Society and Energy: An Archaeological Approach

Grantham Scholar Theresa Nelson is now a Transport and Energy Project Officer for the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds. At the Grantham Centre she used archaeological data to investigate of energy use in different societies, combining physics, archaeology and ecology.

Project background

A missing ingredient in our understanding of human influence on global environmental change is the quantitative measure of the energy interactions of societies operating under varied technological and geographical conditions. This project seeks to employ the archaeological and historical data for the comparative investigation of energy use in different societies.

The project

The project lies at the interfaces between physics, archaeology and ecology and it will be addressed by developing models to calculate entropy generation rates within the case study systems. Entropy generation (as opposed to energy use) allows the “quality” or “usefulness” of different energy resources to be measured. We will explore how we might calculate entropy generation in a series of sub-systems coupled with the environment with the aim of learning about the conditions of social change.

A critical aspect of the study should be the development of methods and models that provide baseline data for both the critical analysis of existing studies and to inform current and emerging policy decisions about the future of our planet.

Over time, human communities have existed in a variety of social configurations ranging from localised hunter-gatherer communities to extensive imperial hierarchies and more recently as interconnected nation states. Accompanying the transitional development of human societies is the fundamental and significant reorganisation of how communities access, exploit and dissipate energy. Although energy allows human communities to sustain themselves under a myriad of cultural conditions, few studies have sought to understand social transformation in terms of the development of energy systems.

It is proposed to investigate not only details of a range of human ecologies in terms of settlement, but also in terms of wider environmental and social relations such as settlement catchment area, the proximity of key resources i.e. water, food, ores and minerals, etc.

The goal is to calculate the entropy generation rate of each of the coupled processes in a particular model social configuration. These computations will be done for each of the thermodynamic couplings within the overall system configuration and over time with steps of days, weeks and years depending on the configurations being researched. The project will be divided into the following tasks:

    1. The development of a (simple as possible) computational framework that can model entropy generation rates for a range of different types of energy conversion sub-systems (metal production, grain production, cattle farming, house building, artefact production, landscape modification, ritual burial, etc..)
    2. An assessment and selection of a range of archaeological case studies and accompanying data for populating the quantitative entropy model
    3. The modelling, analysis and comparisons of entropy generation rates across the different configuration case studies
    4. The development and dissemination of these findings in the context of modern policy guidance
    5. The active promotion of the use of entropy in a policy framing


Theresa Nelson’s outreach and public engagement

Lead Scholar for TUoS Sustainability Report

Theresa Nelson was lead Scholar for TUoS sustainability report

I was the Leading Scholar for the Sustainability Strategy Audit for The University of Sheffield, which informed the University’s first Sustainability Strategy. We identified metrics and areas of focus relevant to the university using the UN Sustainability Development Goal Global Indicator Framework. Our report provides a broad picture of where the University is successful and where it can do more, and serves as roadmap for more targeted exploration of the University’s sustainability policies and practices.

Society for American Archaeology Forum: Archaeology, Sustainability, and Energy

Emeritus Professor John Barrett, Senior Lecturer Roger Doonan, and I served as discussants and presented at a forum Archaeology, Sustainability, and Energy. We led discussions on how Archaeology can enhance its impact and relevance to policy-making in the field of Global Change.

Critical points for discussion included the interdisciplinary role of archaeology, the potential for energy to act as a new way of writing history, and how archaeological approaches and research agendas are matched, or not, to pressing issues of Global Change.

Archaeology in the City, Woodland Heritage Festival

I helped run the University of Sheffield’s Department of Archaeology outreach programme, Archaeology in the City. The Woodland Heritage Festival was held at the JG Graves Discovery Centre in Ecclesall Woods, and had over 700 attendees (video here).

Attendees could observe and take part in an iron smelt. Plus they got involved in the communal organisation involved in metallurgical activities in the past. They crushed ore, brought materials to the iron smelt, and used bellows to introduce air to the furnace. And they learned about how much energy would have gone into producing iron in an early medieval bloomery furnace.

This event was funded by the Grantham Centre and the smelt itself was run by Archaeology PhD Student, Yvette Marks.


Despite being told there was no point ‘talking to the enemy’, Theresa spoke to a Republican Congressman about renewable energy. And she ended up with renewed faith in democracy. Read: Unlikely trio: a liberal archaeologist, a GOP Congressman & renewable energy.

Theresa reported back from COP25 for us. In 7 reasons why COP25 was a positive experience for a social scientist, she explains why she enjoyed her time there.

Social media

You can find Theresa Nelson on Twitter.



Dr Jane Rempel

Lecturer in Classical Archaeology