A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Frozen burials and coastal sites threatened
Global warming is real and it is one of the gravest threats facing our shared cultural heritage. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the 10 warmest years have all occurred since 1995, and the UN's Environment Program notes that the world's glaciers are receding at a record pace. This situation brings a cascade of problems that are having a catastrophic impact on archaeological sites. Melting of ice and permafrost endanger most frozen sites on the continents, while rising sea levels promote the erosion and submergence of others.
At risk, in particular, are the ancient remains of people frozen in glaciers and on mountaintops. Examples in recent years include Ötzi, the late Neolithic herdsman discovered in the Italian Alps; the 550-year-old Native American hunter whose body was recovered from a melting glacier in British Columbia; and the Inca human sacrifices found on Andean peaks.
Similarly endangered are the frozen burials of Eurasian nomads. My German colleague Hermann Parzinger has excavated several of these in Mongolia dating to the 5th to 3rd centuries b.c. His project's website warns: "Global warming has an ever-growing impact, resulting in the melting of glaciers and the thawing of upper soil layers which had been permanently frozen up to now. Modern investigations have to ensure that the irreplaceable archaeological information preserved in these frozen tombs is not lost before it can be documented" (see www.dainst.org/index_3933_en.html).
Coastal sites around the globe are also threatened. Remains of 5,000-year-old stone houses built by Neolithic farmers and hunters at Skara Brae, Orkney, may have to be dismantled and moved inland for protection. Portions of the ruins of Nan Madol, an ancient political and religious center on the Pacific island of Pohnpei in Micronesia, may soon be submerged.
In the face of this extraordinary threat, we need to develop new strategies for protecting and recording sites. One example is a program devised by UNESCO, NASA, and the European Space Agency that uses satellite imagery in conjunction with traditional fieldwork to monitor the frozen Eurasian nomad burials and the condition of the permafrost and nearby glaciers. We're in a race against time, and unless we adjust our priorities and broaden the scope of our scientific partnerships, we're going to lose.
C. Brian Rose is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.