I was very pleased to be invited by Wessex Archaeology to be the keynote speaker in their #ClimateTakeoverDay activities for the 2021 Festival of Archaeology, writes Vice Chancellor, Professor Robert Van de Noort. And the fact that this coincided with the week when northern Europe and China experienced extreme flooding events and wild fires raged in north America, makes it even more pressing that academics share knowledge, skills and information to help people understand climate change and tackle its causes and effects.

Island Neuwerk near Hamburg in the German Wadden Sea. Credit: Ralf Roletschek from Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0.

Reading is one of the leading climate science universities in the world. Our university strategy is driven by our commitment to making academic research relevant to the challenges we face as a global community, and we have placed sustainability at the heart of all we do. As Vice-Chancellor of a research-intensive university, I don’t often get the chance to talk about my own research as an archaeologist who researches coasts and wetlands, so I was particularly pleased to be able to contribute a small part to that and to outline the compelling role that archaeology and heritage can play in these efforts.

You might ask what is Climate Change Archaeology? It is a concept that I coined some ten years ago. It acknowledges that, since the middle of the nineteenth century, many archaeologists have sought to understand how communities adapted to (natural) climate and environmental change. However, many have been reluctant to translate that understanding into knowledge that is readily accessible to the present climate emergency. By contrast, Climate Change Archaeology sees the archaeological record as a source of information about how people in the past adapted to climate events, which may then help us to understand and adapt to modern climate change.

We live in a cultural landscape. Over a period of six millennia, forests have been cut to make way for agricultural land, peat bogs and marshes have been drained and cultivated, rivers haven been canalised, coasts have been embanked, and bridges and quays have been constructed. All these activities have an impact on flooding, either by reducing the natural flood-retention capabilities of the landscape, or by restricting the natural flows of rivers and sea. So without an understanding of these longer-term developments, it is impossible to explain fully these extreme weather events.

Three examples – the North Sea coast of Europe, the Sundarbans delta in India and Bangladesh, and the Everglades and Gulf coast of Florida – illustrate how modern communities can learn from the past to adapt and develop their own resilience. These are all regions that will see significant flooding if we experience one metre of sea level rise, projected by the International Panel on Climate Change to occur before the end of this century. All three are now introducing new programmes to develop climate resilience building on evidence from the past.

If we look to the north European coastal communities of the Waddensea, we find clear evidence of people adapting and developing ways of living sustainably with sea level change. These were communities that survived for a thousand years approximately, from 500AD to 500BC, building ‘terpen’ and ‘wierden’, circular mounds to raise their settlements above the tides and floods, and developing sustainable, productive and quite prosperous ways of living, like grazing on salt marshes.

Similarly in the Sundarbans, we find ancient temples that rise above the rice paddies, built on a podium where people could bring their livestock and most important possessions in times of high water. The village of Kotalipara is surrounded by at 2.5km square embankment, built 2500 years ago, with an 8-metre-high enclosure as a protected area. Importantly, the wider landscapes were flooded annually as the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers rose with the melting of the Himalayan snow each spring.

In Florida, mounds were built from shellfish remains, which were collected and heaped in deliberate fashion to be used as protection against the rising sea. These could be reshaped and re-formed as sea levels and the landscape changed – and are sometimes still in use as platforms for modern houses. Here, too, the remaining land regularly flooded as sea levels rose.

A common theme that emerges from this research is the importance of retaining a dynamic interaction between sea, rivers and land, while protecting settlements by artificially raising them. This benefits not only the biodiversity of the coast but results in the longer term to greater protection from floods too. Where elongated embankments and ‘dikes’ put a halt to this dynamic interaction, the biodiversity of sea, rivers and land are denuded and, regrettably, floods become inevitable.

These are just three examples that demonstrate how archaeologists can help coastal management through their long-term understanding of human interactions with the landscape, providing evidence for how important a ‘sense of place’ is. Around the North Sea, for example, there are now some 60 ‘managed retreat’ schemes where the existing flood defences are punctuated to restore some of that dynamic interaction between the sea, rivers and coast. New programmes to protect the mangrove swamps in the Sundarbans are building on age-old beliefs, shared by Hindu and Muslim communities, that the mangrove swamps are to be respected and revered. And following the 1950s draining of the Everglades, engineers are reflooding them to absorb the high tides, learning to work with rather than against the natural flow of water and land.

The role of Climate Change Archaeologists is to deliver stories and lessons about how sustainable living has been achieved in the past. The three examples show the importance of long-term perspectives on the success and failure of adaptive pathways used in the past and exploring what these mean for communities now. Most importantly, perhaps, archaeologists have a role to play in building the sense of place: understanding what communities value from their environment, how this will alter through climate change, and where to adapt or modify.

Telling ‘stories’ such as this, about how people faced up to floods and made themselves resilient over thousands of years, can provide inspiration for change. While we may not yet have a repository of information about how we are going to adapt to climate change in the future, using natural solutions that have worked in the past can make a big contribution to planning and policy at local, national and international level.


Professor Robert Van de Noort is an archaeologist specialised in coasts and wetlands, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading. Alongside his academic role, Robert chairs the Thames Valley Regional Flood and Coastal Committee, the executive committee through which the Environment Agency performs its flood and coastal erosion function from the Cotswolds to London. He is the author of Climate Change Archaeology: Building Resilience from Research in the World’s Coastal Wetlands (OUP, 2013).