Archaeology has no relevance….

Archaeologists are increasingly under pressure to demonstrate that their work has impact beyond the discipline. This has prompted some archaeologists — and in particular, environmental archaeologists and palaeoecologists — to argue that an understanding of past environmental changes is essential to model future outcomes in areas such as climate change, land cover change, soil health and food security. However, few archaeological studies have explored how to put research results into practice. 

Film showing the historic intensive agricultural system at Engaruka, Tanzania.

The EU-funded Archaeology of Agricultural Resilience in Eastern Africa (AAREA) project ran from 2014–2018 with the aim of looking at the long-term sustainability of two east African agricultural systems (Engaruka in Tanzania and Konso in Ethiopia). This was undertaken through a combination of archaeological, geoarchaeological, archaeobotanical and modelling techniques with the aim of providing a frank and realistic appraisal of the role archaeology can play in sustainability debates worldwide. The findings on the applicability of archaeological research were published through the generous funding from the NHSF Gold Open Access grant in Internet Archaeology in the article ‘Archaeology has no relevance’.

Figure 1 Konso terraces (1)Archaeological investigation of historic terracing in Konso, Ethiopia reveals the importance of valley-bottom sediment traps (Image: C. Ferro-Vázquez, et al. Journal of Environmental Management 202 (3): 500-513).

Admittedly, the title of the article might seem to imply our findings indicated that archaeology doesn’t have a role to play in the global conversation about sustainability, whilst in fact, the insights we gained showed that it was far more complicated than this. Archaeological results were not particularly relevant to policy-makers and NGOs in their raw state, or even in the form of a written-up scientific article, but the insights gained were of interest. In order to progress from, “Oh, that’s interesting” to the point where the insights can be used, a different way of working is needed. A way that is transdisciplinary and requires the ‘flow of knowledge’ to go in every direction, this may ultimately produce changes in the way we work, the methods we use, and the questions we ask. Enacting this way of working was beyond the limits of the AAREA project, but since the publication of ‘Archaeology has no relevance’ a new project, SOIL-SAFE, has been funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund through the Arts and Humanities Research Council to allow us to develop this idea.

Figure 2 Policy brief image Policy brief exploring the potential role of sediment traps can play in soil conservation practices.

Using one of the original case study areas (Konso, Ethiopia), SOIL-SAFE will build on the relationships created during the AAREA project. It will bring together those working in archaeology, ethnobotany, development studies, NGOs and those who live and work in the landscape to co-create a method with archaeological insights embedded from the beginning. Knowing how an agricultural system was built and operated over time is clearly relevant to an understanding of its current sustainability, but discussions of future sustainability must include everyone that is invested in this future. As archaeologists we can tell people what happened in the past, but the relevance of this information can only be determined through open conservation with the people that may choose to apply it. 


The paper ‘Archaeology has no relevance’ is co-authored by Suzi Richer, formerly with National Trust, and Daryl Stump and Rob Marchant of the University of York.

Five minutes with…Dr Ewan Hyslop, Head of Sustainability, Historic Scotland

What’s your background in heritage science?

I am a geologist, actually a ‘petrologist’ by training – that is the systematic description of different rock types. It involves a lot of peering down microscopes, but I’ve got to work on some very interesting things in my career, including projects related to disposal of radioactive waste, radon gas and mineral exploration. I came to heritage science as a career change when I did an MSc in Architectural Conservation in 2004 – it brought me into the fascinating world of stone decay and the conservation and repair of heritage structures.

Growing Old Gracefully, one of Historic Scotland’s 50 INFORM leaflets, explains to non-specialists about soiling and decay and why historic patina is sometimes good.

What’s your role at Historic Scotland?

I joined Historic Scotland in 2010 to manage our Heritage Science and Technical Buildings Research. I also oversee our Technical Education which involves dissemination of research through publications and events. Our work ranges widely from investigating the decay of various materials, looking at new forms of treatment and advising others on how to approach conserving heritage objects ranging from slates to sculptures, cannon-balls to castles. We can’t do all the research that is needed on our own so we have a huge amount of collaboration with organisations and universities throughout the UK and further afield.

climate change workshop
An interdisciplinary workshop with climate change experts to ‘brainstorm’ adaptation actions in different environments; the results captured by a professional graphic artist.


What’s been the most exciting or challenging thing you’ve worked in recently?

I was asked to set up a climate change programme for Historic Scotland. To me climate change is the biggest challenge threatening our heritage. Average rainfall in Scotland has increased by about 20% since the 1960s, and some parts have over 70% more winter rainfall. This is incredibly damaging, and we need to find better ways of protecting historic structures and sites. Increasing temperatures, rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events are also already happening and will all affect our heritage. Carbon reduction and energy efficiency is equally important – following the launch of our Climate Change Action Plan in 2012 we have managed to reduce carbon emissions from Edinburgh Castle by 30%!

ewan speaking 2014
Ewan speaking at the 2014 Historic Scotland energy efficiency conference ‘Towards a sustainable historic environment’.

Who inspires you?

When I go to our sites (we have 345 throughout Scotland) and I see how much visitors are fascinated by our heritage it reminds me how important our work is.

What do you love most about your job?

Two things: variety (every day is different), and the people (heritage science is full of people from different backgrounds – I meet some great characters!)

In a single sentence, tell us what’s great about heritage science?

It’s important work –heritage science makes a difference and ensures that some of the most valuable and beautiful objects from our past survive into the future.