Excavating Ancient Knowledge: Climate Action and the Practice of Sustainability

Written by Chung-chun Wang.

Image credit: 興建中的蘇花改 by king.f/ Flickr, license: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

The role of museums is constantly changing and evolving. Nowadays, for instance, digital exhibition and entertainment elements have gradually become part of museums’ experiences due to technological advancement. Notably, a new museum definition was approved at the 26th ICOM General Conference held in Prague in 2022. As such a new definition states, 

“A museum is a not-for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. Open to the public, accessible and inclusive, museums foster diversity and sustainability. They operate and communicate ethically, professionally and with the participation of communities, offering varied experiences for education, enjoyment, reflection and knowledge sharing.”

Since museums are highly and closely related to society and the public with their transformation, the new definition demonstrates that accessibility, inclusiveness, diversity and sustainability are the key aspects that echo the contemporary trends. Therefore, museums usually aim to include these notions in their plans, research, and exhibitions. For example, the emphasis on “environmental education” is widely seen in museums, as it is directly linked with sustainability associated with the current energy and food crises. In this regard, how does archaeology, a discipline considered an old, ancient, and mysterious field with studying prehistories and peoples, respond to the vision of sustainability?

Simply put, sustainability concerns the dynamic balance of the natural environment, economic development, and human society. While paying attention to the current challenges people are urged to address, it also considers the well-being of the future generation. The research results and information provided by archaeology span tens of thousands or even millions of years. In addition to the scientific research and analysis of artefacts, the interaction and development of the people it cares about and the natural environment can provide unique perspectives and materials and information on the current situation.  

Archaeological Sites: Buried Prehistory Records

Archaeological sites contain the remains, including artefacts, eco-facts, faunal remains and features of past human groups. Through research, we could explore and represent issues such as social organisations, cultural appearances, and even the beliefs and values of prehistoric people. It can be a reference for us to learn from the past and ponder over contemporary issues and dilemmas.

Taiwan’s geological and geographical conditions often cause different types of disasters, such as floods, typhoons, earthquakes, and debris flows. This is not only a risk that can only be experienced in modern times but also a problem that needed to be faced and solved in prehistoric times. The depth of time studied by archaeology may be able to sort out and show the human-land interaction of prehistoric people’s resource utilisation, settlement selection considerations, and reactions to environmental changes.

Here’s a case study that may serve as a good example. Yilan, a county in northeastern Taiwan, is surrounded by mountains and an opening to the sea on the east. Influenced by the northeast monsoon in autumn and winter, the rainy season is long. Archaeologists have invested in regional palaeoenvironmental research in recent years by analysing pollen fossils, tracing the succession of plants, establishing the palaeoclimate of prehistoric Yilan, and examining climate changes. The study results indicate that the prehistoric Yilan region witnessed changes in precipitation patterns around 2,000 years ago, which resulted in landform alterations. For example, the likelihood of landslides in mountainous areas and flooding in plains increased significantly, and winters became colder. Extreme climatic and environmental conditions caused people to migrate out of this area, revealing a time of cultural blankness in archaeological research.

Faced with an uninhabitable climate, people might choose to move out, but still, others are adapting their way of life and settlement design to survive. Blihun Hanpen archaeological site, discovered during the processes of building the Suhua Highway, demonstrates the values of archaeology and may reveal the adjustment and adaptation of inhabitants facing their residential area. According to its survey of environmental assessment, the site is located in a geologically sensitive and fragile area in Yilan. Its archaeological evidence shows that prehistoric individuals in this region had to deal with landslides; therefore, they included earth-retaining structures in the design of their settlements. While the construction of new roads has to address the instability of geology, the report thus suggested a bridge-tunnel design to protect areas prone to collapse with an environmentally benign approach. This archaeological discovery might also serve as a reminder to strengthen the management of subsequent road risks to achieve prevention and avoidance in advance. 

Environmental Education: Citizen Action in Cultural Heritage Preservation

From the case of the Blihun Hanpen site, we can see how the ancient people responded to the surrounding area. Meanwhile, changes in the palaeoenvironment of Yilan also deeply affected the movement and living considerations of the human groups. In this regard, “people” also play an important role in the environment, especially when human civilisation develops, technology and industry progress, and people grasp the ability to shape the environment. Therefore, it is crucial to understand how people face the environment, adapt to and interact with the environment.

The promotion of environmental education in archaeology is thus becoming more and more important. However, in addition to acquainting the public with the environment, they must also comprehend the relationship between humans and nature, humans and humans, as well as humans and supernatural, from the perspective of the interdependence of human, social culture and the environment, to reflect on what kind of role we, the public, are under such a context.

Archaeological sites preserve not just the lifestyle of prehistoric people but also evidence of their ability to adapt to and alter their environments. In addition to comprehending the lifestyles of modern cultures, the topic of “cultural preservation” under environmental education also includes archaeological sites bearing proof that prehistoric people mastered, comprehended, and utilised their environment’s resources. It may also be used to examine how prehistoric humans interacted with the land and preserve memories of past surroundings. 

More and more archaeologists call for public participation during the excavation, not just through museum exhibitions after research, so that the state of the archaeological fieldwork, unearthed remains, and in-situ features can be shown in front of the public. It is difficult to completely represent these aspects in an exhibition. At the same time, museums, academic institutions, and excavation organs widely use on-site surveys and site visits as the main form of outreach education to reflect the considerations of settlement locating selection for prehistoric people and their relationship with the environment. This On-site experience approach also greatly extends and expands the museum’s framework, form and space.

The thinking that environmental education could bring out is to remind the public that we coexist and are closely related and intertwined with our environment. Not only does the natural environment affect the people, but the people’s behaviour also shapes the environment. In the contemporary period of rising public awareness, the environmental movement and education practice has also been improved. Through the promotion of environmental education lead the public to be aware of the interdependent relationship between human and nature and to think about their own positioning in this context. Archaeological sites not only allow us to understand the life of prehistoric people but also reflect their responses and interactions with the environment. Understand the relationship between humans and land and the way of symbiosis and coexistence through the site, and encourage the public to start exploring the archaeological sites nearby to promote their understanding and recognition of the land to cherish the precious cultural heritage, and further, learn from the ancient knowledge and to achieve the action on the sustainability.

Chung-chun Wang is a Research Assistant at the National Museum of Prehistory, Taiwan. He obtained his M.A. from the Department of Anthropology, National Taiwan University, in 2017, majoring in archaeology and focusing on public archaeology and pottery analysis. He has participated in several archaeological fieldworks and is committed to public interpretation and outreach education of archaeology.

This article was published as part of a special issue titled “Museums in Taiwan: Intertwining the Past and the Present.”

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