Archaeologists Role in Water Management Issues

by | Mar 15, 2017

An opinion article addressing the unique professional understanding that archaeologists can contribute to contemporary water management.

Archaeologists may not be the first experts who come to mind when confronting today’s water management issues. Archaeologists study the past and their research may seem unrelated to present problems like the increasing frequency of extreme weather or the declining quality of aquifers.

However, many archaeologists disagree. In April 2015, the conference Water and Power in Past Societies, hosted by the Institute for European and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University at Buffalo, closed with a panel discussion addressing the unique professional understandings that archaeologists can contribute to contemporary water management. In a new opinion article in WIREs Water, Emily Holt summarizes and expands on the panel discussion to highlight the important role archeologists have to play.

Archaeological data is essential for understanding climate fluctuations. Modern methods of collecting environmental data have been in place for only a couple of centuries in the best cases. Archaeology – especially subfields like geoarchaeology and dendrochronology – can provide climate data over much longer chronological spans, improving the ability to engineer water solutions that will be sufficient not only during normal weather conditions but also during extremes.

Archaeologists have shown that many ancient water systems were resilient to extreme weather and climate change. These systems functioned sustainably over hundreds or even thousands of years, and archaeologists have the most detailed understanding of how – and why – these systems worked. When long-term solutions are necessary, archaeologists can provide information about water management methods that have proven sustainable under specific environmental conditions. At the same time, not all ancient practices can be applied to contemporary problems, and archaeologists can identify when resurrecting old systems is not the best way forward.

Archaeologists also have important roles to play as mediators. Implementing successful water management requires combining different perspectives: technical solutions must be embedded into local practices of organizing labor and maintaining specialized knowledge. Archaeologists become familiar with a variety of technologies through their field research and can help evaluate the appropriateness of technological water solutions to specific contexts. At the same time, archaeologists become familiar with the cultures where they work and can provide advice for integrating new technologies into existing social practices.

Finally, archaeologists are in a position to help negotiate between the national scale at which water management decisions are often made and the local scale at which the effects of water management are felt and maintenance tasks performed. When conducting research, archaeologists develop ties both to local communities and to government agencies that control research permits and grants. Archaeologists can use these multiple ties to encourage communication, helping national decision-making processes address local concerns and local knowledge reach relevant governing institutions.

The complete panel discussion is available here.
The proceedings of Water and Power in Past Societies are forthcoming from SUNY Press.

Kindly contributed by Emily Holt.


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