a tid bit on Climate Change & Pollution in Archaeology

First things first- happy October everyone! Let’s raise a glass to cooler temperatures, fall leaves, and cozy scarves. Now back to our scheduled programing.

We do our best. In reality we are busy, and we tell ourselves that the little things we do like recycling is us doing our part to help the world be a little greener. Writing this blog is not going to make me or you change our consumer ways, it might raise some awareness. While I am no raving environmentalist or naturalist, I can say that the reach of climate change and pollution on archaeology is devastating. So no, ‘living green’ is not my bag, but archaeology is… uh-oh!

Alaska Coast
Coastline in Western Alaska

Let’s take Alaska for instance. Rising sea levels and melting permafrost have devastated many archaeological sites. Beautiful organic objects perfectly preserved in the permafrost like baskets and ropes are not long for this world. Archaeologists are just waiting for the next big storm to wipe out their hard work and excavation along the beaches. Several of the archaeology professors in my undergrad home department at Aberdeen University are deeply involved in this work that is a race against the clock to salvage as much as they can.

I remember taking AP Environmental Science during high school, and seeing a picture of a ‘before and after’ acid rain photo of a carving on a building. A carving that would probably have been pristine if it was not for the pollution. Even as far back as the 17th century, people like Thomas Howard were noticing the impact of acid rain on our history and archaeology.

Bavarian gargoyle damaged by acid rain

And what is acid rain? Put simply, since I am not a scientist, it is rain that contains sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide (aka bad stuff). And how do these things get into the rain? Pollution. I am sure at some point we have all read about this happening during the Industrial revolutions, when factories were pumping all of these toxins into the air. Acid rain can also occur naturally during volcanic eruptions.

Air pollution like acid rain has been damaging world heritage site such as the Great Pyramids by eating away at their exterior walls. They are made of porous limestone, which is very susceptible to the damages of modern pollution- a problem that their builders likely did not foresee so long ago. And just to make things worse, sewage from a nearby slum runs underneath the Giza Plateau weakening their foundations, and irrigation from nearby farms erode the base as well. I have always wanted to see Egypt, hopefully there will be something left by the time I manage to get over there.

So I do not understand. Are trees sexier? Easier to sell? We all know that environmentalists use polar bears and pandas versus small insects as the mascots for their causes because the fluffy animals tug at our heartstrings. Beetles don’t. But how about statues? Carvings on cathedrals? Sphinxes in the desert? Are these things important to have in the future? (And yes, trees are also important, just in a different way.) Let’s think about it. How can we ask our kids to learn about ancient civilizations if we did not even care enough to try and preserve them?

Peace and long life.


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