What Archaeology Can Tell Us About Modern Climate Change

A common misconception about archaeology is that it is relevant only to the past. In reality, archaeological research can have a profound effect on modern life, and even on the future. One example of this is the archaeological study of climate change. Climate change is often referred to as one single apocalyptic event that will end all human life, and it will certainly alter human life, but climate change is natural and cyclical. It is happening at a faster and more alarming rate due to human activity, but climate change in itself is inevitable. In order to survive climate change of the future, it is important to understand how it was dealt with in the past.

An interesting glimpse into the impacts of past climate change is the case study of northern Cuba conducted by Jago Cooper and Matthew Peros. Unfortunately, an exact timeline for past climate change is very difficult to obtain. Michael Calway notes in his article regarding past South American droughts that some methods such as ice or sediment cores, while useful, are unreliable in this case and do not create particularly accurate timelines. Luckily, Peros and Cooper were able to access written records of past climate events. In their research, Cooper and Peros discovered not only a cycle of hurricanes and rising sea levels in Cuban history, but also techniques the ancient Cubans used to deal with these problems. One such technique is evident in their architecture. Most houses in the case study area were away from the coast on low, flat ground. They also incorporated a stilted design to allow water from storm surges to flow under the house rather than batter its walls. Another important aspect of the early Cubans’ adaptations is their methods of gathering food. The diet of these societies consisted primarily of things taken from shallow, intertidal marine environments. During a storm, however, these environments could be drastically altered, so the Cubans diversified their diet to include food collected from deeper marine areas. This allowed them to continue to find food even when sea levels were high.

A modern Cuban stilted house

These methods for survival are directly applicable to the current situation in the world. One recent example is the devastation caused by hurricane Irma of the southern coastal states. Modern societies could learn things from ancient ones, like not building too close to the water in hurricane-prone areas. Another example could be to diversify food sources so that no one is cut off in the event of extreme flooding.

Hurricane Irma’s devestation in Northeast Florida.

Unfortunately, when it comes to climate change, hurricanes are not the only problem to be faced. Future humans will also have to deal with higher average temperatures, polluted air/water, and other types of storms. It is unlikely that human intervention will drastically slow climate change, but with any luck, people will be able to look to the past to find ways to survive.


Calaway, Michael J. “Ice-Cores, Sediments and Civilisation Collapse: A Cautionary Tale from Lake Titicaca.” Antiquity, vol. 79, no. 306, 2005, pp. 778-790.

Jago Cooper, Matthew Peros, The archaeology of climate change in the Caribbean, InJournal of Archaeological Science, Volume 37, Issue 6, 2010, Pages 1226-1232, ISSN 0305-4403,  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2009.12.022.

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn. Archaeology Essentials: Theories, Methods, Practice. Thames & Hudson, 2015.

Image Sources

McCullough, Gary Lloyd. “Hurricane Irma – Ponta Vedra Beach”. Orlando Sentinel, 11.       Sept. 2017. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/weather/hurricane/os-hurricane-irma-damage-in-jacksonville-and-northeast-florida-pictures-20170912-photogallery.html


Further Reading






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What Our Food Provides Us: How the Human Diet Progresses Archaeological Analysis

Food, as a necessity for human survival, has always been the basis of any society. Archaeology that focuses on the human diet illuminates interactions between society and nature, and therefore explores their subsequent functionality. Diet is so expansive, that an array of findings can provide archaeologists with the tools for analysis. For example, earthenware found at the Lajia site in northwestern China preserved the earliest record of noodle preparation. The bowl was stuck in a floodplain of clay sediment, and radiocarbon dating suggests that these noodles were from four thousand years ago.

The millet noodles appear to be almost paper thin, with a diameter of 0.3 centimeters. They were around 50 centimeters long, with a yellow tint. They reflect many of today’s modern Chinese noodle dishes.

After analysing and attempting to determine the taxa of the noodles, archaeologists found that grass plants – specifically millet – were the basis of Chinese ingredients, and these noodles in particular. The Lajia site, found in the Loess Plateau region of China, was a semi-arid region, which is an efficient climate for millet to grow, solidifying the idea that millet was used to make noodles and other cuisine around this time period.


With the millet noodles we see how a relatively small artifact can be used to specify how the environment was utilized by the people inhabiting it. In contrast, we can also look at how a larger archaeological dig site, containing a multitude of plant matter, can shine a light on past practices. The Bronze Age Farm at Black Patch in southern England provided archaeologists with over fifty pounds of wheat, barley, and other plants. The plants were preserved through the charring of the storage pit, prompting many to dub the site as “England’s Pompeii”. 

