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.

135 Years in the Life of Ontario Archaeology

There is a long history of digging the past. Farmers who have made accidental finds whilst plowing their fields, builders cutting through historical remains as they dig foundations, cellars, privies or basements. There are private collectors and looters who seek out sites to dig. At the same time, many First Nations communities protested this looting and robbing of sites of heritage and burial. And entangled in these histories of digging, the profession of archaeology developed.

At Sustainable Archaeology, we are dealing with all of these histories of digging, but also innovations in storage, preservation and access to build a better future for collections that were assembled through these various acts of digging. Ontario, like many parts of the world, has been feeling increasing pressure from the ever growing archaeological collections amassed through development, research, and donations from private collectors. It takes a lot of time, money and training to care for these collections, not to mention make them accessible to the public.

Last year we narrated a Day in the Life of An Archaeological Repository, detailing how collections are processed, conserved and accessed in our repository and how research is undertaken in our labs. This year we have decided to be even more ambitious, and narrate 135 years in the life of Ontario Archaeology, to capture how the practice of digging and collecting objects from the past has changed over time and how this impacts facilities like Sustainable Archaeology: McMaster.

Explore our Timeline: 135 Years in the Life of Ontario Archaeology below:

For more information on the history of Ontario Archaeology, visit our blog and follow our progress at Sustainable Archaeology.

You can also follow us on Twitter (SustArchMIP) and on Facebook!


2015 SAMcMaster Logo


Day of Archaeology at Sustainable Archaeology

Hi! I am Dr. Rhonda Bathurst, Facility Manager here at Sustainable Archaeology: Western. Kira Westby is our Administrative Assistant. Together we’ll be sharing what a general day is like here at our state-of-the-art research and curation facility!

Left to right: Rhonda, chained to her desk for the day (Halloween 2013), and Kira, celebrating a delivery of packing foam at the facility (winter 2014)

Left to right: Rhonda, chained to her desk for the day (Halloween 2013), and Kira, celebrating a delivery of packing foam at the facility (winter 2014)

Sustainable Archaeology: Western is an off-campus facility of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada under the Direction of Dr. Neal Ferris. Together with our partners at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, we consolidate archaeological collections from across Ontario both physically in our two repositories, and (perhaps more importantly) digitally, in our web-based database. To learn more about the particulars of Sustainable Archaeology – our funding bodies, mandate, policies, and more, be sure to visit our website.

As a relatively new facility (we have existed as an actual building for only three years this September), there are still a number of daily challenges to meet, from administering the grant that funds the project, to purchasing and maintaining equipment for our labs. We are also developing policies and protocol for managing over 80,000 boxes of artifacts that our project will physically curate between both facilities. One of our current areas of focus is the development of our informational platform. We have four staff members on site on any given day, three of who spend most of their day on database development – including Kira, who wears several hats around here! We also have four work study students and a broad array of researchers, grad students and others who filter through our doors on a daily basis – we’ll introduce you as they drop in!


As an Archaeologist, my background informs decisions that are made here in regards to equipment, space utilization, and research opportunities. But Administration is my day-to-day. I start each day by going over the daily and weekly calendar with Kira – we discuss what appointments to expect and what our goals are for the week. Today we’ve got a lot on the agenda! First we’ll need to go through our email, and then prepare for a work study orientation session. We’ll have to watch for a grad student who will be coming in to do some research on the microCT scanner. Our 3D scanning & printing Lab Technician, Nelson, will be in today as well working on setting up mounting methods for the white-light laser scanners up in our Research Mezzanine. We’ll need to keep an eye out for Western Facilities Management and Western ITS, both of whom will be in to install an additional power outlet and network connection in our Collaboration Room in preparation for our new Videoconferencing equipment that will be delivered in a few weeks. I have a Purchase Order I need to submit today for some new computer furnishings and a vendor I need to speak to about setting up a proactive pest monitoring system for the storage area. There are two meetings I have to schedule with other Administrators in the Western Support Services Building to discuss the ongoing administration of our grant funds. Kira will likely squeeze in some temperature and humidity readings, as she does every other week, to monitor the conditions of our storage room. I’ll need to remind the cleaning service that we are due for our quarterly window cleaning. And at some point, I will need to finish up some vacuuming around the facility. If we’re lucky, we’ll spy some deer in the ravine from our Collaboration Room. Those are some of the things we are aware of as we start the day, but each day brings new developments. On the surface, it all seems to have little to do with archaeology, but without these tasks, this facility would cease to be or to function.

