Source: Deltas at Risk.

Matt and I develop this key point in our introductory paper, also entitled “The social life of sediment”. In it, we review literature at the intersection of sediment, society and history in fluvial geomorphology, political ecology and environmental anthropology, and environmental history. New literature in the social sciences and humanities has begun to look at the intersection of sediment and society, but without the necessary historical depth. On the other hand, in spite of its environmental and historical importance, water and river histories have surprisingly neglected sediment until recently. We argue for putting sediment at the center of social and historical inquiry and discuss the potential and value of such an approach. To do so, the paper introduces the concept of “the social life of sediment,” that is, the idea that the existence and movement of sediment is entwined with social needs, values, and activities, and needs to be appraised in its historical dimension. We believe that this concept can prove helpful to frame new research into the geomorphological histories of rivers and deltas, and provides a solid basis for our ongoing investigation into the Rhône, the Po and the Ebro deltas.

The paper then reviews the contributions to the issue. The papers of the issue prove the interest and value of looking at the social and historical lives of sediment through a vast array of empirical contributions on multiple river basins of the world, including the Tigris-Euphrates River, the Mississippi River, the Rhône River, the Detroit River and the Po River. Put together, we believe these papers open new avenues for interdisciplinary research on sediment in rivers and deltas. First, they show the possibility and value of interdisciplinary collaborations between historians and geomorphologists. Through this, they advance a new historical understanding of rivers as consisting of more than just water, thus moving past the “water bias” that characterizes much of the river and water history literature. This, in turn, opens up a space to revisit river development processes that have rarely been studied under this lens, such as dam building or irrigation, and their politics. Furthermore, they open analytical spaces to processes rarely studied in history, such as the history of sediment mining for the construction industry, the history of sediment knowledge and monitoring, and the history of sediment regulation. The approach these contributions put forward has the potential to revise some deeply seated accounts about river and water history, opening up new connections and different explanations for both river processes and human actions and choices. We hope this will encourage others to move forward in this direction.

*Giacomo Parrinello is assistant professor at the Center for History at Sciences Po and principal investigator of the Shifting Shores project.

Naming matters, or searching for sediment in printed sources

Santiago Gorostiza*

During the last year of travel restrictions and limited access to libraries and archives, researchers lucky enough to continue doing their work have been forced to resort to digitalised sources, probably more than ever before. Starting to work on a new research topic and confronting online repositories with thousands of pages of old journals and massive 19th century volumes, I have been constantly reminded of the very importance of knowing what you are searching for and how to name it. Because not only they did things differently in the past – they also had different names for them. So if one is looking for sediment in the printed sources of the 19th century, you’d better know what exactly you are looking for. “Sediment” will not take you too far. Instead, navigating among a flow of pebbles, cobbles, limes, and silt, one needs to slowly master the vocabulary of sedimentary rocks. Excavating the past, finding the right seam to start digging, is often to start with a matter of language and vocabulary.

Lopes, J.M. & Bensley, E. R. (1887) Nuevo diccionario inglés-español y español-inglés, p. 556.

Knowing the right keywords is just the beginning. “In no other science does the problem of terminology present so many difficulties as in geology”, wrote in 1922 a PhD student who was to become a renowned geologist, Chester K. Wentworth. Five years earlier he had started studying how pebbles and cobbles were shaped by running water, and in doing so he noticed the loose usage of terminology that characterised the work of geologists. Not every anglo-speaking researcher meant the same when saying pebble. Terminology was being redefined, and old words were adopting new senses. In the resulting confusion, researchers like Wentworth, among others around these years, saw the need of agreeing on a careful, international definition of these terms, and standardising its usage. By 1920, Wentworth started collecting definitions of sedimentary rock terms from encyclopaedias, dictionaries, and glossaries, some from the first decades of the 19th century. He prepared a questionnaire and inquired among his colleagues at the United States Geological Survey what it is that they exactly meant when saying bowlder, cobble, pebble, sand grain or clay particle. Perhaps most importantly, he asked them to provide the limiting dimensions that defined each of these words. He then shared his results with geologists specialised in in sediments and sedimentary rocks – in England and the US – and, based on the information compiled and the criticisms received, he proposed a new classification in a research article published in 1922, following that made by Johan August Udden a few years earlier.

Known as Udden-Wentworth scale, or simply as Wentworth scale, this classification of grain sizes remains widely in use today. The practical advantages that a unified vocabulary and scale had for the international community of geologists since 1922 come without saying. For historians searching for sediments in the massive flows of digitised words from the past, deposited in online repositories, the Udden-Wentworth scale is a signpost – but also a warning. On the one hand, the Wentworth scale and its translations to other languages provide us with a valuable set of keywords to search for sediments in the past. On the other, it reminds us that the meanings and sizes associated to these very keywords, before 1922, were not set in stone. Perhaps more importantly, the exercise of establishing a uniform, international scale with standardised scientific vocabulary necessarily involved pushing aside a wider, diverse vocabulary. These terms, however, may have remained in use in non-scientific circles, even if their usage is not common nowadays.

