Practising Archaeology at a Time of Climatic Catastrophe

By Mitchell, Peter | Antiquity, December 2008 | Go to article overview

Practising Archaeology at a Time of Climatic Catastrophe

Mitchell, Peter, Antiquity


The term 'catastrophe' in my title is not chosen idly, but reflects the now well-established fact that Earth is experiencing (anthropogenic) climate change at a rate and scale unparalleled in human history (IPCC 2007a). Dramatic events such as the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 are so unexpected that one retains a clear memory of precisely when and where one learned of them. Regrettably, climate change is subtler, its effects slower, its consequences less immediately obvious. Yet something of the same is true. In my own case, I vividly recall the moment when I first grasped what it might mean. At the 1993 Kimberley meeting of the Southern African Society for Quaternary Research (SASQUA), a presenter commented that her palaeoenvironmental research, which reached back through the Holocene, might, perhaps, be relevant to modelling future climatic change. Back came the comment from another participant that the Holocene climatic 'optimum' was far from relevant; a best-case analogue might instead be the conditions prevailing during the Pliocene, 5.3-1.8 million years ago. Fifteen years on from that meeting, the Pliocene too begins to seem like wishful thinking (cf. Higgins & Schrag 2006), with the most recent assessment (IPCC 2007a) suggesting that global greenhouse gas emissions must peak by 2015 and decline sharply thereafter to keep atmospheric C[O.sub.2] levels <400ppm and long-term temperature increases to 2.0-2.4[degrees]C (Table 1). Political inertia, powerful vested interests, short-term decision-making skewed to electoral cycles, demands for continued economic growth and a still widespread lack of appreciation of what climate change will entail probably render this ambition wholly unrealistic. If it is missed, consequences will include further rises in temperature and changes in rainfall patterns, massive losses of biodiversity, higher sea levels, increased ocean acidification and a greater frequency of extreme climatic events (IPCC 2007a). Detailed scientific reports and popular syntheses alike (Flannery 2006; Lynas 2008) paint a disturbingly grim picture of what temperature rises of [greater than or equal to]3[degrees]C will bring (Figure 1). The possibility that Changes in terrestrial and ocean C[O.sub.2] uptake may feed back on the climate system' (IPCC 2007b: 14) to promote yet further increases in C[O.sub.2] levels and temperature is particularly worrying.

What, then, is the responsibility of the archaeological community and of the individual archaeologist to these challenges? Do either, in fact, even have a particular responsibility qua archaeologists, above and beyond those that they may have as concerned citizens and inhabitants of the planet? And, faced with the harsh realities that global heating will bring, is archaeology anything more than a dilettantish luxury? The purpose of this paper is to argue that the answer to these questions can be a constructive one, while outlining ways in which the archaeological profession can address both the study and the impact of global climate change (for a partly comparable discussion in the field of anthropology, situated in the context of fieldwork in northern Siberia, see Crate 2008).


Archaeological responsibilities

Whatever kind of archaeology they practise, archaeologists are in a privileged position to understand and make sense of the impact of climate change on human populations. By definition, we study processes that take shape over the long term, even if for some of us this is a matter of decades or centuries rather than the tens or hundreds of millennia of the Palaeolithic. Moreover, we know that the climate and ecological circumstances in which human populations have lived changed substantially over rime. While recognising the critical roles of human agency and social structures, we are also profoundly aware that the vast majority of people have always been exposed to the natural world in a way difficult for contemporary consumer-driven, urban-based, industrial (or post-industrial) populations to grasp. …

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