By Katherine Hodge, Public Education Coordinator
In this series, we looked at different elements of climate change and worked to better understand how they affect archaeological sites. Sea level rise threatens to sweep away coastal sites, erosion can bury underwater artifacts and cause delicate adobe cities to fall, wildfires rage and burn away cultural heritage, pollution corrodes everything from woven cloth to stone structures, and melting ice is revealing more artifacts than we can conserve.
With all these things happening, it can be easy to lose heart and want to give up. However, just because climate change is threatening sites does not mean all is lost. Let’s take a minute to look at who is working to save the past for future generations, how they do it, and what ways we can help.
The Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) is one of the United States’ most active networks. It currently has several programs that
deal with monitoring and protecting different types of sites around the state. The Heritage Monitoring Scouts is a program that uses public engagement to track sites that are at risk because of sea level rise and erosion. A growing database houses information collected by professionals and volunteers that documents what is being lost where. Another important aspect of this work is spreading knowledge. Many people in Florida and the wider U.S. have the misconception that there is little to no archaeology in the country. Changing this perception is another way FPAN helps protect archaeology. Though events like the Tidally United Summit, a conference about archaeology and conservation, FPAN is working to inform people about the state’s rich archaeological heritage so citizens will be more inclined to protect it.
Project Archaeology is fortunate to have network members within FPAN who are directly working to help save sites. For both this work as well as for their incredible contributions to Project Archaeology, thanks to Sarah Miller, Lianne Bennet, Sarah Bennett, Emily Jane Murray, Emily Palmer, and Jen Knutson! If you live in Florida or are interested in learning more about FPAN’s work and get-togethers, check out their website here: https://www.flpublicarchaeology.org/index.php .
I was lucky enough to speak with Meg Gaillard, an archaeologist with the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) Heritage Trust Program and Project Archaeologist Network member. One of her team’s ongoing projects has been an investigation of the Pockoy Island Shell Ring Complex, a shellring site dating to the Late Archaic period (approximately 4,300 years ago) on the coast of South Carolina. After only a few minutes on the phone, the effects of climate change on this site and others like it were apparent. She anticipates this site to be completely gone within the next five years due to the impacts of erosion. This site is not alone. This particular stretch of the South Carolina coastline is eroding at a rapid rate. More than three quarters of a mile have washed away in the last 70 years.
Not every site can be saved, and Ms. Gaillard says this is simply a harsh reality of the job. A silver lining is the interest in the site. The year before COVID-19, around 1300 visitors and 400 volunteers came to the Pockoy Island Shell Ring Complex to either take a tour of the site or work side-by-side with the SCDNR Archaeology team. During the pandemic, all public programming has been transitioned to a virtual platform, as both field and laboratory volunteer opportunities have been postponed until the pandemic subsides. Ms. Gaillard says that the best thing to do in the meantime is staying informed. One way is to watch these documentaries. Another way to keep informed is to sign up to their newsletter.
The Maine Midden Minders are working on conservation of sites along U.S. Northern Atlantic Coast. Middens are garbage deposits from the past that have been buried by time. Because people once preferred to live close to their food source, many cultures lived near the coast. As a result, this is also where archaeologists find a great deal of middens. Their proximity to the ocean puts them in great danger from sea level rise, increasingly violent storms, and erosion—all of which could sweep them away. To help document these important
sites, the University of Maine started a volunteer program called the Maine Midden Minders that has local people document middens to add to a growing database. This program helps us better understand where middens are and which ones are at the most risk.
Because it is so far north, Alaska is especially threatened by climate change. Warming temperatures melt ice and permafrost, which leads to erosion and flooding. Sea level rise and violent storms also threaten coastlines. Many people live along the Alaskan coastlines in villages, but recent climate changes have forced some to contemplate moving their families away from a place they have called home for generations. In addition to living people being displaced, there is also a great deal of danger for the archaeological sites and artifacts of their ancestors.
If you are interested in learning more about archaeological sites being affected by climate change in Alaska, check out the Alaska Anthropological Association. There is also the Alaska Department of Natural Resources Office of History and Archaeology that created a plan called “Saving Our Past: Planning for Our Future” to help combat the effects of climate change on the cultural heritage of the state. We would also like to thank our network member’s Fawn Cropley and Richard VanderHoek, for their work in Alaska!
I haven’t covered all of the amazing programs or people in this blog, but check out our State Programs to look for other organizations and people you can contact if you are interested.
But What Can I Do?
One of Project Archaeology’s most fundamental beliefs is that stewardship is everyone’s responsibility. It is not a job reserved for archaeologists, but something everyone must help to ensure we are protecting cultural heritage for future generations. Helping out does not have to be a massive undertaking, many volunteer programs take up a few hours a month or are completely self-motivated. If you have the time and interest, this is a wonderful thing to do.
Most states have archaeological networks or societies with volunteer programs. These programs are helpful for archaeologists. We can’t be everywhere all the time, but locals who know the area and are eager to help out can make important contributions to the archaeological record.
It is not just archaeological networks take volunteers. Check your local state or federal parks and universities. There are opportunities to become citizen scientists, no matter who you are, where you live, or how much time you have. For example, within my home state is small park called Land Between the Lakes that takes volunteers to monitor the elk and bison populations, send in observations about eagles and ospreys, help maintain trails, and recycle trash found in the lakes and streams in the area. Volunteering your time to groups for a few hours may seem inconsequential and insignificant, but a combined effort of many people all giving a few hours here and there can radically transform an area. More data about bison and elk provide pictures of animal behavior. Cleaner trails and recycled trash improves the health of the local forests and their animals. This kind of contribution adds up, evidenced by the numbers they collected. Over just 5 years people volunteered 55,000 hours which was valued at $900,000 of work
It has been a long few months at the end of an incredibly long year. Project Archaeology wants to take a minute to say a huge thank you to the educators and other front line workers for their herculean efforts. As this year comes to a close, Project Archaeology is especially grateful for all of our network members and supporters, who help us with their hard work every day.
Since this is our last blog of this year, we’d like to wish you happy holidays and a happy new year! We have some really exciting plans for blogs to kick off 2021. To get more updates, follow us on our social media platforms and always leave a comment to let us know what you’d like to read about next! (www.instagram.com/projectarchaeology/ , https://twitter.com/ProjectArchaeol , https://www.facebook.com/projectarchaeology )