Database Development

For over 2 years, the database crew have started their day working on code. As we enter our final stages of beta testing, the focus now is on tweaking the small things such as the layout of the online data entry forms, wording, even colours. We have a number of volunteers working with the database crew to test functionality and work-flow both in-house and externally. Today the focus of attention is on developing a tagging system for boxes in our inventory management, and solving coding bugs that have appeared in our data entry sections. Later in the day, our Facility Director, Dr. Neal Ferris will meet with the database development team to go over issues and questions arising over the last week. On the agenda – user interface, managing loans, and edits to the variables recorded for artifacts.

Work Study Students

With the end of summer classes, we have an influx of four new Western work-study students joining our ranks for the next couple of months. This morning, Kira and I will be providing an orientation for them that will outline everything from what to do in the event of a fire drill to how to pack boxes, recognize artifacts and enter data into the database. We will explain to them how we plan to inventory and track over 80,000 boxes of artifacts, and we will demonstrate how we’re utilizing 2D barcodes to aid with organization, tracking and data entry.

Work Study student at SA: Western in the collections repository.

Work Study student at SA: Western in the collections repository.

Research at Sustainable Archaeology

Our micro-CT scanner and its water-cooling unit are humming mechanically in the background of the Ancient Images Laboratory as Amy St. John, a PhD student in Anthropology at Western, works on scanning pieces of First People’s pottery that are several hundred years old. Amy’s thesis aims to differentiate different types of pottery temper used in the construction of these vessels. This will inform her about 1) different methods of pottery construction and 2) different styles of construction that may, in turn, allow her to hypothesize about who was making different styles of pottery and how wide spread they were throughout the region.

PhD Student Amy working on the microCT scanner

PhD Student Amy working on the microCT scanner

Meanwhile across the pond, Dr. Andrew Nelson, an affiliate of the SA and primary user of the microCT and digital x-ray, is on holiday in the other London, in England. Today he is visiting the company that built our microCT scanner. For the past few days he’s been spending time at the British Museum, working on a collaborative project with the Art Gallery of Ontario to scan medieval prayer beads. You can follow Andrew’s progress on our Twitter feed or on our blog, where we’ll be highlighting his adventures!

The Museum of Ontario Archaeology

Located adjacent to our new facility is the well-established Museum of Ontario Archaeology, which has been here since the early 1980’s. Staff from the Museum pass by with a cart full of boxes formerly housed in their offsite storage, now cleaned and repackaged to our standards and ready to be housed in the SA repository.

Wrap Up

It’s been a full day and we’re starting to wrap things up here. Our work study students survived their orientation relatively unscathed, and are wiser about how archaeology is done here in the province as well as how we aim to care for those collections over the long term here at Sustainable Archaeology. Dr. Ferris and the database team had a productive meeting this afternoon, and it’s exciting to see the database coming into shape – we’ll soon be entering data! The mCT scanner was humming all day as Amy worked through some trouble-spots she was experiencing as she learns to scan this particular material, while Nelson was busy calibrating scans and software on the 3D scanners in the mezzanine all afternoon. Dr. Nelson, over in the UK, reports he had a great visit with Andrew Ramsey at Nikon Metrology, and will be bringing home some valuable new tips and tricks on how to use our microCT XTH225 XT unit (not a bad way to spend a birthday  – enjoy a pint for us – Happy Birthday Andrew!).

Microscopic view of a whipworm egg

Microscopic view of a whipworm egg

I managed to get enough administrative tasks done today that I even managed to squeeze in a bit of training on our new Nikon SMZ25 digital microscope, to flex some of my analytical research muscles! Kira and I have gone over our preliminary calendar for next week, so that we are prepared and know what to expect when we return to work first thing on Monday morning. Thanks to all our fellow Archaeologists for sharing their day’s activities – there is so much more to archaeology than digging!

If you would like to keep in touch with more of our day-to-day experiences, please follow our blog