How Global Warming Is Destroying Our Best-Preserved Archaeological Sites
The Arctic is like a time capsule. What dies there can be preserved, like a snapshot of our past, literally frozen in time.
Some of the greatest insights we’ve gotten into life, thousands of years ago, have come from the coldest places on earth. We’ve made incredible breakthroughs into the past through discoveries like the body of Ötzi the Iceman , the Stone Age man whose body froze 5,300 years ago.
Discovering of the body of Ötzi the Iceman. (Ekaterina Didkovskaya/ CC BY NC 2.0 )
Today, though, these archaeological sites are starting to fall apart. The 180,000 archaeological sites across Greenland, Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada are being torn apart by the steady rise of global warming, and archaeologists are worried that, if we don’t preserve these sites soon, they’ll be lost forever.
“It’s a catastrophe,” says Max Friesen , an archaeologist with the University of Toronto. “A majority of the sites, many of the most important ones, are already gone.”
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How Global Warming Affects Archaeology
The Arctic is warming twice as quickly as the rest of the world. What small hints we’ve seen of global warming’s effects in our daily lives are massively amplified up in the coldest parts of the world, and the effect is absolutely devastating.
The permafrost of the Arctic is starting to melt, and that causes some major problems for archaeologists. Their best finds are hidden down inside that frozen ground, where they’re kept at frigid temperatures that keep them perfectly preserved.
Most of the items are organic. Here we can find the frozen bodies of people who died thousands of years ago. Buried with them we find their tools, which, more often than not, were made of bones and animal skins that fall apart when exposed to the sun.
Life-size Dorset masks. (500-1000 AD) The masks were carved from driftwood and painted. They also once had fur moustaches and eyebrows attached with pegs. Scholars believe that the masks were probably used by shamans in rituals to cure illness, control the weather, or to aid in hunts. ( Canadian Museum of History )
But that ground is thawing, exposing those pieces of our past to the world in all its harshness. Growing vegetation under the ground is starting these artifacts up to the surface, separating them from the subterranean ice box that has kept them so well-preserved. There, they decay in the air and get torn apart by rains.
Those that are near the coast have the shortest lifespans of all. Rising tides and thawing coasts are speeding up the erosion process, pulling major archaeological sites under the water and erasing them from time.
Major Sites Have Already Been Lost
It’s not just a few tools or a handful of artifacts that are getting destroyed. Entire villages, once perfectly preserved in the Arctic, have already been wiped out.
In the Mackenzie River Delta of Canada, there was once a small town of Nuvugarmiut Inuit. They were a unique people who specialized in hunting bowhead whales, and their town was fairly large. Descriptions from 1826 claim it had 17 houses built around a larger communal structure.
Whalebone used in the building of an ancient Thule home. Resolute, Nunavut, Canada. (Timkal/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
All of that is gone now. By the time archaeologists came to study it, the permafrost in the ground had melted and the area had been pelted by storms. An entire community and all of the history carried inside was washed into the sea and destroyed. It will never be recovered.
Our Best-Preserved Archaeological Sites
Some incredible things have already been found at these endangered sites. In Canada, archaeologists have found perfectly-preserved Kuukpak houses, built before they made contact with Europeans. In Siberia, they’ve found 31,000-year-old man-made tools. In Norway, they’ve found perfectly preserved medieval clothes, still in the same vibrant shade of red they had hundreds of years ago.
Then there’s the mummified baby of Qilakitsoq – a six-month-old boy who was buried 500 years ago in Greenland. Inside of the frozen land, his body was so perfectly preserved that he looks as if he just died yesterday.
The mummified baby of Qilakitsoq. ( Public Domain )
All of those sites, though, are now in danger. In every one, the permafrost is starting to melt and all the organic material preserved within is starting to fall apart.
An Eroding Link To A Whole People’s Past
Above all, these Arctic sites are important to people who live there. They aren’t just glimpses into mankind’s past – they’re the ancestors of a whole group of people who hold only a thin, tenuous link to their history.
Most of the people who have lived in these Arctic places for thousands of years didn’t develop written languages until relatively recently. Most of what they know of their histories come from the oral stories their ancestors passed down.
Inuit people on a traditional qamutik (sled), Cape Dorset. (Ansgar Walk/ CC BY SA 2.5 )
Archaeology, though, gives them a chance to bring those stories to life. We’ve gotten to some incredible insights into their pasts.
An archaeological site in Greenland has uncovered 4,000-year-old relics of the Saqqaq and Dorset Paleo-Eskimo cultures, giving an insight into the history of the native people of Greenland that, until then, had been completely forgotten.
Today, though, that site has been completely destroyed. Over the last 20 years, the temperature there has gone up by between 2.2 and 5.2 °C (35.96 and 41.36°F). The organic tools they made have been exposed to the elements and have fallen apart, and with them have gone our snapshot into a people’s past.
A Dorset culture stone longhouse near Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, Canada. (CambridgeBayWeather/ CC BY SA 3.0 )
One Last Chance To Save Them
The archaeologists raising this protest don’t expect the world to completely stop global warming just to save a few archaeological sites. Instead, they just want to explore these sites before it’s too late.
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“The only realistic solution,” according to Matthew Betts of the Canadian Archaeological Association, “is to excavate and document sites as quickly possible, before they are washed away.”
They want to get as many archaeological teams out to the Arctic as quickly possible to document every known site before it’s lost. This, they believe, should be a priority: to catalog what might well be the most useful archaeological sites on the planet before they’re lost.
Jorgen Holleson, with the National Museum of Denmark, agrees. As he puts it: “It will be a great shame if future generations will not have the opportunity to learn from the past as we have.”
Top Image: An inuksuk at Igloolik, Nunavut, Canada. Source: Nunaview/ CC BY SA 3.0
By Mark Oliver
Hollesen, Jorgen et al. “Climate Change and the Deteriorating Archaeological and Environmental Archives of the Arctic.” Antiquity. 92.363, June 27, 2018, pp. 573-586. Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/climate-change-and-the-deteriorating-archaeological-and-environmental-archives-of-the-arctic/AB1238067F7DAB646DE91C937047B916
Hollesen, Jorgen; H. Matthiesen and B. Elberling. “The Impact of Climate Change on an Archaeolgoical Site in the Arctic.” Archaeometry. 59.6, 2017, pp. 1175-1189. Available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/arcm.12319
Markham, Adam. “Rapid Warming is Creating a Crisis for Arctic Archaeology.” Union of Concerned Scientists. June 29, 2018. Available at: https://blog.ucsusa.org/adam-markham/rapid-warming-is-creating-a-crisis-for-arctic-archaeology
Semeniuk, Ivan. “Loss of Arctic Archaeological Sites a ‘Catastrophe’: Experts”. The Globe and Mail. June 28, 2018. Available at: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-loss-of-arctic-archeological-sites-a-catastrophe-experts/