Archaeological remains vulnerable to environmental changes

A team of York scientists have discovered that environmental changes can have heavily detrimental effects on important wetland sites around the world. Recent excavations at Star Carr, one of the most important archaeological sites in the UK relating to the Mesolithic period, have suggested that valuable archaeological evidence is at risk. The geochemistry of the site has been reported to be no longer conductive to the exceptional survival of organic archaeological and environmental materials, which can have global implications for other wetland sites.

The team analysed bone and wood artefacts and compared them to results from lab-based experimental burials. Unexpectedly significant levels of organic decay were found in peat from Star Carr. The main reason for this rapid decay is believed to be the increased acidity in the ground caused by a recent drop in water levels, which is inextricably linked to the changing climate and human modifications such as land drainage.

Dr Kirsty High, Research Fellow in York’s Department of Chemistry and lead author of the study, said: “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.”

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