Global Change Threats to the Archaeological and Paleoecological Record

Part of: Society for American Archaeology 81st Annual Meeting, Orlando, FL (2016)

Archaeological sites with good organic preservation are increasingly recognized both as sources of data on past human behavior and cultural organization, and as valuable resources for paleoenvironmental reconstruction, with potential similar to other paleoenvironmental proxy records. They hold valuable information needed to place human ecodynamics in the broad spatial and temporal perspective essential to developing a meaningful and actionable understanding of socionatural systems, often without the ambiguities of correlating between archaeological deposits and distant natural proxies.

Yet, just as new methods increase our ability to retrieve and study this information, global climate change poses a dire threat, both to the wealth of organic data in such sites, and to many of the sites themselves. Global change-related threats include: increased coastal erosion (due to sea level rise, increases in number and/or strength of storms, and diminished sea ice in Polar regions), increased riverine erosion (due to increases in precipitation amount or intensity and increases in glacial melting), drying of waterlogged sites and bogs (due to hydrological changes), changes in land use (due to changes in agriculture or displacement of populations). In high-latitude areas the thawing of permafrost is a major and imminent threat to the archaeological and paleoecological record.

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  • Documents (8)

  • Climate change and the preservation of archaeological sites in Greenland (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Jørgen Hollesen. Henning Matthiesen.

    Archaeological sites in Greenland represent an irreplaceable record of extraordinarily well-preserved material remains covering more than 4000 years of human history. Out of the more than 6000 registered sites very few have been excavated and it is anticipated that thousands of sites are still to be discovered in the many unexplored parts of the country. However, the climate is changing rapidly in Greenland leading to accelerated degradation of the archaeological sites. Since 2009, the National...

  • Climate Change Challenges at Bandelier National Monument: Adapting Conservation and Monitoring Responses for Cultural Sites in the Desert Southwest (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Rachel Adler. Barbara Judy. Sarah Stokely. Rory Gauthier.

    The Ancestral Puebloan sites at Bandelier National Monument include both masonry pueblos and man-made cave sites. The dry climate of Northern New Mexico in conjunction with the environmental awareness and architectural ingenuity of the builders have played an important role in the preservation of these sites, which continue to yield valuable archaeological information. Changes in the semi-arid climate in which the monument is located have begun to threaten the equilibrium between these...

  • GIS Predictive Modeling to Identify Archeological Vulnerability to Climate Change Along the Coasts of Western Arctic National Parklands in Alaska (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Dael Devenport. Shelby Anderson.

    A GIS-based predictive model helps guide archeological inventories and mitigation measures by identifying areas of archaeological interest subject to climate change threats. This multi-year large-scale inventory and vulnerability assessment of coastal archeological resources at Bering Land Bridge National Preserve and Cape Krusenstern National Monument is designed to rectify the lack of basic inventory knowledge and complete a vulnerability assessment. The remote 1600 km-long coastal areas of...

  • The potential of coastally eroding palaeoenvironmental deposits and middens as climatic and cultural data reservoirs (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Ingrid Mainland. Jane Downes. Scott Timpany. Julie Bond. Jen Harland.

    The acute problem facing Scotland’s archaeological heritage through loss and damage by rising sea levels and increased storminess in response to global climate warming is gaining increasing recognition. This threat is prompting diverse mitigating responses, most significantly Historic Scotland's Coastal Zone Assessment Surveys and the work of the SCAPE Trust. These surveys have, however, predominately focused on the recording of cultural, rather than palaeoenvironmental remains; while midden...

  • Report from the Ragged Edge: Vanishing Heritage on Alaska’s North Slope (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Anne Jensen.

    The North Slope of Alaska is home to many coastal sites with spectacular preservation, due to frozen conditions. Long considered relatively stable, these sites are now vanishing. Erosion rates have increased exponentially, due to warming permafrost, sea ice retreat and longer ice-free seasons. Coastal erosion reveals structures and features, but they are often destroyed by storms before anything significant can be done. A single recent storm removed over 30 meters of one site. North Slope...

  • Sandbagging the Past: Rescue Excavations at a Medieval Icelandic Fishing Station (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Frank Feeley. Lilja Pálsdóttir.

    Since it's discovery in 2008, archaeologists have been performing rescue excavations at the site of Gufuskálar in Western Iceland. During the Medieval Era this site was home to one of the largest commercial fishing operations in Iceland at that time. Little is known about these early commercial ventures and most of these early fishing stations have been destroyed by later episodes of town-building. Gufuskálar is one of the best preserved examples of a medieval fishing station but, as with many...

  • Scotland’s Coastal Heritage at Risk: prioritizing action and connecting research and citizen science at sites threatened by the sea (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Tom Dawson.

    In Scotland, there is a long tradition of archaeologists working at sites threatened by coastal erosion. Government Agency, Historic Scotland, has sponsored a series of coastal surveys in order to locate sites; and the SCAPE Trust has worked with national and local heritage bodies to prioritize action and produce an interactive ‘Sites at Risk’ map from the data. The map includes sites of all periods and site types, many of which contain a wealth of palaeoenvironmental data. The coast is a highly...

  • Understanding damage due to sea level rise in Orkney: the results of recent work (2016)
    DOCUMENT Citation Only Julie Bond. Julie Gibson. Stephen Dockrill. Ruth Maher. Robert Friel.

    Orkney is a Scottish archipelago, with a maritime cultural landscape spanning some 6,000 years. The archaeological evidence related to this long habitation is amongst the most complete in Northwest Europe. Three-dimensional stone architecture and frequently benign soil conditions contribute to very good preservation of individual sites in their landscapes and the UNESCO inscription of The Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site recognizes this. A few sites were protected in the last...