Endangered Archaeology: Climate Change’s Threat to Our Past

Updated: Mar 2

by Abigail Allan


‘Our house is on fire.’ – Greta Thunberg, January 2019

‘It’s like the library of Alexandria being on fire…’ – Jago Cooper, Head of the Americas collection, British Museum, January 2020


In the summer of 2018, I was excavating at an archaeological site in Halaesa, Northern Sicily, in 35OC heat. Meanwhile, at home, the temperature was even higher: England was experiencing another heatwave. I had gone to Sicily decked out with factor 50 sun-cream, leaving behind my mother, also fair and ginger, not expecting that she would be more at risk of sunburn in the usually dreary West Midlands. The 2018 heatwave in the British Isles was the joint hottest British summer since records began in 1910, tied with those of 1976, 2003, and 2006, and was the hottest yet in England, according to the British Met Office.


At home, news spread that the grounds of Bantock Park, a local estate, had become so arid that signs of an old farmhouse had begun to appear. Known as cropmarks, these scorched patterns appeared across the UK, revealing 4,000-year-old Bronze Age monuments in Wales and South Derbyshire, and the remains of an ornate garden dating back to 1699 at Chatsworth House, also in Derbyshire. At the time, this heatwave seemed to me like a one-off incident, although still a sure warning of climate change to come. I did not realise that heatwaves would so quickly become an annual occurrence. June 2020 saw the UK experience yet another heatwave, with temperatures as high as 30OC. As if to confirm my own experience, a paper written in Nature in 2004, predicated that by the 2040s, major heatwaves may be expected to occur every other year; by the 2080s the ones we experience now will be considered cold for the summer. Most importantly, heatwaves will result in loss of life – both human and non-human. The 2003 heatwave, believed to be the hottest in Europe since at least AD 1500, directly resulted in the deaths of more than 70,000 people.


I was once again thinking about 2018’s heatwave when I encountered the Endangered Archaeology of the Middle East and North Africa (EAMENA) project at Oxford’s School of Archaeology. This project uses satellite imagery to record possible archaeological sites in the Middle East and North Africa (the MENA region) which are under threat. Using satellite images to view archaeological sites is well-suited to these areas of the world due to their aridity, which helps throw structures or features on the ground into sharp relief when viewed from above. These features can be seen in situ but are situated in areas of the world which are often difficult to access, or they are sometimes difficult to see on foot due to their very low height. Working for EAMENA now, I am consistently struck by the way these areas look: areas of the Jordanian desert appear a vivid red on the satellite images, with numerous wadis, areas carved by intermittent rainfall, appearing as braided streams amongst cliffs. Evidence of herdsmen from several thousands of years ago are found in areas which are now desert: testament to the long-term natural changing of the climate. That natural change, however, clearly stands to increase in pace as anthropogenic climate change unfolds.


Aerial (and drone) photography has been actively used in British archaeology for over a century, particularly following the rapid technological advances ushered in by the First World War.


Unlike in the MENA region, this usage was more focused on the identification of vegetation marks relating to buried archaeological features which were often only visible during periods of dry weather, although some cropmarks also appear as vegetation grows better or worse than its neighbour. Unlike in the MENA region, these archaeological features cannot be seen on the ground but are buried beneath it, only visible when viewed from above. However, they have been difficult to identify on satellite imagery. But now, with the technological advances of platforms such as Google Earth and the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events in the UK, these tools are increasingly valuable for archaeological research here. Studying archaeology in the UK, with its wet and mild climate, had previously been considered largely incompatible with satellite imagery, but as the climate changes, so does our scope for archaeological research.


