climate change

Climate Change and What Archaeologists Lie Down For

“I would lie down in front of JCB for this place.”

I was in complete agreement with Kathryn. It was my second summer learning to do archaeology and I had (improbably, wonderfully) landed at the medieval home of the Welsh princes of Wales. Kathryn had bought it a few years before, in part as a home for her family, in part to save it from development. The potential for development still loomed though, which is how I remember the subject of JCBs (and John Deere tractors, to my American mind) had come up.

In the years since, I’ve worked at other sites that have met my personal JCB criteria (no, I’m not telling you which sites they are, in case you get any ideas about testing this). Garth Celyn is the place from which the Welsh made their stand for independence against England and a granddaughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine negotiated a truce between her father King John and her husband Llewellyn ab Iorworth and has a stone tower to prove it. There’s an Iron Age hillfort upslope and a Roman road along the coast and there is nowhere else on earth exactly like it. But what it has in common with my other sites is the sense that here is a key piece of human history. Here is something that, if we lose it, we lose some of our ability to understand ourselves. By lying down to try to save it, I would be, really, trying to save humanity from itself. If you can think of places that mean this to you, you know what I mean. And you also know there is something very solid about knowing where your own lines are, what you are willing to give up for what you value.

Climate change is completely messing this up.

A JCB statement (ie, “I will lie down for this”) is about human development. If you’ve had an influence on that, the equation goes, you’ve saved the site. Thing is, climate change doesn’t care about boundaries or fences or zoning laws. It is barreling ahead with changing rainfall patterns, doing a number on flooding, melting permafrost and everything held in it, pushing invasive species on bigger faster campaigns of invasion. And sometimes there’s a larger hotter wildfire thrown in for effect. Archaeological sites exist because they have reached some balance with their surrounding environment. Climate change is (Darth Vader voice included) altering this bargain, and no amount of lying down is likely to change it from altering the balance further.

Which means archaeologists have to find other ways of fighting for what is of value from the past. I have an idea that may help. And in an oddly full circle kind of way, this idea took shape because I didn’t become an archaeologist to save sites. Not even Garth Celyn.

I became one to save the planet through recycling. If you remember, there was a time when recyclables were supposed to be scrupulously cleaned and sorted. And at one point back in that time, some staff at my college decided they didn’t have time to sort their paper. After I sorted two forty-gallon barrels of paper for them, I realized what I most needed to know is “where does this idea that time is more important than trees come from?” I had thought giving information and training about recycling was enough, but my time sorting all that paper made it clear that I needed a better way to talk with them about the value of the resources that were being thrown away around them.

You can’t figure out where something comes from by only studying the present, so I became an archaeologist to go into the past. At the time, archaeology didn’t have a method for studying where perceptions of the environment come from, so I built one. Working in the historic American West and Palaeolithic Britain and other places in between, I tested up with a model of how humans learn new or unfamiliar environments.

No one wanted to hire me to do more of that, so I went to work in cultural resources management. Where I worked to save sites from tractors and bulldozers and pipelines for years. Until one day I couldn’t any more. I still wanted to follow through on the purpose of my original question.

And as part of a long-shot effort to do that, I ended up in the office of the National Homeland Security Research Center at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in an interview to be a science and technology policy fellow there working on issues of risk communication in relation to bioterrorism.

What on earth, you may be thinking, does this possibly have to do with archaeology and/or climate change?

Well, it had nothing to do with all that, until the person interviewing me said this: “sometimes we have to tell people to evacuate. I know, you know, we all know not everyone will evacuate. But all our policies are written as if they will. We need better models of human behavior.”

Do you see it? Right there- that’s my question. Yes, I asked about where ideas about trees and time came from for the purpose of recycling. But if you bump it up one level, my question was really saying “I see a problem in the environment, I’m asking people to do something about it, and they’re not doing it, why?” My interviewer talked about evacuation, but what he was really saying was “Sometimes there’s a problem in the environment, we ask people to do something about it, and they don’t do it, why?”

I told him my story of recycling and what I had done since. And then he gave me the chance to spend the next two years looking at the connections between how people experience and remember disasters, what they expect of their environment, and how that influences how they may prepare and respond to future disasters. And that has everything to do with how archaeology and climate change.

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges human kind may face. We may measure it through atmospheric chemistry and project what may happen through complex models. But if we recognize that it has grown out of our greenhouse gas emissions, then figuring out what to do next is a human problem. Which means we need as much creativity and new perspectives on ourselves as we can possibly bring to bear. Which means archaeologists cannot only save and study sites, we have to make all that we know and do part of the solutions to the problems, climate change and others, that we all are now facing.

What I learned from my interview and time at EPA is that to do that, archaeologists themselves are part of those solutions. What we have to bring is not only our data, but also our ways of asking and answering questions. No other profession sees the world or problems in the ways that we do. And to actually be useful, we have to be clear about how and why we’ve done the research that we’ve done, and match our questions to the questions that others are asking. Because that is where our new work lies, building an archaeological approach to understanding our modern selves, supported and tested through archaeological studies and data from the past.

