Effects of Climate Change on Historical Sites: A conversation with Peter Stone, Ph.D.

April 22, 2022

Author: Nyah Graham, History Communications Assistant

For Earth Day, VCU history student Nyah Graham spoke with history professor Peter Stone about the effects of climate change on historic sites.

Peter Stone

As we celebrate Earth Day here at VCU History, we asked Peter Stone Ph.D. about the effects of climate change on historic sites which might be in danger with each passing year.

Stone has worked all over the world including the site of Tel Kedesh in Israel, Sicyon in Greece, and in Turkey he worked at Gordion where archeologists have found the famous city that was associated with King Midas in the Iron Age.

Stone talked about what climate change means for sites like the ones he has worked at saying, “Things have been changing more rapidly than ever climatically, for at least as long as humans have been alive, especially coastal areas. A classic example of this would be a city like Venice, Italy, that's already regularly getting flooded. This city, with its fantastic medieval and early modern buildings, is increasingly becoming unlivable because of this. This is the case throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. The artifacts themselves are affected, especially if it's seawater you’re dealing with.”

He continues, “That causes problems with metals and even certain clay items. Adjacent to the sea level rise, is the human activity that contributes to climate change, things like emissions, which can damage buildings and monuments. Athens and Rome both have problems with this because there is a lot of diesel fumes and this increases the rate of decay for the materials, especially for marble and limestone.”

Stone goes on to explain that not all the threats come directly from the environment around them changing, but instead conflicts as a result of these changes.

"We see throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, climate change causing dry spells, making droughts which are increasingly harsh. Drought is the sort of thing that is very destabilizing for human society. In fact, some of the earliest wars that we have records of in Mesopotamia were fought over farmland and irrigation canals. So, water and the rights to water have been a huge source of tension for a long time. That affects archaeological sites because it increases the likelihood of armed conflict. War is almost always bad for archaeological sites and cultural heritage. Recently, during the fighting in Syria, there has been bombing in a lot of cities, including the city of Aleppo, which has fantastic medieval remains and remains dating back to the iron and bronze ages. A lot of these were completely obliterated in bombing within the past decade. In Afghanistan, where there has been conflict since the 1970’s we have been seeing the looting of archaeological sites for decades now. In Iraq, during the Iraq war in the 2000s, The National Museum in Baghdad was looted and hundreds of archaeological sites were looted, and objects were sold on the Black Market.”

So, the question is, what can be done? What are some things historical preservationists can do in order to adapt to or deal with these changes? Stone has an answer which is more grounded in the reality of the situation.

“One basic thing that archaeologists can do, is that after they dig up a site, if there is not some plan to open it up to tourists or preserve the remains for a long time, which costs a lot of money, the best thing to do is fill it back in. They should fill it in with clean, sifted dirt. This means that the climate changes, and if conflict breaks out, people can't get to it. And then, in terms of preserving things like monuments, it would be better to get out ahead of things and prevent as much damage as you can. In the examples of those sites affected by emissions, limiting those emissions will limit the extent of damage to those buildings. In places like Venice, where the sea has already inundated the city, it's a matter of documenting these things the best you can. I think ultimately, some of these things that are accessible to people today simply won’t be. So, the big thing archaeologists can do for that is documenting well, thinking about documenting things before it is threatened or before it is gone. I think that the shift in archeology should be a bit of a shift away from trying to discover new things that are under the ground and relatively safe, to really doing a good job of documenting what has been found.”

So, for this Earth Day, consider looking into how these beloved discoveries can be not only protected, but how the documentation process for them might unfold. At the end of the day, it is up to us to be aware of our place on this great green-blue planet and explore how we might do better to protect it, as well as the amazing discoveries we have created upon it.