Archaeologists from the University of York have issued a warning that essential archaeological evidence in wetland sites worldwide could be at immediate risk of damage or destruction.
The research which led the team to this worrying conclusion was carried out at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr, North Yorkshire. The researchers proceeded by analysing bone and wood artefacts found there and then comparing these results to ones from lab-based experimental burials. It is believed to be the first study of its kind to investigate how rapidly changing environmental conditions are impacting the preservation of organic remains.
The team focused principally on bone and wood buried in sand, compost and peat. After a year of research, they were able to conclude that there had been noticeably rapid organic decay occurring in the peat, with the fragments flattened and crumbling. This is thought to be due to fluctuations in the water level, because of climate change and human interference, for example land drainage. The news is especially worrying since the first excavations at Star Carr, which took place in the 1940’s, saw the remains to be in an excellent condition, meaning that the damage must have taken place in a very short amount of time.
The team are now urging the archaeological community to put more effort into preserving such important sites, and even to perhaps undertake urgent excavations in order to retrieve valuable organic remains before it is too late.
Dr Kirsty High, Research Fellow in York’s Department of Chemistry and lead author of the study, commented:
“The rapid deterioration of unique organic archaeological remains at Star Carr is an irreplaceable loss of our cultural heritage. Critically, the short time scale of this experiment highlights the alarming rate at which this process can occur, raising concerns for the continued survival of matter buried there and at other sites with similar conditions. It is imperative that we understand and monitor the environmental and geochemical conditions in wetland areas to determine the timescale for the future management and successful preservation of archaeological sites.”
Dr Kirsty Penkman, Senior Lecturer in York’s Department of Chemistry and co-author of the study, added:
“As potential threats to wetlands – such as pollution and changes in land use – continue to occur on an unprecedented scale, it is increasingly likely that other waterlogged archaeological sites are at risk from similar processes to those seen at Star Carr. The severity of decay seen in artefacts is rapid and irreversible, and has global implications in informing and challenging the current policy of organic remains being preserved in situ – a method previously believed to best protect archaeological artefacts for future research.”