The problem of JCBs hasn’t gone away. The fight over the Dakota Access pipeline has reminded us of that. And the process of question matching is new, not what we’re trained to do, and it is a lot more work. But if we archaeologists can get used to being of value ourselves, and we figure out how to do it well, just imagine what we can save.

Microscopes and… Posthumanist Archaeology? (Or That Year I Spent the Summer in the Lab)


This year’s Archaeology Day found me in a cold, air conditioned lab working on my PhD pilot project. I work with the Arctic CHAR project now (a joint initiative of the University of Toronto and the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre), which has been running for three years in the Mackenzie Delta, N.W.T.

Arctic CHAR studies patterns of climate change induced environmental degradation at major Inuvialuit settlements across the Tuktoyaktuk Peninsula, using shoreline reconstructions and predictive modelling of erosion patterns, and also conducts salvage where required.

The project has seen the unearthing of an 18th century cruciform winter house, the first complete example of its kind, during the 2014 field season. The house is located at Kuukpak, on the east coast of Richards Island, a massive settlement of the Kuukpangmiut. Kuukpak was likely a whaling village and was abandoned sometime in the 1800s. Approximately 40 dwellings were initially present on the site but only 23 survive today due to erosion, which is why the project will resume work there in 2016.

In the upcoming years, we are expanding our research to include data on permafrost degradation, which is why I’m here! I recently finished my MA on the use of integrated soil analyses for the study of short-term occupations and outdoor sites. I completed a thesis on the briefly occupied warm season dwellings that line a (roughly) 16th – 18th century Inuit winter settlement in Sandwich Bay, South Labrador (Figure 1), where I described the environmental characteristics of three tent floors using soil micromorphology, paleoethnobotanical and soil chemical analyses (Figure 2). Given archaeology’s traditional dependence on large material assemblages for the interpretation of prehistoric Inuit lifeways, much of Inuit archaeology has focused on the winter settlement. This approach has allowed me to temporarily suspend this dependence on material culture and focus on environmental changes. The data provided answers to age-old questions about relative chronology and potential season of use but soon I found myself looking at differential vegetation growth caused by anthropogenic chemical inputs and plant species replacement that didn’t fit so neatly in a heritage framework anymore. At the time, I simply noted that this data is relevant when looking at differential vulnerability in relation to climate change.

Harbor View_from Huntingdon_NW view_best

Figure 1: South view of Indian Harbor Island on the beautiful coast of Labrador.

W hill_NW view_houses_early season

Figure 2: A view of Huntingdon Island 5, a post-contact Southern Inuit settlement containing unique examples of communal houses in southern Labrador and evidence of early trade in European goods.

Today, I get to revisit and expand these findings. I am (literally) working at the limit of my MA research (Figures 3 and 4) both in terms of theory and methodology. I initially used a basic petrographic microscope to analyze my thin-sections, which limits the researcher to visual analysis and to a magnification of 400x. Today, I’m working with the UTSC biogeochemistry group to develop microchemical applications using thin-sections. This would enable the identification of organic compounds without the loss of visual data on sediment structure and composition and allow me to study the interaction of site-specific anthropogenic sediments with the immediate environment. So far we tested my thin-sections with a more traditional fluorescence microscope and then attempted the Raman microscope but encountered issues focusing the beam (Figure 5) (the issues seem to develop due to the difficulty of maintaining a consistent thickness when developing thin-sections of soils, something that I am trying to address at the level of the manufacturing process).

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Figure 3: Amorphous fine organic mass viewed at the highest magnification permitted by the petrographic microscope, a Nikon H 550 S. Microphotograph from one of the 17 thin-sections detailing characteristics of the floors of briefly occupied tents found at Huntingdon Island 5.


Figure 4: Thin-section MM8, on which the microphotograph was taken.


Figure 5: The Raman spectroscopy facility at the University of Toronto Scarborough

Meanwhile in the Western Canadian Arctic, my colleagues and my supervisor collected a new batch of undisturbed cores from an Inuvialuit house in McKinley Bay (Figure 5) during their regular yearly survey. The site contains at least 11 semi-subterranean houses dated between 1500 and 1700, and is likely associated with bowhead whale hunting. At this location, Dr. Friesen collected seven undisturbed cores from a section through the entrance tunnel that includes the undisturbed, sterile sands at the base, a cultural layer consisting of the tunnel floor with associated debris and tunnel collapse and overlying eolian deposits (many thanks to Dr. M. Friesen and Arctic CHAR). The cores are being developed at a petrographic facility and will be awaiting analysis!

Soil sampling - McKinley Bay

Figure 5: Dr. M. Friesen hammering in cores on the exposed profile containing the McKinley Bay house (reproduced with permission from the Arctic CHAR project).

I will eventually be testing a broader range of microscopes and comparing the results, while working through the theoretical significance of climate change-oriented projects in archaeology. This part of my work has already gotten me reading too much posthumanist theory for my own good!