Across the globe, the landscape of archaeology is clearly changing, but the role of climate change is a double-edged sword: for each new discovery, multiple sites are threatened; with each new opportunity, there are unprecedented challenges. 28,000-year-old items from Siberia were set to go on display in the British Museum from October 2020 until February 2021 for the exhibition Arctic: culture and climate , although due to national lockdowns, the exhibition was interrupted and is now unable to re-open. These objects, including sewing needles and jewellery made from walrus ivory, have been revealed by the rapidly thawing permafrost in the Arctic. In one sense, they represent a treasure trove, providing a rich insight into the history of the Arctic and its peoples, dating back generations. Made of perishable materials, they are incredibly rare, a testament to the remarkable landscape of the tundra. Their discovery is therefore a tragedy, recognised as such by the British Museum, which has decided to curate the exhibition through the lens of the climate crisis and the ingenuity and creativity of Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic throughout history. In an article for the Guardian, Jago Cooper, the head of the Americas collections at the museum, described how the items, ‘incredibly well-preserved in that frozen ground, are coming out as the ground is melting. It's like the library of Alexandria being on fire… You're plucking out these books which are coming out…’. Built 2,000 years ago, the library of Alexandria allegedly contained a copy of every single known written work from around the Mediterranean. With its destruction by fire, we lost a huge reserve of knowledge, forever impacting our understanding of the ancient world. The way that global warming is affecting archaeology is much like the fire at the library of Alexandria: we are rapidly losing elements of our past. By citing the fire at the library of Alexandria, Cooper is attempting to emphasise the double-edged nature of these discoveries: as soon as we ‘discover’ the items as they come out of the melting tundra, they are immediately placed in danger as perishable materials. With global warming, the remaining material will be lost forever.


The Arctic exhibition is sponsored by Citi, ‘the world’s most global bank’, who have recognised that they ‘must play an important role in addressing the climate crisis and financing the transition to a low-carbon economy’. Last year, however, the British Museum were heavily criticised for the sponsorship of their exhibition of ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’ by oil giant BP . Although museum funding is an issue beyond the scope of this article, activists at the theatrical protest group ‘BP or not BP?’ have argued that ‘the museum should not be promoting and giving legitimacy to an oil company when we are in the midst of a climate emergency’. It certainly seems ironic that the British Museum can simultaneously lament the melting of the tundra and tacitly support the fossil fuel industry. Not only that, but oil prospecting in the MENA region, alongside mining and quarrying, are some of the biggest threats to archaeological heritage, as illustrated by the work of EAMENA.


It is not only individual artefacts that are at risk from climate change, however, but entire sites. Rising temperatures will not only affect the tundra, but also areas closer to home. Roman Magna, in Northumbria, is one of the biggest Roman forts in the UK, which has been well-preserved by a peat bog. Like the Arctic tundra, the marshy peat bog of Roman Magna is an environment unique for its ability to preserve organic remains. But, as the peat bog dries out due to consistently rising temperatures, these remains, once ‘safely locked away’ in the oxygen-free ditches and marshes, are now threatened. Roman Magna is the perfect example of the destructive power of the climate crisis on archaeological sites. The site holds key information to understanding the biggest questions about the Roman frontier in the early first millennium, but the knowledge which could be found at this site will now be lost forever. Sites like this, which preserve so much organic material protected by the planet, are incredibly rare in archaeology. The Vindolanda Trust, the body responsible for the preservation of the site, is now desperately fundraising to pay for emergency archaeological excavations here. They have surpassed their original fundraising goal of £100,000 but due to the impact of the pandemic have kept their fundraiser open and raised the goal to £200,000.


Rising temperatures, too, will increase the risk of fire – one of the most devastating threats to archaeology and heritage, as demonstrated by the extensive damage caused at the National Trust’s Clandon Park in April 2015, and the Cutty Sark fire of 2007. Although these events were unrelated to climate change, it is possible that in the future, climate-change-driven fire will threaten heritage assets. Historic ships, for example, may burn more easily than modern vessels – the Cutty Sark’s middle deck is made of pitch pine, which is much more flammable than building materials used now and may have helped the 2007 fire spread. We have also seen, in the past year, the horrendous impact of wildfires in Australia and the US West Coast, in which human life, millions of animal lives, and countless habitats were lost.


