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Introduction - Archaeology and the Natural Environment

Andreas Picker

Cite this as: Picker, A. 2023 Introduction - Archaeology and the Natural Environment, Internet Archaeology 62.

Archaeological sites and monuments are defined as spatial entities and are therefore an intrinsic part of any environment, as humans perceive it. Landscape archaeology and concepts such as 'landscape biography' have taught us that our environment has developed over millennia of interactions between humans and nature. In co-evolutionary feedback-loops, human societies adapt to and change their environments and archaeological sites also reflect this principle.

Human activities affect the natural environment. Rarely, however, do archaeologists and heritage managers take a step further and observe their sites and monuments from the point of view of nature conservation, and to some extent, consider their findings isolated from the natural environment. The perception of the 'naturalness' of a place or landscape varies widely, and there are stark differences in opinion over what might be a supposedly pristine natural environment and a cultivated landscape.

Remains of walls amnogst lush green vegetation, daisies and other yellow and purple flowers
Habitation turned habitat: Preserved Roman buildings in Aguntum (Austria) present their new look after the planting of wildflowers typical to the Alpine Region. (Image: Oliver Stöhr, REVITAL Integrative Naturraumplanung)

Sites and monuments and their archaeological study can help our understanding of how environments evolve and develop. This 'historical' view of natural environments has been the objective of environmental archaeology for decades. The research agendas of zooarchaeology, archaeobotany and geoarchaeology have produced an invaluable basis for our understanding of past environments.

Beyond this, the relationship between archaeological heritage and the present environment should be brought into focus. Archaeological sites, monuments and built environments demand protection and conservation, which is part of heritage management plans in many countries. When buried archaeology becomes excavated, preserved and presented to the public, it begins to play a certain role in the management of our present environment and as (new) habitats for plants and animals. This aspect has not been studied sufficiently so far.

The EAC's 23rd Heritage Management Symposium took place March 24–25, 2022, at the Natural History Museum Vienna on behalf of the Austrian Federal Monuments Authority (Bundesdenkmalamt). The choice of venue and cooperating institution attests to the symposium's interdisciplinary approach. In the following 14 papers, the authors explore three general themes:

Archaeology as habitat – monuments and sites as habitats

This theme focusses on currently preserved sites and monuments as habitats for flora and fauna, but also on questions how these archaeological environments can be physically protected. Best practice examples, like the mid-scale excavated site of Aguntum in East Tyrol (Austria), or large archaeological parks, like Butrint (Albania), show how management plans can be integrated successfully. In some places, biodiversity has not only been preserved, but increased. The choice and management of vegetation is a major issue. The case study of Birka (Sweden) shows how the concept of the 'wildness' of nature has changed in recent times. Natural calamities, like the bark beetle infestation have had great impact on archaeological sites as well, as several examples from the Czech Republic illustrate. Natural and human threats appear on land, as well as under water, even to the extent that an in-situ preservation might be compromised. The Mazarrón II shipwreck (Spain) is an example of such a development.

Archaeology and biodiversity – understanding species introductions, distributions and extinctions over time

Looking beyond today's preserved monuments, archaeological research has contributed greatly to the understanding of past habitats which underwent significant changes especially from the middle to the late Holocene. Conclusions can be drawn on co-evolutionary dynamics and the effects of human activities on species extinctions and introductions, as the case studies from Belgium show. While habitats can be identified in the natural environment, archaeobotanical assemblages, like the findings from Voditza (Bulgaria), may be seen as a 'secondary environment' for the utilized plant resources and as archives for the reconstruction of agricultural practices and local vegetation. Lastly, in-depth landscape archaeological analyses, such as those undertaken for a region in northern Westphalia (Germany), illustrate the development of the cultural landscape. What might appear as basic archaeological research at first, can provide invaluable information for ecologists and policymakers alike.

Archaeological heritage and natural heritage management – conflict or collaboration in protecting nature and archaeology?

While the protection and conservation of archaeological sites and natural heritage have a lot in common, both issues are usually viewed separately on an organizational and legal level. However, before the bureaucratic framework becomes effective, the topic of collecting and managing data should be addressed. The international team of the ipaast-czo project has dealt with the use of remote sensing data from an agricultural background for heritage-related decision making. The concepts of 'natural' or 'artificial' environments collide among the old water systems of Hessen (Germany), where oxbow lakes and silted up watercourses form significant archives for nature conservation as well as archaeology, but renaturation projects might threaten archaeological remains. An integrated, 'double' protection may occur when significant sites (by chance, or not) coincide with protected natural environments. The stone of St Lawrence in Kuusalu (Estonia), with its two different labels marking the site, may stand as one of many examples. Large-scale conservation projects, like in the Rhine-Sieg District (Germany), or the highly valued nature reserves and national parks, like in northwest Latvia, show high potential regarding the integration of nature and heritage conservation.

Finally, looking beyond the crucial case studies and invaluable individual experiences, there are opportunities to be seized from the realm of international law. The framework of international and European agreements and treaties still holds much potential for integrated approaches in nature and heritage conservation on national levels as well. Ultimately, regarding archaeology and the natural environment of which it is a part, with some efforts 'the twain shall meet'.

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  • Keywords: archaeology, environment, heritage, nature, agriculture, landscape, biodiversity, habitat
  • Accepted: 14 November 2022. Published: 23 March 2023
  • Funding: The publication of this article is funded by the European Archaeological Council.

Corresponding author: Andreas Picker
Federal Monuments Authority Austria

Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

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