Climate change is increasing the urgency of archeology

Climate change is putting pressure on one of the earliest fields of science: archeology.

Drought in the Colorado River basin reveals centuries-old artifacts as lakes and rivers turn muddy. And where droughts do not happen, there are floods – sometimes they quickly follow one another with droughts.

Consider the Mississippi River basin. Two and a half years ago, the pool experienced record floods that devastated the riverbanks and adjacent areas full of artifacts from the Mississippi civilization. Today the river is so dry that shipwrecks emerge from the water graves, e.g. in Lower Mississippi, where Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, followed by French explorers who traveled the river, taking the region for King Louis XIV, calling it “Louisiana.

“The pattern seems to be that we are madly jumping from one spectrum to the next. It’s not good for archeology in the long run, ”said Charles McGimsey, Louisiana archaeologist. “Archaeological sites do best either under water or on dry ground. Going back and forth isn’t good.

But as more and more artifacts appear – from Mesopotamia to the Mississippi – scientists say drought and other effects of climate change are weakening their ability to protect and document important sites before they degrade or disappear.

According to Agence France-Presse reports, the 2020 record Nile basin floods were dangerously close to destroying al-Bajrawiya in Sudan, the heart of the ancient Kush Kingdom and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In Iraq, ancient structures, including in Babylon, the capital of the two Babylonian empires, begin to erode as the salt concentrations associated with drying out river beds and eventually salt water intrusion begin to destroy their earthen foundations, according to reports from Iraq. Guardian.

In August, as an extreme drought hit Europe, a flotilla of German warships from World War II sunk in the Danube, Serbia emerged from the water. In central Spain, receding water in the Valdecanas reservoir revealed Bronze Age granite stones known as the Dolmen of Guadalperal, according to Reuters Information service.

Climate threats to cultural artifacts are also an increasing problem in the United States as more and more places are destroyed by extreme climatic conditions, both inland and off the coast.

“Of course, all archaeologists are concerned about the impact of the climate,” said Tim Pauketat, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana and an archaeologist of Illinois.

Pauketat, who studied what is considered to be one of the most intact pre-European settlement sites in North America at Cahokia near today’s St. Louis, said climate change had fueled a long-standing fear by archaeologists that many of the undiscovered historical and prehistoric objects were disappearing, one fossil, a primitive tool, or a shard of pottery at a time.

The National Park Service, which manages 85 million acres of cultural or natural interest, has cataloged nearly 150,000 archaeological sites. The agency has a dedicated archaeologist in its climate change response program who coordinates staff and research on topics that range from “coastal erosion and storm damage to the effects of fires, floods, melting permafrost and deterioration due to changing rain and temperature patterns. ”Officials said.

The Land Management Office – although less directly involved in archaeological research – issues permits for cultural resources that allow individuals or organizations to conduct fieldwork on BLM lands. The agency also strengthened its climate commitments, noting on its website that its reusable mission to conserve, recreate and commercially use BLMs is directly threatened by climate change.

Dave Conlin, an archaeologist and head of the National Park Service’s Underwater Resource Center in Colorado, said displaying cultural artifacts due to climate change – especially in aquatic environments – is harmful for two reasons.

“One of them is wet and dry driving,” which makes preserved items brittle, and the problem is exacerbated by waves and fluctuations in air temperature on the high and low temperature surface. The second is contact with people who are invariably drawn to interesting objects that protrude from the river bank or rise above the water’s surface, he said.

“In the case of ground-based sites, seeing them can involve a long trek into the backcountry, where things are more hidden and may be more difficult to access,” added Conlin. On the other hand, archaeological sites in dry lakes and rivers “may be easily accessible to people on a pontoon boat”.

The two huge reservoirs in the Colorado River basin, Lake Powell and Lake Mead, are excellent examples of what happens when extreme drought approaches and lakes, whose total normal area covers 500 square miles, are effectively shrinking. Coastlines widen, lakeside marinas become dry docks, and a “tub ring” lining the banks of the reservoirs marks the top of the canyon-like walls.

Last summer, experts found Lake Mead had dropped to its lowest level since 1937. Today, the drought-stricken reservoir has revealed many artifacts, including the remains of a 19th-century Mormon settlement known as St. Thomas, now available to visitors to Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

There are also boats on the lake. Earlier this year, a Higgins amphibious assault ship appeared on the shore of the reservoir, such as those used by US and Allied forces storming France’s Normandy Beach on D-Day. Experts say that it was used as a measuring vessel when filling the tank. Before the drought, the landing craft was approximately 185 feet below the lake’s surface.

McGimsey, a Louisiana archaeologist who recently verified the discovery of a late 19th-century river ferry near a dam on the eastern bank of the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge, said the ship, while not as old as other wrecks in the canal, represented a unique era in Louisiana history. when the river was still used mainly for agriculture and transportation.

Due to the proximity of the dam, locals and tourists can approach and even touch the wreckage, which would not be allowed under other circumstances.

“There are records showing that literally hundreds of ships sank in the Mississippi during European times,” said McGimsey. “I certainly expect more to come up if the river goes down and we’ll do our best to come out and record them.”

Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for professionals in the energy and environmental industries.


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