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The future of the past is enough to make you feel down

The slogan of the Faculty of Archaeology, ‘The Future of the Past starts at Leiden University’, might sound like empty marketing speak. But there is something to it. The past can teach us a lot about climate change and that could make us fear the worst for our future. Archaeologist Gerrit Dusseldorp is appealing to the new coalition to move beyond party politics.

From campus to cabinet

The Netherlands will vote for a new government on 22 November. According to the polls, the key issues in these elections are healthcare, housing, livelihood security, immigration and asylum, the climate and sustainability. Which aspects should a new government bear in mind? Our researchers reflect on this in a series of articles.


In Noordlaren, there is half a hunebed (a megalithic tomb, ed), G1, the only Groningen hunebed still in its original location. Why half? Hunebed stones proved to be useful building materials in the more recent past: as the foundations for churches, for example. And, after a catastrophic pile worm attack infestation weakened Dutch dikes in the 18th century, to clad these wooden dikes (in Dutch). The remainder of G1 only narrowly escaped destruction. You can still see the gunpowder holes drilled to blast the capstone into manageable pieces. Fortunately, its demolition was called off at the last minute. (Other hunebedden were not so lucky).

So the future of the past is sometimes sacrificed in the battle against water.

The half hunebed G1. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Sand Motor

The battle continues to this day. A great contemporary example from today is the Sand Motor, an artificial beach near The Hague. The northward current of the seawater along the Dutch coast gradually spreads the Sand Motor’s sand across the entire coast of   the provinces of Zuid and Noord Holland, offering lasting protection from erosion.

And that Sand Motor also provides a long-term perspective on the changing climate from which we Dutch – and the new coalition too – have a lot to learn. The Sand Motor consists of dredged North Sea sand. A slew of beach finds made by an extensive network of amateur archaeologists, in effect citizen scientists, allow us to study the past 100,000 years of history. A recent exhibition at the National Museum of Antiquities and the free online book show the fruits of that long-standing collaboration between academics, museums and citizen scientists.

What emerges is how fundamentally climate change has struck our region over the past 100,000 years.

Barbed points made from human bone

The changing Doggerland

During the last ice age, much of the Earth’s water was stored in ice sheets and global sea level was lower than today. This meant that, until 10,000 years ago, the North Sea was a lowland plain intersected by large rivers. We call that landscape Doggerland. It was a kind of Ooostvaardersplassen (a nature reserve in the province of Flevoland, ed.) on steroids. Wolves lived there but shared the area with truly dangerous animals like bears, hyenas and lions. There were horses, reindeer and megafauna beasts like mammoths and rhinos. And among them dwelt people: Neanderthals, whose remains can also be found on the beach. A piece of flint encased in birch tar, for instance, sheds some light on their way of life and shows that they had mastered ‘high-tech’ processes such as distilling tar.

Around 30,000 years ago, our region, including Doggerland, became depopulated. It was simply too cold during the coldest part of the ice age for members of a primate group with African roots. Sea level also dropped to its lowest point: 120 meters lower than today.

When the earth warmed up again, from 20,000 years ago,  people once again came to live in Doggerland. They were a different species though, Homo sapiens, and were subsequently joined by other animals such as red deer and wild boar. You can find barbed bone points from this time on the Sand Motor. These give interesting, even macabre, hints about the way of life of prehistoric societies. You can analyse the proteins of the bone points to find out which animal they came from. When colleagues did so, they discovered that many points were made from red deer bone but that some were made from human bone!

Life in Doggerland proved to be doomed. As the ice sheets melted at the end of the ice age, the sea levels rose 120 metres in just over 10,000 years. This happened in fits and starts: in some phases, it amounted to metres per century.

There were also extreme calamities. Around 8200, for instance, there was a tsunami that probably had a catastrophic effect on large parts of the North Sea basin. Doggerland disappeared 8,000 years ago and the North Sea as we know it has resided there ever since. Perhaps the inhabitants managed to flee to higher areas. Sites from around that time excavated along the Betuwe railway line may have provided a safe haven for some of these climate refugees.

Pumping and drowning? The future of the past...

Sea levels rising by metres, extreme phenomena... it all sounds rather familiar. A recent report by the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) states that sea levels may rise by up to 2.5 meters (in Dutch). In this worst-case scenario, we will already come close in this century to the limit of being able to mitigate rising sea levels by pumping water in a tectonic (and through gas extraction) sinking swamp like the Netherlands. Not to mention the overall longer-term rise in sea levels.

At the same time, the UN is warning against sand dredging in the North Sea (in Dutch). It is actually a form of ecological and heritage vandalism. Nature in the North Sea is being permanently damaged. And although the finds from the Sand Motor offer interesting glimpses into the past, their value as a beach find is close to zero compared with decent archaeological documentation of provenance, context and association.

The Sand Motor with its fascinating finds is like the G1 hunebed, but then in an alternative reality: a reality in which the gunpowder holes did get filled and the monument ended its life as anonymous stones propping up a dike. But if we do not change our ways (or rather, our emissions), that dike will be futile.

To govern is to look ahead: dikes, pumps, water management… are all useless if we do nothing about rising sea levels. The distant past teaches us how gigantic the scope of these changes can be. (Sea levels rising by 120 metres in just a few thousand years!) It also teaches us that this change is not always gradual, but can be abrupt and catastrophic.

The lack of results from The Hague’s very recent past offers little hope for the future. Hence an appeal to The Hague from an archaeological perspective: in the next parliamentary term, don’t let party-political interests topple another cabinet but develop instead a long-term climate vision and act accordingly! (And earmark more money for proper heritage management in the at times megalomaniacal infrastructure interventions).

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