Archaeology and climate change

Climate policies should reflect the need to protect vulnerable archaeological sites and artefacts from climate change impacts. Courtesy: Shahnaj Husne Jahan

Being born and brought up in Lalbag of Old Dhaka, I often find myself in the middle of a large, rapidly changing archaeological site by the Buriganga River. But as a climate change enthusiast, I never linked archaeology with climate change before. Participating in a webinar of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) recently, however, left me thinking about their connection.

Till the 1970s, it was mostly geologists and climatologists who talked about the changes in our climate. By the 1990s, it gradually turned into a broader environmental concern. And over the last couple of decades, it has become a development issue, if not an issue of survival of the humanity. In many countries, as in Bangladesh, climate change is still being dealt with by environment ministries. Climate change has recently been re-branded as "climate crisis" or "climate emergency". Thus, practically, it is no longer the sole responsibility of a specific ministry or agency to act upon.

Bangladesh has mainstreamed climate change superbly. Its 25 ministries and divisions, for example, are now receiving money to take climate actions. In the 2020-2021 budget, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladesh allocated 7.55 percent of its budget (almost similar to the previous annual budget) to climate-related activities through those 25 agencies. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs or its Department of Archaeology, however, is not one of them.

To keep the earth cooler, we have no other choice but to reduce our carbon emission by shifting to renewable energy options. This shift is called climate-change mitigation. Some countries are doing well in this regard, some are lagging behind. Archaeology, apparently, has nothing to do with it.

But adjusting to the negative impacts of climate change—such as erratic changes in temperature and rainfall patterns, increased flooding, bank erosions and landslides, increased sediment flow through our rivers, salinity intrusion in our coast—is crucial for our archaeological sites. We need to protect these sites from natural calamities by creating protective barriers around them and by transferring artefacts and legacy collections to museums as adaptive measures.

But in some cases, such adaptation may not work. As the climate-related shocks and stresses are becoming intense, we might face severe losses and damage. When an archaeological site gets damaged due to a natural calamity, we may restore it following standard protocols. But how to cope with the loss of a heritage site to riverbank or coastal erosions or floods? We may use modern technologies to create a 3D replica, document digitally, use artificial intelligence to model it, or harvest DNA from the biological remains to reconstruct the past. But the loss of such an immovable antiquity is irreplaceable; we have yet to invent an accounting system to calculate it.

There is a discipline in biology (palaeontology) which investigates the past by digging out fossils from the earth crust and sea bed and explains the evolution of plants, animals and microorganisms that took place over the last three billion years. Geologists study rocks and minerals formed hundreds of millions of years ago. Climate scientists also study the past climate by studying ice cores which trapped gases thousands of years ago.

Archaeologists, as historical scientists, also study the past, but put a human face on it. By discovering, excavating and studying an ancient site, among many other things, they can tell us how the site was affected by environmental changes, like droughts or floods; how people responded to it; and how effective were those responses.

The study of the past connects all these apparently unconnected disciplines—archaeology, biology, climatology, and geology. By strengthening these connections and complementarities, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research are possible which can help us understand the past. Based on that, we can draw the future scenarios and get prepared for them.

Our current climate change discussions and actions are dominated by atmospheric science, hydrology, disasters, vulnerability and adaptation, mitigation and energy, climate finance, and policies and strategies to guide our actions. We rarely talk about heritage, culture, and legacy in relation to climate change.

We need to change that. The global efforts for creating knowledge and evidence for climate change should not only be the responsibility of the physical scientists, biologists, geographers, social scientists, economists, physicians, and development practitioners. We need to bring in other relevant scholars, like archaeologists, and build on their expertise to strengthen this collective effort.

This was also suggested in an article published in the American Antiquity journal last October. The article further showed that the well-regarded reports published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been considering archaeological and heritage information to a limited extent since the 1990s, which has increased over the last decade. The recent surge in research on archaeology and climate change indicates that in the forthcoming Sixth Assessment Report of the IPCC, which is due this year, there will be a much deeper analysis on this issue. It would be interesting to see if Bangladesh, one of the most climate-vulnerable countries of the world, is mentioned in such an analysis.

The climate action plans of Bangladesh, such as the Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan (BCCSAP, 2009), do not talk about addressing climate change impacts on archaeological and heritage sites. Bangladesh is now preparing its National Adaptation Plan (NAP) with support from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) and the UNDP. We should address cultural and heritage issues in this document as we plan for a resilient future.

Similarly, our archaeology and heritage related policies and legislative instruments need to adopt climate change. The Antiquities Act, 1968 and the Antiquities Preservation Rules, 1986 of Bangladesh as well as other policies on conserving culture, heritage and archaeological issues need to reflect the increasing need to protect vulnerable sites and artefacts from climate change impacts.

Our climate finance should also appreciate the importance of protecting archaeological and heritage sites. In future climate budgets, Bangladesh should include the Department of Archaeology for climate action and allocate funds from relevant sources, including the USD-443-million Bangladesh Climate Change Trust Fund (BCCTF).

Our climate change and archaeological discussions, however, should not only focus on famous and globally important archaeological sites, such as Paharpur in Naogaon, Lalmai-Mainamati in Cumilla or Lalbag Fort in Dhaka. We need to include smaller, vulnerable ones such as Bhitargarh in Panchagarh—remains of a fort that was apparently in use as early as in the 7th century AD—where an ULAB team started excavation in 2008.

Archaeological sites are a precious representation of humanity from the times gone by. But these should not be considered mere victims of destruction caused by climate change. The experiences of simpler, prehistoric societies can teach us about resilience. Archaeology should be a core building block as we build our resilience to climate change in the 21st century.


Dr Haseeb Md Irfanullah is an independent consultant working on environment, climate change, and research systems. His Twitter handle is @hmirfanullah



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