Sunday, March 25, 2018

Book Review: Public Archaeology and Climate Change

Edited by Tom Dawson, Courtney Nimura; Elías López-Romero; and Marie-Yvane Daire         Oxbow Books:  Barnsley, ENG, 2017 

What a relief it is to read a hopeful book about climate change response; and even more so when it shows the exciting ways cultural heritage professionals are using science and the humanities to build new knowledge for managing heritage resources around the globe.

Public Archaeology & Climate Change is a collection of essays by professionals addressing the decisions we have come to know as “advance the line, hold the line, retreat the line, or do nothing” (Cooper, et al. 2007). The authors and their colleagues are researching and testing how we professionals will be able to make informed choices about which actions to recommend. They don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they have many more to offer than our field has been able to muster previously. And the authors don’t only speak Archaeology.

These eighteen essays are clearly-written, and very accessible to non-professionals. They also provide important and reliable examples for other professionals advancing research in the management of archaeological sites threated by the impacts of a changing climate on sites within the world’s ice packs and the line of wildfires, and in its coastal zones.

The text starts with excellent overviews of the challenges of climate change to cultural heritage sites worldwide. The examples in the sixteen following essays address both sides of our protection challenge: how to create the most effective tools for assessing vulnerability, documenting change, and planning responses; and how to raise awareness among visitors and galvanize citizen scientists in a shared mission of caring for these heritage resources.   

The essays present work, in no particular order, in Great Britain, Ireland, France, the United States, the Lesser Antilles, Iberia, Uruguay, Japan, France, Australia, Iceland, and Greenland. This variety of locations provides lessons in understanding regional climate-change issues and the varying climate impacts around the world.

The projects address assessment and monitoring of a variety of sites; indigenous knowledge in resource management; citizen science and participation in identifying, monitoring and protecting sites; use of humanities resources to understand comparative impacts of climate change historically and today, including the accelerating rates of degradation; developing new protection policies; and using tested conservation communication techniques to develop climate stories to raise awareness among visitors to cultural heritage sites.

There are too many bright lights to list here. I can say that there are enough that I commend this book to you for the excellent academic advancement it offers the field. I can also say that I have put it into my teaching syllabus for the graduate class I lead on the social relevance of environmental sustainability and climate change in museums.

I commend to you, in Chapter two, along with an important overview of the history of climate heritage work, the summaries of the eight most relevant recommendations (of 18) described in the 2016 UNESCO report on climate impacts and World Heritage sites. The recommendations were produced by the United Nations Environment Program and the Union of Concerned Sciences, with collaboration from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and US-International Council on Monuments and Sites.

Chapter four on “Improving Management Responses to Coastal Change: utilizing sources form archaeology, maps, charts, photographs and art” is incredibly valuable to any historian or cultural resource manager struggling to either find data to demonstrate change, or to illustrate the relevance of historical collections to understanding and explaining climate change impacts.  

For those exploring effective ways to communicate climate change with visitors, Chapter 12 is a must-read. “Every place has a climate story: finding and sharing climate change stories with cultural heritage” describes the why and how of the National Park Services work to establish a method of communicating climate change stories that is adaptable for any part, climate story, and listener. The particular value here is the reminder to meet the learner where they are, and to use the myriad of storytelling resources at hand depending upon the interests of the learner and the history of this site.

But each essay is an important read. The story of Scotland's Coastal Heritage at Risk Project is an ideal example of community collaboration from citizens to government to record sites, update information on them, and to help prioritize action. The balance of authors offer similarly important examples of cooperative engagement as they describe ice patch archaeology, rescue archaeology, survey programs among cooperating universities, collaboration with tribal communities. They are a marvelous array of ways public archaeology and climate change response is producing new knowledge in the face of potential disaster.

Public Archaeology& Climate Change is a very important contribution to our field because it offers practitioners encouragement and inspiration as they race climate change to identify, record, and understand impacts on cultural heritage sites, and then to a respond to those threats and impacts.

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