Along with pounds of edible plants, rich textiles, bronze, wooden, and ceramic artifacts were excavated at the Black Patch Farm site. The findings were uniquely preserved with a combination of waterlogging and charring.

The findings showed an increase importance of wheat, which provides insight into the progression of farming techniques, specifically the newfound reliance on winter-sown crops. Some archaeologists have also speculated that the charring of these storage pits represent the tradition of burning the deceased, and their home, after death.

It’s important to note, however, that these findings are not representative of a wide ranged understanding. In fact, both of these instances are only reflective of a specific, single period in time. The most efficient form of archaeological diet analysis is the study of food traces in the stomach, and fecal matter. Unfortunately, it’s apparent that popular science outlets tend to portray the more glamorous discoveries (like the world’s oldest noodle!) than the discoveries that provide the most accurate and relevant information on diet. Understanding bias in our sources of information – and understanding that the two examples discussed here are only a small piece in a larger puzzle – will allow us to garner a more accurate picture of our past. 

Additional Reading

Swaminathan, N. (2014, August 11). Meadowcroft Rockshelter. Archaeology. Retrieved from https://www.archaeology.org/issues/150-features/americans/2369-peopling-the-americas-meadowcroft-rockshelter

Schaeffer, C. (1978). THE BISON DRIVE OF THE BLACKFEET INDIANS. Plains Anthropologist, 23(82), 243-248. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25667511


Image Sources

[Noodles]. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://images.mentalfloss.com/sites/default/files/styles/insert_main_wide_image/public/noodles_0.jpg

[Black Patch Farm]. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://www.archaeology.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/mustfarmfeatured.jpg



Renfrew, Colin and Paul Bahn (2015) Archaeology Essentials. 3rd edition. Thames & Hudson, New York.

Lu, H., Yang, X., Ye, M., Liu, K., Xia, Z., Ren, X., . . . Tung-Sheng, L. (13 October 2005). Culinary archaeology: Millet noodles in Late Neolithic China. Nature, 437, 967-968. doi: 10.1038/437967a

Cunliffe, B. (2006). Iron Age Communities in Britain: An Account of England, Scotland and Wales from the Seventh Century BC until the Roman Conquest. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=v1Zkio7jluAC&pg=PA35&lpg=PA35&dq=bronze+age+farm+at+black+patch+England+wheat&source=bl&ots=iB5vgxi32M&sig=yjFdWZNAvUXX6lhY–kStS3fnwk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiB76nKlbnWAhVD04MKHUzmDUIQ6AEIZzAN#v=onepage&q=bronze%20age%20farm%20at%20black%20patch%20England%20wheat&f=false

Bruck, J. (2002). Bronze Age Landscapes: Tradition and Transformation. Retrieved from https://books.google.com/books?id=_IwgDgAAQBAJ&pg=PT315&lpg=PT315&dq=bronze+age+black+patch+farm&source=bl&ots=2uxexgp-Pw&sig=i_TBht5poZgiR5c3-cbroI1Lchk&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwia1d-7nrnWAhVI6YMKHTrtDIYQ6AEINzAF#v=onepage&q=black%20patch&f=false

Keys, D. (2016, July 13). Discovery of vast treasure trove of fine textiles shows importance of fashion to Bronze Age Britons. Independent. Retrieved from http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/vast-treasure-trove-of-fine-textiles-shows-importance-of-fashion-to-bronze-age-britons-a7135786.html

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No Interest in War: The Harappan Civilization

Some ancient civilizations were renowned for their warfare techniques—the Chinese’s scale being evident with the discovery of the Terra Cotta Army, the Persians emerging as a military power under Cyrus the Great, and the Romans being famed for their discipline and innovation on the battle field. One civilization, however, might not have engaged in warfare at all, archaeologists speculate.

Depiction of the Harappan civilization, located in the Indus River Valley

This is the Harappan civilization that inhabited the Indus River valley some 5,000 years ago. Surviving for about two millennia, it is believed that this society survived without any major wars or conflicts, and is known to be one of the only ancient cities to do so. Archaeologists have never uncovered any signs of ash (indicating whether the city had ever been burned), weaponry, or even of an army itself.

