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Climate Change and Archaeology



Climate change, especially the large storms that result as well as rising ocean levels are both uncovering incredibly archaeological finds on coasts and also threatening to destroy them. It’s quite fascinating and quite depressing, as is so much about climate change:

Most 4,000-year-old archaeological sites don’t get dug up and moved. When the team dared to lift away the top layer of Meur, they were rewarded with another astonishing group of structures that lay hidden beneath it. There was an entire Bronze Age well, with six steps leading down into it. “This is almost unheard of, to find a whole well from this period,” Dawson says. There was a room where people had heated the stones of the burnt mound; the walls were cracked from the intense heat of the fire, and the clay in the floor was baked orange. Farther down, the archaeologists uncovered yet another well, which radiocarbon dating suggests may have been there since the Stone Age.

These rooms are brimming with information, Dawson says. For example, archaeologists hadn’t known that Bronze Age people built sophisticated wells like the one at Meur. The cracked stones hint at the intense heat of the fire—another clue that may someday help researchers figure out what the mysterious burnt mounds were used for. There’s environmental history here, too. At the bottom of the well, the team found a heap of leaves, stems, seeds, insects, and tiny bones. This debris, which tumbled into the well thousands of years ago, may tell scientists what was living nearby at that time. And the position of the site itself could reveal how sea levels have changed.

Other potential insights into the lives of ancient people are at risk of falling into the sea along with their stones and skeletons. At a site in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland, archaeologists excavated a circular Iron Age building and found that its builders had buried bizarre objects in the floor: ritualistically prepared animal bones, a crucible, a handful of white quartz pebbles. No one has a clue why. “These sites are absolutely fascinating,” Dawson says. “But every single one of them is different, and every one’s got a different story to tell.”

On coastlines around the globe, other archaeologists are racing rising seas and disappearing shores to learn such stories. Ancient settlements are emerging from the coasts of Alaska. In Nova Scotia, storms are carrying off land and archaeological remains around the 18th-century Fortress of Louisbourg. At Qajaa on the west coast of Greenland, remains from three civilizations that lived there at different times during the past 4,000 years have been preserved in the permafrost but are now threatened by melting. Back in the United Kingdom, at the British site of Happisburgh, beach erosion in 2013 revealed human footprints possibly a million years old. The footprints washed away within two weeks


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