There is no doubt that disasters have affected current and past human behaviour. Historical studies have elevated our awareness of the significance of disasters and provided guides about measures that have been used to protect against future occurrences (Noto, 1993). It is also possible that cultures may share certain characteristics because they have adapted to a series of disasters in the past and have developed similar adaptations to protect themselves from the threat of further occurrences (Shimoyama, 1998). Additional studies of how societies have adapted to disasters are needed to generate general theory concerning the effects of disasters on cultural change.
Archaeological discoveries of traces that indicate past disasters are becoming very common. Before these data can contribute to a broader, theoretical understanding of the phenomena in general, a series of basic concepts about what a disaster is and how it occurs is necessary. The establishment of the major components of a disaster is therefore the logical first step in an analysis. Second, it is important that archaeologists go beyond simply reporting that a disaster took place, as is common in many reports. They should also reconstruct the specific conditions present, the nature and extent of damage, the assessments made by the people involved, and the responses of the population, including longer-term adaptations, if any. Obviously, this detailed level of work will require much better excavation techniques and data analysis, but at this stage it is important to set out the general criteria that constitute a disaster as a guide to what archaeologists should be looking for in their data.
The purpose of this short chapter, therefore, is to introduce the basic concepts necessary for constructing archaeological research that will assist in building general theory about the role of disasters in cultural change. I will introduce and describe the basic components of a human disaster and provide some examples from Japanese archaeology. More detailed case studies are presented in Chapter 18.
One of the important implications of defining the general components of disaster research is that the need for an inter-disciplinary approach is highlighted.