Rising sea levels also pose a major threat, particularly to Classical archaeology, which is, broadly, the study of Mediterranean peoples from around 1200 BC to around 400 AD, give or take. For the peoples of the ancient Mediterranean world, everyday life revolved around the sea, and consequently many of our most important Classical archaeological sites are found on the coast. Across the Mediterranean there are 263 UNESCO world heritage sites (not just Classical), characterised by their ‘outstanding universal value’, 49 of which are coastal sites located less than 10m above sea level. A study in Carbon Brief found that 37 of those sites are already at risk today and by 2050 several more significant sites will be under threat, including Tipasa, Algeria, a former Roman military base; the Old Town of Corfu, with origins in the eighth century BC; and the Early Christian monuments of Ravenna, Italy.


The damage that climate change is and will cause to global heritage is clearly unimaginably vast. Often, we won’t even know what we will lose until we have already lost it.


With the unprecedented scale of the climate emergency continuing to threaten our future, a big question is why we should care about archaeology at all, especially when we have the genuinely more pressing concerns of loss of life, livelihood, and natural resources. But it is clear that archaeology – the study of our collective human past through material remains – is something which should be protected. Through archaeology, 'our past' becomes less abstract and instead something we can use to teach ourselves about our present.


In a world divided, archaeology can show us that the barriers and borders we subscribe to today did not always exist. The archaeology of the Classical world shows that the ideological border between 'The West' and 'The Rest’ did not always exist, with different groups borrowing ideas, trading goods and travelling amongst each other: across Early Iron Age Cyprus (the Early Iron Age in the Mediterranean is dated from 1050-750 BC, and therefore falls under the broad remit of ‘Classical archaeology’), the decoration and form of the local pottery shows influences from both the Levantine coast and East Greece. High Classical sculpture, praised so often in western art history, has its origins in Egyptian sculpture from before the seventh century BC. At the Vindolanda Roman fort in Northumbria, altars from the early first millennium AD show that cults such as Jupiter Dolichenus, from as far afield as Doliche (modern Dülük in south-eastern Turkey) were actively worshipped. Writing tablets show that the people living there had names from across Europe, west Asia, and North Africa. The people of Britain have clearly long been part of a rich and varied cultural tapestry.


Archaeology shows us that we are capable of living in a more united world. By losing it, we risk losing vital elements of our past, a danger graphically demonstrated in ISIL’s destruction of archaeological sites across the Middle East, seen as an attempt to erase the past and replace it with their own narrative within their reign of terror. Archaeology has been destroyed by ideological motives which aim to divide: we must not let climate change achieve the same level of destruction. Archaeology, and the unprecedented threats to it, unite our global community. Climate change will affect the whole world, but unevenly, starting in places where people are already the most vulnerable, such as the Arctic. The archaeology of the Arctic is particularly significant to its indigenous peoples who have lived and thrived there for over 28,000 years, and understanding these complex and resilient past societies is also globally important. We should all be motivated to care about protecting local and world heritage – not only because of its global impact, but because of its importance locally. We all have our own archaeology.


Finally, it is important to protect archaeology simply for the enjoyment of learning about the past. Before studying Roman Britain, my idea of ancient Britain was of muddy fields and perpetual rain, but now I realise that it was a vibrant, active place. For an archaeologist, 'value' has nothing to do with money. This is a similar philosophy to that of climate change protestors: value can be found in recognising our collective past and enjoying our shared natural world, without exploitation or perpetual profit-seeking. As Sarah Parcak, a renowned ‘space archaeologist’, wrote in her recent book (2019), the dirt beneath our feet is wonderful: ‘It doesn't necessarily glitter, but it is priceless. The dirt contains nothing less than the clues to who we are, how we got here, and how we might thrive in the future.’ Archaeology brings vibrancy to our world.


The role that the climate emergency plays in our understanding of archaeology is complex but above all alarming: it simultaneously reveals sites and artefacts across the world and destroys them before they can be studied and understood. We hear about how climate change will affect our present and futures all of the time – but it is also destroying our past. I have always thought, naively, that the ground beneath our feet would be safe. But it is now clear that climate change will genuinely alter everything that we know, including our sense of who we are.


Abigail Allan is a Classical Archaeology student at the University of Oxford. She has previously written about the working class and climate change for Anthroposphere, and other recent work is featured or upcoming in Common Ground Oxford and Moxy Magazine. When not reading, writing, or studying, she can be found indulging in her worst trait: cheating on the Guardian Quick crossword.