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An image of an archaeological excavation site

Professor Robin Coningham is UNESCO's Chair on Archaeological Ethics and Practice in Cultural Heritage, the Chair of Early Medieval Archaeology and is Associate Director (World Heritage) in Durham's Institute of Mediaeval and Early Modern Studies (IMEMS) and Co-Director of Durham's MA International Cultural Heritage Management programme. Here Robin discusses the role of archaeology in urban infrastructure, climate change, disaster and risk, as part of Durham’s Global Lecture Series

At Durham, we have been working internationally with partners to develop methods and best practice for the protection of heritage in response to, and in anticipation of, humanitarian crises. Working with UNESCO, government and NGO partners in Nepal, we have undertaken assessments of monuments damaged during the 2015 Gorkha Earthquake and its aftermath and co-developed novel methodologies for first responders to record, salvage and protect heritage within a post-disaster context.

These approaches have been translated to Northern Sri Lanka, and implemented for the conflict damaged heritage of Jaffna Fort with the Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka and the University of Jaffna. More recently, this approach has been shared with partners in Iraqi city of Mosul.

Lessons from the past for the future

During these evaluations it became clear that archaeology was not a passive tool for recording the past but offered relevance to the development of policy and rehabilitation of historic urban infrastructure and monuments within the present and disaster preparedness in the future.

From science-based archaeological evaluations within the Kathmandu Valley, the identification of indigenous technologies, such as flexible mud mortars and engineered soil fills within foundations, as well as a damp course formed from copper sheets, pointed towards forgotten adaptations that had been developed to mitigate local threats of earthquakes and monsoon rains.

Rather than the imposition of untested modern materials and hybrid interventions, information from these re-discovered indigenous technologies was reintroduced by engineers, architects and craftspeople during the reconstruction of the medieval Kasthamandap – Kathmandu’s eponymous monument.

From short-term shocks to long-term threats

These indigenous technological adaptations are not just relevant to short-term shocks, such as earthquakes, but also long-term and accelerating climatic threats. Archaeologists have the unique ability to review the process of environmental change and resilience from much deeper timescales, as well as the responses and adaptations of communities to these challenges.

It has been acknowledged, within the IPCC, UNESCO and ICOMOS International Co-Sponsored Meeting on Culture, Heritage and Climate Change (ICSM CHC), that archaeology can aid future policy and planning by identifying successful past adaptations that can be integrated with interdisciplinary scientific methods alongside local communities to aid the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.  

A key example of this is the supply of water within the hinterland of the city of Anuradhapura in Medieval Sri Lanka, where mega-infrastructure of large artificially created reservoirs sustained large populations. However, in the eleventh century CE, the elaborate and complex hydraulic system created could not cope with social and political developments that coincided with changes within Monsoon patterns. Increased droughts and cyclonic storms, combined with reduced access to labour for regular maintenance, caused the irreversibly complex system to decline, reaching ‘system collapse’.

Such lessons are important to heed, as international donor agencies often prefer to target development through the creation of massive irreversible infrastructure, when more localised solutions may provide greater longer-term sustainability. This is now being explored by Durham’s UNESCO Chair team and partners in the Kathmandu Valley, where the benefits of revitalising the city’s Medieval canal system are being considered for low-cost solutions to the population’s acute and worsening water supply issues.

From the field to the classroom

These findings and approaches are now contributing to research-led learning at Durham, contributing to the new Level 3 module entitled 'Archaeology and Global Sustainable Development’, which recently won the University’s 2023 Global Curriculum Award.

This module aims to critically investigate, evaluate and discuss the intersection of the study of the past and cultural heritage, and how archaeology and heritage can positively contribute towards the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Unfortunately, future disasters are a given, however, risks can be mitigated if we look to our past for lessons, because it embodies practices, challenges, strategies, successes, and failures from which we can help devise sustainable solutions.

Find out more

  • Launched in 2019, Durham Global Lectures is a programme of high-profile lectures with world-leading thinkers from industry, politics and academia. To find out more about the series or watch the event recordings visit here
  • The online recording from the recent lecture is now available here
  • Visit the UK Nat Commission for UNESCO website here

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