See Colin McFarlane's most recent Society & Space contributions: The City as Assemblage: Dwelling and Urban Space, The City as Assemblage: Dwelling and Urban Space, and Performing Cosmopolitanism


Mumbai police stand by piles of water pumps removed from informal settlements, Mumbai Mirror, January 8, 2010

Our story begins with our urban archaeologist in the field, in the middle of research for his new project "Recovering the early Anthropocene." He’s puzzling over two images. The images are of two sites located near to one another, in an area that was once the western coast of India. Until recently, the area had been lost to the sea, but the sea has now retreated and archaeological digs have uncovered these two finds. It is difficult to be sure, but the finds look early 21st century. Of course the mystery of these two sites would be solved immediately if only there were more images, data and documentation from the time, but alas most of that data has long been lost.

The images of the sites couldn’t be more different. One is of straight lines covering distances of several kilometers. The lines intersect in rectangles and triangles, but the spaces between are far too large for buildings, and the lines are too narrow for roads. Our archaeologist—let’s call him Dr Jones—call this Site 1.

Site 2 is only a few kilometers away, and it is far busier. The image is split into two halves. On one side, a dense network of lines with little space between them. The lines look too narrow to have been roads, although some potentially could have been. The lines scatter this way and that, with little sense of a clear plan or purpose, and create all sorts of different shapes of ever-so-slightly varying sizes. This is Site 2a. On the second half there is a large pit that forms a rough square shape. This is Site 2b.

While Site 1 and Site 2 are close to one another, the lines in Site 1 don’t lead to Site 2. They run nearby but appear to bypass it.

On a large table in front of Dr Jones are finds recovered from the digs. Site 1 has uncovered little by way of fragments, and has instead revealed little more than soil, not especially nutrient rich soil but with an unusually high sugar content.

Site 2 has produced a great deal more. In Site 2a a few fragments have been found, although most of what’s been recovered is vegetation, vegetation that is far more nutrient rich than the soils from Site 1. Dr Jones leans over and carefully picks up one of the fragments. It is metal. The fragment is made of two conjoined parts, one a chamber the size of small bucket, the other a cylinder the circumference and length of the cardboard tube inside kitchen roll. It looks like it once attached to something.

In Site 2b the soil is less rich and is instead high in contaminants and toxins. This site has yielded far more fragments. One looks to be the patterning of degraded plastic etched into soil and stone, another part of a glass vase, another the imprint of a table leg, another the base of a kitchen sink. He speculates that Site 2b is likely to have been a garbage ground. And a very large one at that.

Dr Jones picks up the metal fragment from Site 2a again. Suddenly, he remembers he’s seen this somewhere before. But it wasn’t as a material object. It was an image. He opens his computer and begins searching for the image. He finds the image and opens it (see image). It came form the early 21st century, from a tabloid newspaper, the Mumbai Mirror—he’d collected all the images and data he could from that period of the early Anthropocene as part of his research for the project.

The image brings it all together. It is taken from 2010, in the megacity of Mumbai. It shows Mumbai police officers standing over a cache of metal objects, objects they have uncovered from their own excavations. These objects are water pumps. Water pumps were electric motors attached to water pipes to increase the pressure and flow of water. In the early 21st century, as the Anthropocene advanced, the water pump became more and more common in cites, and especially in cities that suffered periods of water scarcity as this part of western India often did as the monsoon became increasingly erratic, some years flooding cities and other years leaving conditions of drought. The water pump was especially common, however, in slums. The fragment from 2a is a water pump, and Site 2a, he now realizes, is a slum.

Dr Jones can hardly contain his excitement. Slums are notoriously difficult to find in the archaeological record. Most, after all, were bulldozed, flattened, and built over, leaving little trace of what were often light, transitory and improvised housing and infrastructures. This explains why Site 2a is low in physical fragments and high in rich nutrient soil—a result of large concentrations of human waste that stayed on site because there wouldn’t have been sewer connections to remove it. It also explains why the site is located next to 2b, the garbage ground—slums were often located next to the least desirable and therefore cheapest land. Most of the people who lived in slum 2a probably worked in the garbage ground in 2b, recycling the wastes of the formal city.

But this slum wasn’t bulldozed. Perhaps the land was not deemed to be sound for building on—next to a garbage ground, often flooding, eventually submerged by the sea.

Slums were both the frontier of the early urban Anthropocene and its vanishing point. "Frontier" because they were the first to suffer the harshest consequences of rising sea levels, warming temperatures, flash flooding, landslides, and the challenges of living with increasingly scare natural resources like water. And "vanishing point" because there is little trace of them in the archaeological record. So this slum is a rare find. Just as in their day slums were often made invisible by authorities and often denied basic provisions, so too are they all but eradicated from the archaeological record. As my co-archaeologist Tariq Jazeel put it in a recent conversation, slum archaeology is as such a materialization of the 20th century subaltern studies project.

The image of the confiscated water pumps connects the slum to Site 1. Site 1 must have been a network of irrigation channels and water pipes. But while in the early Anthropocene the slum in Site 1 was increasingly using water pumps—which would have been expensive for those living in the slum – to extract small amounts of water to service a very dense place, these large channels and pipes did not bring water to the slum.

Instead, they most likely led to large plantations, probably sugar plantations given the sugar content in the soil. What could the sugar be for other than the large commercial bottle drinks industry that was so powerful in India and beyond in the early Anthropocene? Some of the other water pipes snake off past the slum into the city, most likely to service the middle classes. These pipes would have been increasingly guarded and policed as the Anthropocene wore on. The slum would have been viewed as "stealing" water from the formal city, hence the celebratory image of the police with their cache seized from the slum.

Turing back to the water pump on the table Dr Jones ruefully reflects that while the early Anthropocene was a time of great experimentation with high-tech technology, this simple water pump—as a fossilised materialization of the intersection between resource, climate, inequality, metabolisms and infrastructure—may be a more powerful symbol of that time than anything else.