Archaeological remains are best preserved in places such as the ocean and ice patches, which are in danger due to the constant increase in global temperature. A series of articles published in the academic journal Antiquity warns that places where archaeological remains are best preserved, such as wetlands and oceans, are at increased risk.
Threat of climate change
“Climate change is accelerating, amplifying existing risks and creating new ones, the consequences of which could be devastating for the global archaeological record,” wrote Jørgen Hollesen, a researcher at the National Museum of Denmark and author of the study.
Erosion endangers coastal sites, while underwater archaeological sites suffer from extreme weather conditions. Hollesen warns that “sites are currently being eroded at an increasing rate, often before scientists can record them and assess their value” and lists Scotland, Iran, Rapa Nui and Florida among the most affected places.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts major changes in global climate by the year 2100.
These projected changes influence a variety of processes that have the potential to cause significant damage to archaeological sites, structures, and artefacts (Adams Reference Adams, Petzet and Ziesemer2008; Berenfeld Reference Berenfeld2008; Heilen et al. Reference Heilen, Altschul and Lüth2018).
In 2016, the US National Park Service produced a detailed matrix of climate impacts on various types of cultural heritage, including archaeology (Rockman et al. Reference Rockman2016).
In 2019, this matrix approach was adopted and expanded by the International Council on Monuments and Sites Working Group on Climate Change Heritage for use on a global scale (International Council on Monuments and Reference Sites Pörtner 2019).
More recently, Sesana and his colleagues (Reference Sesana2021) produced an overview of climate change impacts on cultural heritage, including archaeological sites and landscapes, based on a detailed review of the literature.
Material culture rapidly degrades
Garry Shaw of The Art Newspaper writes that discoveries similar to Ötzi’s mummy could be lost due to melting glaciers and ice patches. When an archaeological piece is released from the ice, it must be recovered promptly to stabilize and preserve it, according to the researcher. “Without immediate intervention, much of this material culture rapidly degrades and loses its potential to contribute to our understanding of the past.”
Wetlands, on the other hand, where organic remains are best preserved, could soon dry out and according to Henning Matthiesen, Hollesen’s colleague at the National Museum of Denmark and author of one of the papers, “since the excavation of flooded sites is costly and funding is limited, hard decisions will inevitably have to be made about how many threatened sites and how completely they can be excavated.”
Beyond these warnings, from the University of Lincoln, Cathy Davis and her colleagues directed their efforts to study the inclusion of actions in favour of cultural heritage among climate adaptation plans in low- and middle-income countries. Davis found that 17 of the 30 countries she sampled mentioned plans for their cultural heritage amid the climate crisis, with only three of them mentioning specific actions.
“On the positive side, the study shows that local adaptation plans are underway in countries like Nigeria, Colombia and Iran,” Hollesen writes. “[However,] the results also point to a worrying disconnect between climate change policymakers and the cultural heritage sector around the world, resulting from a lack of awareness, coordination, recognition and funding.
Inclusion of cultural sites
In another article, Cathy Daly of the University of Lincoln and colleagues studied the inclusion of cultural sites in the climate adaptation plans of low- and middle-income countries. The team revealed that although 17 of the 30 countries surveyed include heritage or archaeology in their plans, only three mention specific actions to be taken.
“On the positive side, the study shows that local adaptation plans are underway in countries like Nigeria, Colombia and Iran,” Hollesen writes. “[However,] the results also point to a worrying disconnect between climate change policymakers and the cultural heritage sector around the world, resulting from a lack of awareness, coordination, recognition and funding”.
According to Daly and her colleagues: “Global climate change is a shared challenge and the best route to finding solutions will undoubtedly be a shared path.”
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