Mummies decaying in Siberia, pyramids vanishing under the sand in Sudan, Mayan temples collapsing: climate change risks destroying countless treasures from our shared past, archaeologists warn.
Melting ice can unlock ancient secrets from the ground, as with the discovery in 1991 of Oetzi, a 5,300-year-old warrior whose body had been preserved through the millennia inside an Alpine glacier.
But as ice caps melt, deserts spread, ocean levels rise and hurricanes intensify — all forecast effects of man-made global warming — Henri-Paul Francfort of the CNRS research institute fears a heavy toll on world heritage.
Francfort is head of a French archaeological team in Central Asia that played an important part in excavating the Kurgans, or frozen tombs, of nomadic Scythian tribes in Siberia’s Altai mountains.
He fears they now risk being lost. “The permafrost, the constantly frozen layer of earth that protected them up until now, is melting,” he said.
“There are mummified, tattooed bodies, buried with sacrificed horses, furs, wooden objects and clothes.
“With my Russian colleagues, we are watching the part of the soil that melts each season, and which is getting deeper and deeper. Unless we take preventative action, it will soon be too late.”
According to Francfort, Oetzi’s remains were most certainly uncovered due to a receding high-altitude glacier in the Italian Tyrol region.
“Melting glaciers, especially in Norway, now regularly reveal other treasures,” he said.
Rising ocean levels, which some forecast could jump a meter by 2100, also threaten to wipe out dozens of coastal archaeological sites.
In Bangladesh, the ruined city of Panam in Sonargaon, the heart of the kingdom of Bengal from the 15th to 19th centuries, is regularly hit by flooding.
Today, Panam is one of 100 sites listed by the UN culture agency Unesco as threatened by climate change.
Unpredictable weather events are another major source of concern, says Dominique Michelet, a specialist of American archaeology at the CNRS.
He cites the case of the Mayan temple of Tabasqueño in Mexico, which had to be largely rebuilt after it was badly damaged by two tornadoes that hit the area in 1995.
“Archaeologists had managed to stabilize the main temple, but the buildings became saturated with water and collapsed inward,” Michelet said.
Sand is one of the worst enemies of archaeological sites, like in Sudan where dunes are encroaching on the burial pyramids of Meroe, the capital of a kingdom that flourished from the third century BCE to the fourth century CE.
Michelet warns that Unesco’s efforts so far to identify at-risk have not gone far enough, and called for the world to “sound the alert” over the threat.
“Archaeology is part of human memory,” said Francfort, who suggests radical solutions may be needed to protect past treasures from climate change, citing the case of the Abu Simbel rock temples in Egypt.
Following a concerted international effort, the entire complex was relocated in the 1960s to prevent the temples from being submerged by the building of a dam on the Nile.?