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.