What makes this especially profound is the prominence of army monuments in civilizations surrounding the Indus River Valley, such as those found in Mesopotamia. However, the fact that the Harappan society shows no traces of an army might be contingent on the fact that these were fairly migrant people. Through the analyzation of teeth found in burial grounds in Mohenjo-Daro (the largest city of the Harappan people), archaeologists discovered that many drank water from a source other than the immediate region, suggesting many people came and went from the city often.

Then what were the Harappan people so focused on besides warfare? Artifacts show that these people were very involved in the art of writing and even science. Markings on pottery show the transition from crude inscriptions to an extensive alphabet, and Harappan cities showcase a firm understanding of engineering, with urban areas built along strict grids and the standardization of bricks essential in the building of their structures.

Signs of character usage on a Harappan seal

So what was the Harappan’s demise, then, if it didn’t engage itself in warfare? Many speculate that rather than a quintessential “fall” within the society, it simply turned into a more nomadic group. This could have been caused by the arrival of the Aryan people in the area. Others suggest that the Harappan people simply shifted away from an urban, mercantile society, and instead adopted a more agricultural lifestyle, eventually merging with the Vedic culture of South Asia.

Whether or not this society was actually void of warfare is not entirely for certain, but through the use of culture history, more truths are slowly being discovered.

Additional reading:










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Why are Feathers So Important in the Aztec Culture: Piecing Together the Puzzle

Different civilizations place higher value on various materials and therefore we cannot make assumptions about past cultures based on today’s value system.  While some civilizations from the past deem precious metals like gold, silver, and copper to be objects of higher worth, others find value in a different variety of items.  Archaeologists have determined for example that the Aztecs held feathers as one of nature’s most valuable gifts, as birds appeared to be very important in their culture.  The Aztecs would use brightly colored feathers in headdresses worn by their leaders, including the great Aztec emperor Moctezuma.  Great time and care went into the making of any object involving feathers, as feather-workers spent weeks creating intricate designs to be used in battle shields and adornments, important buildings, cloaks and costumes of the nobles, and religious ceremonies.

The great feathered headdress, supposedly worn by the Aztec emperor Moctezuma himself.  This headdress was believed to be given to Hernan Cortez by the emperor, which is how it presumably ended up in Europe.

The importance of feathers appears to stem from the many references of birds in Aztec culture.  One of the first references to birds in Aztec culture is in the story of how the Aztecs choose the area in which they would build the capital to their future empire.  Legend states that the grand Aztec capital Tenochtitlan was chosen because the first Aztecs wandered and searched for a long time till they witnessed a bird perched on a cactus eating a snake, which is now pictured on the current day Mexican Flag.  The bird in this story is seen in a position of power, as it sits on top of the cactus, peering over the land.  There are also many references to feathers and birds in the Aztec religion.  The Aztecs held many rituals involving human sacrifices to the gods, but birds were also sacrificed during high religious ceremonies.  One of the most important gods in Aztec culture is named Huitzilopochtli, which translates to “Hummingbird of the Left.”  Huitzilopochtli was the god of the sun and of war and the Aztecs believed that warriors who lost their lives in battle would return as hummingbirds, which are characterized by their vibrant feathers.

The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli, generally pictured in artwork bearing the bright colors of the hummingbird and holding his serpent-like weapon.

Quetzalcoatl was one of the other most important gods in the Aztec religion and his name translates to “plumed” or “feathered serpent.” Quetzalcoatl was one of the Aztecs gods of creation, as well as the god of learning and wind.  Many of the important Aztec gods are associated with birds or feathers, leading us to believe that this is one of the reasons that the Aztecs held feathers as such valuable materials.  Only through the analysis of Aztec culture, especially their religion, can we attempt to see the true reason that the Aztecs valued bright feathers and understand that value of a material differs from culture to culture, but that does not make any specific culture more or less advanced because of what they value.


Additional Reading:

Aztec Headdresses. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.legendsandchronicles.com/ancient-civilizations/the-ancient-aztecs/aztec-headdresses/

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2016, July 08). Huitzilopochtli. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Huitzilopochtli


Berdan, F. F. (2014). Aztec archaeology and ethnohistory. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Aztec Religious Ceremonies and Rituals. (2017, May 11). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.historyonthenet.com/aztec-religious-ceremonies-and-rituals/

Brittenham, C. (n.d.). Did the Maya and Aztecs take feathers for headdresses from birds other than quetzals? Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/home/did-the-maya-and-aztecs-take-feathers-for-headdresses-from-birds-other-than-quetzals-1

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (2017, February 16). Aztec. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Aztec

Aztecs Find a Home: The Eagle Has Landed | EDSITEment. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from https://edsitement.neh.gov/lesson-plan/aztecs-find-home-eagle-has-landed

Cartwright , M. (2013, August 1). Quetzalcoatl. Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.citationmachine.net/apa/cite-a-website

Renfrew, C., & Bahn, P.G. (2015). Archaeology essentials: theories, methods, practice. London: Thames & Hudson.

