Unwanted cargo: Disease and climate along the Silk Road

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Earlier this month I was invited along to a workshop hosted by Dr Matt Jones and Dr Christina Lee at the University of Nottingham [UoN] on climate, disease and people. It was a fantastic workshop, and one of the first I have attended that has been truly cross-disciplinary, with experts in microbiology, archaeology, past climates, environmental change and Byzantine history to name but a few. In fact, I found it so unique and interesting that I managed to twist the arms of the organisers to get them to blog about it!

 Meet the bloggers!

Matt Jones Matt Jones is Associate Professor in Quaternary Science in the School of Geography, UoN. His research interests include palaeoenvironmental reconstruction in the Near East and working with archaeologists to understand people’s use of past water resources.


Christina LeeChristina Lee is Associate Professor in Viking Studies in the Faculty of Arts, UoN. Her research interests span all aspects of disease and disability in the early medieval period, but she is particularly interested in the ways in which people responded to cataclysmic events in their lives. Christina was recently awarded the University’s Vice Chancellor’s Medal in recognition of her pioneering work in developing interdisciplinary research, notably between the arts and the sciences.


And on to the blog…

Recent coverage of the Zika and Ebola outbreaks has once again highlighted the uncertainties and fears of people regarding epidemics, as well as our need to understand cultural practices.  There is now, more than ever, a need to understand the role of human behaviour in the spread of disease and a search for the controls which allow it to spread. Modern accelerating factors, due to our shrinking world linked to people’s ability to travel, perhaps intensify our worries about contemporary outbreaks of disease. Still, the ability to travel is not a new phenomenon, nor are outbreaks of disease that have global consequences, or global concerns.

Earlier this month we, a palaeoenvironmental scientist and a Viking and Anglo-Saxon expert, organised a cross-disciplinary workshop to investigate some of the broader issues surrounding disease and the environment, looking at the issue through a historical (or palaeo) lense. We used Plague and the Silk Road as a focus for discussion. We both had interest in these areas. The Silk Road was a critical trade route for much of the last 2000 years. The last 2000 years is an interesting time focus for palaeoclimate research. And it is hypothesized that climate change likely played a role in the Justinian plague outbreak. During the Viking Age, one arm of the Silk Road connected Scandinavia with the Middle East. This period sees an extension of Europe across large parts of the globe, an extension that has not been completely understood. Did pandemic diseases, such as the Justinian plague, play a role in creating powerchanges and shifts that may have enabled such changes? Whilst no change is ever based on one reason alone, it is worth asking whether climate and disease have affected history.

Our workshop united visitors from three different countries (but six nations) and six different disciplines:  philologists, historians, archaeologists, microbiologists, medical geographers and palaeoclimate specialists. It was interesting to hear about the research methods and outcomes in the varying disciplines and to discuss how such divergent fields may work together to draw a set of conclusions that can help to understand the past, whilst preparing us for the future. The next step for us is to move from discussion to research collaboration, and plenty of ideas were generated in just 24 hours of discussion.

One of our broader discussions was how we could best work together given our diverse backgrounds and research foci. One of the things we all appreciated was listening to different experts discuss the uncertainties in their own areas of work. Uncertainties are a given in most approaches to any subject, yet very few (if any of us) have the time or capacity to fully appreciate the nuances of all methodologies and disciplines. To come to a fully rounded answer to any research question therefore requires a coherent team of researchers pulling in the same direction – albeit from different starting points. Good interdisciplinary work, it appears, relies on good disciplinary work and good communication between project partners.

The workshop left us with lots to think about in terms of how people move and what they move – diseases, but also the knowledge and resources of how to treat them. This movement of people and resource, in multiple directions, has a long history and yet there are only certain times and certain places where there are substantial outbreaks of a specific disease – why is that? And what happens to the disease when these outbreaks stop?

There is much discussion of this wider topic in the literature of multiple disciplines at the moment, such as recent work on the medieval Plague outbreak or the importance of rodents in spreading the Lassa virus. We hope our initial conversations with a multidisciplinary approach can add to these discussions in the future.

Multidisciplinary research = beer!

According to some the odd drink can aid interdisciplinary research – getting a range of people in the same place is also a good place to start!

**Matt and Christina would like to extend their thanks to all the workshop participants and The University of Nottingham’s Life in Changing Environments Research Priority Area and The School of Geography for providing the funding for this workshop**


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Keely Mills

I am a palaeoenvironmental scientist at the British Geological Survey, and ECR representative for the INQUA Humans & Biosphere Commission (HABCOM). My research interest centres on trying to understand how lake ecosystems have responded to past climate changes from a multi-disciplinary perspective and to try to understand how resilient these often vulnerable but ecologically important freshwater resources may be to future climate changes, especially under increasing pressure from human activity, pollution and modification. I spend much of my time working on lake systems in warmer parts of the world (Africa, Australia and Malaysia), and my speciality is in the identification, and quantitative application of fossil diatom analysis.

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