When someone thinks of Earth Day, their first thought is usually not of archaeology! However, as many of us know, archaeology is intrinsically tied to the natural world in more ways than one! While celebrating Earth Day today, remember to think about its connection to archaeology and what we can do for the environment! An obvious connection is of course the fact that archaeologists dig into the earth itself, in search of contributions to the archaeological record. The earth covers pieces of history and holds onto them until we come and find them. Certain environments can preserve artifacts and remains better than others and provide us with unique glimpses into the past.
Places like peat bogs preserve ancient bodies quite well, especially in Ireland, Great Britain, Denmark, northern Germany, and the Netherlands. Generally referred to as “bog bodies,” these bodies can date from 8000 B.C. to the early medieval period. Some have even been found dating to the early 20th century, such as the remains of Boris Lazarev, a Soviet fighter pilot shot down over northern Russian in 1943. The oldest bog body belongs to Koelbjerg Man, a skeleton found in Denmark that dates to 8000 B.C. The oldest fleshed bog body is called Cashel Man and dates to 2000 B.C. He was found in Ireland’s Cashel Bog and died a violent death connected to an ancient ritual of sacrificing young men. His arm was broken, his spine shattered in two places, and his back had been hit several times with an ax.While studying abroad in Cork, Ireland, in 2018, I had the pleasure of visiting the National Museum of Ireland. There, I stumbled upon their Kingship and Sacrifice exhibition that includes several bog bodies all from the Early Iron Age, including Clonycavan Man (392-201 BC), Oldcroghan Man (362-175 BC), Gallagher Man (400-200 BC) and Baronstown West Man (200-400 AD). Two of them were found by the National Museum of Ireland’s Bog Bodies Research Project in 2003 and all were named after the counties they were found in. It was such an incredible and humbling experience to be able to view bodies that were so old and yet so well preserved.
Bog bodies have also discovered in American peat bogs, including the Windover burials that were found in a peat-bottomed pond located between Cape Canaveral and Disney World in Florida, and are now a National Historic Landmark. Dating to 6280 B.C., 168 burials have been found along with artifacts such as bone tools, a bottle gourd, and even woven fabric shrouds that belonged to the early Floridians. 91 skeletons had intact brain masses, indicating many were buried within 48 hours of their deaths. Many were also buried in late summer and fall (July and October) based on the plant material associated with the bodies’ last meal. DNA analysis on bones has revealed that the people at Windover were not related to any living Native American tribe or known prehistoric group, rather they had migrated to North America from Asia.
Other environments that preserve artifacts and bodies well are colder or frozen environments that tend to refrigerate materials. However, as discussed in previous blogs, climate change is affecting the earth as frozen environments tend to melt away, exposing artifacts and remains to natural elements, such as the sun and warmer temperatures, that could be detrimental to their preservation. Sea levels continue to rise, thus putting many known and unknown archaeological sites along water in danger as well.
An example of the preservation power of cold environments and threats from rising sea levels, is Nunalleq, a site located in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region of Alaska, situated in a waterlogged, frozen tundra. Dating back to around 700 years ago, this site is a multi-period, prehistoric Yup’ik winter village. Permafrost had preserved tens of thousands of artifacts, including many made of wood and organic materials, such as wooden dolls and masks. However, located just inland from the Bearing Sea the site is at risk from larger waves and storm surges. The melting permafrost is also releasing anything once embedded.
Other dry environmental conditions that favor preservation are those of hot, arid climates, such as deserts. Dry environments (both hot and cold) preserve artifacts through the process of desiccation, the removal of moisture from something. Just recently in February, an American tourist accidentally found an Early Bronze Age pottery vessel in the area known as Qumran, located in the Judean Desert. The vessel is around 5,000 years old and may be the first complete jug discovered in the area from its time-period. The Judean Desert Cave, Cave 53, where the vessel was found is located in an area filled with caves, with dry air perfect for preservation.
I hope you all have a very Happy Earth Day!