Image Sources:

[Huitzilopochtli represented in the Borbonic Codex. He is carrying a snake like weapon called a Xiuhcoatl and a shield. On his head is a headdress imitating the head of a hummingbird]. (n.d.). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.mexicolore.co.uk/aztecs/gods/god-of-the-month-huitzilopochtli

[Mexico Aztec Headdress]. (2012, April 28). Retrieved September 19, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-17878130

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Seriation of Astronomical Observatories

It seems that humanity has always been fascinated by the night sky. Across the globe, archaeologists have found records of people analyzing the movements of the heavens and using those movements to measure time and to signify important cultural events. While the specific reasons for the study of the cosmos has changed over time, one thing has remained constant: the use of observatories. While the methods and materials used for building observatories have changed, their overall appearance has changed very little.

A prime example of this is El Caracol, found in the ancient Mayan city of Chichén Iztá. This stone observatory was built on the southern side of the city and was rebuilt several times. Archaeologists believe the final version was erected between 900-1000 A.D. The observatory was used to track the movement of the sun and certain planets. The observers seemed to be especially interested in the movement of Venus, as an entire floor of the two-story observatory is dedicated to tracking its movement. The observatory also allowed the Mayans to tell when the sun reached its zenith. This mattered to the Mayans, as the rainy season starts right after the sun reaches its zenith in May. Knowing when the sun reached this point allowed the Mayans to make sure their fields were ready for the rain. They also viewed the planets as embodiments of the gods, so their movement was of religious significance to the Mayans. While the observatory was built using ancient methods and is comprised entirely of stone, its overall structure is similar to that of modern observatories, with a domed roof that allowed for viewing at all angles, and its positioning at a high point in the landscape.

El Caracol, or “The Snail”, an observatory found in the ancient city of Chichén Iztá.

As time went on, observatories shifted from having religious and agricultural significance to being more heavily based in scientific discovery. This is the case for the Vassar College Observatory. Completed in 1865, the observatory was used as both the home and observatory of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer. The observatory was used to study telescopic moments, along with the planets Jupiter and Saturn. Unlike El Caracol, the Vassar College Observatory is comprised of mostly brick, with the dome being made of metal. The observatory also has a telescope, a commodity not invented until 1608.

Vassar College Observatory, located at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

Even in modern day, observatories continue to maintain the same basic appearance. However, they have changed quite dramatically in the scope of both their reach and potential. One example of this is the Mount Graham Observatory. Built to research exoplanets and to analyze the dust around stars. While maintaining a similar shape to both El Caracol and the Vassar College Observatory, it not only has a cube shaped top rather than a dome, but it has two telescopes rather than one.

The Mount Graham Observatory, located on Mount Graham in Arizona.


Miller, Julia. The Caracol, or Observatory of Chichén Itzá. Yucatan Today. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://yucatantoday.com/caracol-or-observatory-chichen-itza/?lang=en.

Maria Mitchell. Vassar Encyclopedia. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/original-faculty/maria-mitchell1.html

Vassar College Observatory. National Park Service. Accessed September 17th, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/places/vassar-college-observatory.htm

Beal, Tom. Huge Mount Graham telescope finally paying off. The Arizona Daily Sun.  Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://azdailysun.com/huge-mount-graham-telescope-finally-paying-off/article_116733a4-fdd4-592f-a256-cb9c5f1bcbeb.html

Picture sources:

Wikimedia Commons. Accessed September 17th, 2017. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vassar_College_Observatory.jpg

EL Caracol, The Observatory of Chichén Itzá. Atlas Obscura. Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/el-caracol-chichen-itza-mexico

Beal, Tom. Huge Mount Graham telescope finally paying off. The Arizona Daily Sun.  Accessed September 17th, 2017. http://azdailysun.com/huge-mount-graham-telescope-finally-paying-off/article_116733a4-fdd4-592f-a256-cb9c5f1bcbeb.html



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