It’s really been a long time. On August 23, 1856, at a major scientific conference in the United States, a professor named Joseph Henry presented an experiment demonstrating the role of carbon dioxide in warming the atmosphere. It wasn’t made by Henry, but by a woman. Her name was Eunice Foote. Apparently, it did not occur to the gentlemen scientists to let them speak for themselves, and their contribution did not find a place in the official conference proceedings.
“Your research was not taken seriously,” said Jennifer Morgan, State Secretary and Special Representative for International Climate Policy at the Federal Foreign Office at the opening of the “Groundcheck – Climate, Crisis, Archaeology” conference, which the Federal Foreign Office is now organizing together with the German Archaeological Institute (DAI). hosted.
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The research of the DAI is very up-to-date and shows the consequences of human intervention in nature. The climate goals can only be achieved as a global community, said Morgan.
With contributions from all regions of the world, the conference showed how important data from regional archeology can be in combination with results from geosciences and other natural sciences in order to understand the present with past experiences, to specify global climate models in the long-term perspective and to identify the dangers of today’s climate change for cultural heritage.
Friederike Fless, President of the DAI, pointed out that the climate had already changed with the Neolithic revolution and early agriculture and animal husbandry. In the “Groundcheck” program financed by the German Bundestag and the Federal Foreign Office, long-term consequences of climate change are examined internationally and in cooperation with natural scientists.
For example, the oasis economy was a consequence of desertification 6,000 years ago, said Fless. People would have destroyed their environment even then, but they would have had time to adapt to the new situation. This time is missing today in view of man-made climate change. The task now is to close the gap between knowledge and action by looking back.
The geoarchaeologist Helmut Brückner from the University of Cologne showed what changes climate change could mean for people in the past. Analyzes of drill cores up to eight meters long, for example, allow conclusions to be drawn about changes in the Tayma oasis in present-day Saudi Arabia and in Uruk in Iraq.
Where once there was a deep lake in Tayma, there is now a dry salt pan. And the drill cores from Iraq tell 5,000 years of checkered history: Where the Sumerians still practiced flourishing agriculture in today’s Iraq, there is now desert. The Gardens of Uruk have dried up, gone. According to Brückner, drought has repeatedly led to the collapse of societies and triggered refugee movements.
The example of the area around Uruk sounds ominously topical, considering what researchers are predicting for the Iberian Peninsula. There, in addition to the threat of drought and desertification, there is also the danger of storms, extreme weather conditions and tidal waves. This was reported by Dirce Marzoli, director of the DAI branch in Madrid: Spanish archaeologists have been digging in Ampurias on the Mediterranean Sea, which was once the westernmost Greek colony, for around a hundred years.
In a video from 2020, Marzoli shows how an emergency excavation just off the coast is threatened by waves. The settlement is documented in a race against time and a destruction of the area is expected by 2100.
On the other hand, Charlotta Hillendal, an archaeologist at the University of Aberdeen, works in permafrost regions. In Alaska, for example, climate change not only threatens the environment, but also the cultural heritage of indigenous communities. This is a very dynamic situation. The rapidly advancing erosion of the coast and thawing permafrost destroyed infrastructure, roads and airstrips. The first climate refugees in the United States will be here, Hillerdal said.
Unlike Western Europeans, for example, the indigenous people of the region see themselves as part of nature. That’s why young people were involved in the excavations in Alaska to raise awareness of their cultural heritage.
According to Fless, the conference was also a “depression-promoting trip around the world” with numerous examples. Especially coastal sites are endangered. And South Sea states such as Palau or Tonga are threatened with complete flooding. Katrin Piesker called for researchers to become even more active in the fight against climate change and “fake news” in this context.
She heads the architecture department of the DAI and the “KulturGutRetter” project in cooperation with the Technical Relief Agency and the Roman-Germanic Central Museum in Mainz. “We know which coastal cultural assets will perish.” One must therefore also “develop criteria for what is to be preserved”.
Experts describe the situation in many places as dramatic. 5,000-year-old ice fields in Norway’s mountains are melting faster than expected. They release long-preserved skis, weapons, and clothing. The mostly organic material decomposes quickly in air. “Some ice fields are disappearing completely, which is a huge loss of sites,” says Martin Callanan, a glacier archaeologist at the University of Trondheim.
Friederike Fless appealed to all participants to make the examples more visible in order to shake people up. “You have the pictures,” said Monika Grütters (CDU), former Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media, during the panel discussion with members of the Bundestag in the afternoon, “show them!”