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Into the Past
Into the Past

Archaeological sites around the world are in danger. Political and social upheaval, shifting land usage, illegal digging and looting, and the effects of climate change all pose threats to sites of historical importance. These locations connect us with our cultural heritage and contain artifacts essential to our understanding of the cultures preceding ours. To preserve our past and learn from what it has to offer, important archaeological sites must be identified, protected, prioritized, and studied. Doing so requires the collaborative efforts of government agencies, the public, and researchers alike.

Dr. Shelby Anderson is an archaeologist and Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology at PSU. Much of her research focuses on late Holocene settlements (i.e., those occupied in roughly the last 2,000 years) in the Bering Land Bridge region of northern Alaska. Dr. Anderson catalogues and sources ancient fragments of ceramics to gain insights into the ways social networks (the movement of people between settlements) helped the former inhabitants of the region cope with environmental and social changes. She collaborates with agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), fellow researchers in Alaska, and native populations to identify, study, and preserve important archaeological sites susceptible to loss and damage caused by climate change and illegal digging. And she develops and implements methodologies for working in the field in the unique and constantly evolving Alaskan landscape.

In a collaborative research project in association with the National Parks Service (NPS), Dr. Anderson and NPS researchers Michael Holt and Jeremy Karchut are assessing the impacts of climate change on coastal archaeological sites in northwest Alaska’s Kotzebue Sound region. The archaeological sites in this area of Alaska contain important artifacts such as ancient pottery and fragments of bone that can reveal much about the people who lived there and what the environment was like. But these sites and the objects they contain are in danger. The effects of climate change: rising sea levels, coastal and riparian erosion, the increased frequency and intensity of storms, warming of the earth and the melting of Arctic permafrost will likely mean many of these sites will be lost. 

The research team hopes the results of their “Climate Change and Archaeology in Northwest Alaska” study will provide a record of the impact of climate change on archaeological sites in the Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, information which may inform preservation efforts at other sites in the Arctic coastal regions. Dr. Anderson and her fellow researchers also believe that the lessons learned from data collected on past human/environment interactions can be applied to present day climate challenges faced by the region’s native population.

“We know that climate change is acting on important archaeological sites in this region of Alaska,” Dr. Anderson said. “Archaeologists have been to a few of these sites in recent years, but other sites haven’t been studied in over 30 years. Because so many of the sites have not been examined in a long time, we have little information on the effects of climate change impacts. So our research is informing the larger plan of prioritizing sites by identifying those that are most threatened by climate change.”

In another study, Dr. Anderson, in collaboration with BLM, is trying to answer key questions about changes over the last 2,000 years in the socio-economic organization of the Arctic peoples of North American at a largely unexplored site prone to illegal digging. With the support of the National Science Foundation, Dr. Anderson and her team are excavating at Port Clarence, Alaska. There they hope to find data that will help them answer questions such as when and for how long was the site occupied; were goods and materials moved around the region by the site’s inhabitants through social networks with other living in the area; what did the residents subsist on? Another major focuses of the study is to establish the extent of and address illegal digging by jointly developing an approach to end the practice in the region.

The answers to these questions may provide insight into the collapse and/or replacement of one culture by another that occurred in the region roughly 1,000 years ago and eventually led to the establishment of the Inuit culture that inhabits the region today. More long-term impacts of this joint PSU-BLM study may arise from the collaborative development of a plan to address illegal digging in the region. According to Dr. Anderson, whether studying past climate change on the human scale or working to put an end to illegal digging, collaboration with other researchers, government agencies, and the local populations is essential if we are to protect and learn from these sites.

“When we’re working on a project,” Dr. Anderson said, “collecting data to learn more about how in the past people reacted to and coped with climate change, for example, you need people with skills other than your own. You need partners who can identify animal species by examining their bones, who can analyze datasets on past vegetation, and who can locate the source of clay deposits used to make ancient pottery. And you need community members to help you understand the cultural significance of findings. It takes the cooperation of many to understand the past record.”

Working with her collaborators, Dr. Anderson is illuminating a cross-section of our collective history. Her research tells us more about the people who came before us—the way they lived, how they coped with fluctuations in the environments, and what we need to do today to protect our cultural heritage and preserve the precious data and artifacts buried in the ground in places like Alaska’s Bering Strait region and the Seward Peninsula.

Authored by Shaun McGillis
Posted May 15, 2014