What may be useful for a historian willing to learn the past names of sediment is perhaps to reproduce the dull, systematic work that Wentworth did. To start compiling all words referring to limes, sands, pebbles and cobbles. To collect their definitions, paying attention to close languages, to dialects and etymologies. By repeating the work required to uniformize vocabulary and reduce its diversity, one may precisely gain access to this rich, older collection of terms. Take, for instance, the Spanish term tarquín, which pops up often when 19th century authors refer to the rich, fertilizing virtues of the matters floating in waters and flooded fields after a river surge or a flood. Still accepted in the current dictionary of Spanish but rarely used, it comes from the Arabic tarkīm, which referred to heaping, piling up. Beyond being an alternative way to refer to lime and clay and thus a valuable keyword for studying sediment in the past, tarquín exemplifies how the exercise of reconstructing old vocabulary may come with unexpected rewards for those interested in studying the past practices related to sediment. For the noun tarquín was also the root of a verb, entarquinar, which referred to the practice of fertilizing the fields using tarquín, as well as to the action of reclaiming of marshlands by letting the sediments from a watercourse fill them up. Beyond providing more keywords for online searches, reconstructing the vocabulary about sediment may open the door to related social practices – an entry point to a past where they named and did things differently.


*Santiago Gorostiza is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for History at Sciences Po and member of the Shifting Shores team

Un territoire en conflit: aux origines de la protection du Delta de l’Èbre

Daniel Aguettaz Vilchez*

Entre mai 2019 et août 2020, je me suis rendu à diverses reprises dans le Delta de l’Èbre pour tenter de mieux comprendre le contexte de création du Parc Naturel du Delta de l’Èbre, en 1983. Grâce à plusieurs entretiens oraux et l’étude d’archives écrites, j’ai essayé de reconstruire la configuration sociale apparue autour de cet événement. En quelques mots, je reviens ici sur les principaux enseignements de ces premières recherches.

Fig. 1 : Des champs inondés à la sortie du village de Deltebre, après la tempête Gloria (25/01/2020). Source : Daniel Aguettaz Vilchez.

Continue reading Un territoire en conflit: aux origines de la protection du Delta de l’Èbre

Masters’ student Titouan Souquet joins Shifting Shores for an internship

First year master student Titouan Souquet has joined Shifting Shores project for a twelve months internship project titled “Sediment knowledge and management in the Rhône River, 19th-20th centuries: from excess to scarcity?”. This project is  developed in collaboration with the Observatoire Homme-Milieu Vallée du Rhône.

The workshop on sediment management and institutional stakeholders has concluded

Originally scheduled for June 2020 in Paris and postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Shifting Shores workshop on sediment management and institutional stakeholders has taken place online on 14-15 December (see the programme here). The workshop brought together institutional managers from the Po, Rhône and Ebro rivers with geomorphologists, historians and social scientists working on these river basins.

Marie Bouyneau finishes her internship at Shifting Shores

A student in political humanities at Sciences Po and in physical sciences at Sorbonne Université, Bouyneau joined Shifting Shores in September 2020 to carry out a short research internship. Her work has focused on examining how scientific concerns about the conservation of the Rhône river delta emerged and developed since the 1950s.

Salins de Camargue. Source: Picture by Florine Vanorlé, Wikimedia Commons.

Master’s student Daniel Aguettaz Vilchez presents his thesis on the origins of Ebro Delta Natural Park

After two years of work under the supervision of Giacomo Parrinello, involving archival research and multiple interviews in the Ebro Delta (Catalonia), Daniel Aguettaz Vilchez has successfully defended his master’s thesis, titled Aux origines de la protection du Delta de l’Ebre. Un territoire en conflit (1959-1990).  

Delta after the storm Glòria, January 2020. Source: Photo by Joan Grífols, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Shifting Shores

Shifting Shores is a four-year project (2019-2022) funded by an Emergences grant from the City of Paris, Bureau de l’Innovation, and coordinated by assistant professor Giacomo Parrinello (Center for History at Sciences Po). It examines the historical links between social and natural processes that are responsible for contemporary coastal morphological changes, focusing on three retreating deltas in the Mediterranean: the Po (Italy), the Rhône (France), and the Ebro (Spain). Combining fluvial geomorphology, environmental history, and history of science, the project aims at analysing the alteration of sediment fluxes that connect deltas with their river basins, their causes and consequences, and the societal responses to these. This website will report about research activities and outcomes of Shifting Shores, including conferences, workshops, as well as articles and other written outputs. The blog section will also present some source material and discuss methodological stakes of this interdisciplinary project.

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search