World Ocean Day
The oceans and seas are critical for the health and wellbeing of everything on Planet Earth. They bring great biodiversity to the natural world, can provide us with opportunities for food and energy, and offer a space for recreation. It is recognised that healthy oceans are hugely important to all of us, wherever we live. Yet it is also widely acknowledged that greater efforts need to be made to ensure that our seas and oceans do not continue to be over-exploited, polluted, and damaged by human activity. The 8th June is designated as World Ocean Day as a reminder of these things, and to provide a focus point for efforts to improve our approaches to, and conservation of, the World’s Oceans.
Changes to the marine environment within our oceans and seas can also impact on archaeological sites; both underwater, in the inter-tidal zone, on islands and within coastal areas. Such cultural heritage, wherever it is located, is inevitably fragile when faced with the rigours imposed on it by the sea. Unlike many elements of the natural world, cultural heritage is finite, and has no capacity for renewal and regeneration; once an archaeological site, or set of sites, are destroyed, they are gone forever. Moreover, all of them are unique and reflect the individuals and societies who originally created them. It is therefore imperative that as we strive to be better stewards of the World’s Oceans, we should include its fragile, finite, cultural heritage within our thinking.
Climate change brings the fragility of this cultural into closer focus. Changes to Ocean PH levels, and in particular acidification, can speed-up the rate of degradation of iron shipwrecks. Warmer seas can allow the migration to new areas of marine life that causes decay in wooden shipwrecks. Increases to the frequency and severity of storms have an obvious potential to inflict damage on submerged sites in shallower seas, and to expose sites in the inter-tidal zone. Changes to sediment distribution arising from storms, or sea-level change can cause further impact, although in some cases the burial of sites because of sediment movement is to be broadly welcomed as offering protection from further degradation.
Understanding the relationship between these processes, and others not listed above, and their combined impact on cultural heritage is not straightforward. Sites that are offshore and fully underwater, such as shipwrecks, are very much “out of sight, out of mind” to some extent, and even being able to fully collate the underlying information can be difficult as many shipwrecks are still unidentified. Closer inshore and on the coastline itself, there are a wealth of different archaeological site types, from submerged forests to shipwrecks to promontory forts, in a range of settings; sandy beaches, eroding cliffs, estuaries, etc. The approaches needed to understand a site can therefore vary from site to site and place to place.
Within Wales, the RCAHMW is a partner in two major projects – UnPath’d Waters and CHERISH – that aim to improve our overall knowledge and understanding of maritime archaeological sites on the one hand (UnPath’d Waters), and to better appreciate the impact of climate change on the archaeological record on the other (CHERISH).
The CHERISH project is in partnership between organisations in Wales and Ireland and has been running since 2017. It has focused on furthering our understanding of the impact of climate change on coastal heritage. The main fieldwork of the project on study sites in Wales and Ireland has now been completed and focus has shifted to delivering a series of ‘practice guidance’ documents that will be available as an online resource. This will ensure that the methods developed, tested, and refined, during the project, can be used again and again on other similar sites. The work of the CHERISH project has furthered our understanding of many of Wales’ archaeological sites located on, or just offshore from, the coast and the impact of climate change on them. The project’s legacy will be to ensure that all similar sites can potentially be treated in the same way and our understanding of them, and climate change, can be increased accordingly.
Meanwhile, the UnPath’d Waters project is a UK wide project that aims to bring together the various sets of data held by different organisations, across the UK, related to maritime heritage. For example, general information on a shipwreck site off the Welsh coast might be held within the National Monuments Record of Wales, or the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office. Further, detailed surveys of the wreck site might have been done through work such as the University of Bangor’s SEACAMS2 project (see image above, and read more about the Walpas here), or organisations like the Nautical Archaeology Society. By contrast, historical records detailing the original ship, its construction, use and manner of loss could be lodged in the organisations like the Lloyds Register, the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich or within local newspaper reports. There are therefore multiple different places where information on a single ship can be found. Across the next three years, the project will make it easier for multiple different sources to be accessed when addressing individual sites, or groups of sites. This in turn will improve our overall understanding of the archaeological sites located, or still to be located, around the coast of Wales, and in the sea further offshore.
Projects like CHERISH or UnPath’d Waters are very different in their approaches, but both serve to enhance our appreciation, understanding, and enjoyment, of our maritime cultural heritage. At a time when much of that heritage is under threat from our changing climate, they are both projects that mirror the overall aims of World Ocean Day, namely “to celebrate and honour our one shared ocean that connects us all”.
Dr Julian Whitewright