First global archaeological climate summit successfully concluded – Research findings adopted as a climate declaration

Solutions from the past for a sustainable future


Everyone is talking about climate change. In order to meet the challenges of global warming today and in the future, it is not only necessary to take a critical look at tomorrow’s actions, but it is also important to look back in the distant past. This was the issue of the first worldwide archaeological summit on climate change at Kiel University (CAU) in Germany. It dealt with findings from and about the past which are crucial for the current discussion.

Archaeology and climate change have more points of contact than it seems at first glance. “There have always been significant climate events and people have always reacted to them. This can be proven by research. Parallels can be drawn to the present day – even with a long-term view over the millennia. Findings about climate change from the past and the consequences of such changes can also be helpful today,” says Prof. Dr Johannes Müller from the Kiel Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology, explaining the interest of his research area in the current discussion. How great the interest of experts has developed became evident at the very first “Summit on Social Archaeology of Climate Change (SACC)”, which archaeologist Müller initiated together with his colleague, Prof. Dr. Peter Biehl, from the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC). The summit took place as part of the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) organised at Kiel University.

A total of 45 international scientists and representatives of international organisations from the fields of archaeology, monument protection and climate research came together virtually for the “extremely successful climate summit” (Müller) to jointly compile the results of their research on (pre)historic climate events and discuss them in relation to the current situation. The common goal was to gain insights from the past that can also help us to better understand current transformation processes today and build social resilience.

Several such insights became apparent, as described in a joint global climate declaration at the end of the summit. One such insight, for example, points to the close connections between sustainable economies and social factors, which are visible over millennia, Müller explains. Societies with sufficient cohesion and a good social balance are better equipped to manage resources more sustainably and to develop further forms of sustainability that can mitigate climatic stress in the long term. 

In the past, the use of resources varied significantly. There were societies with sustainable management, but also those that had to abandon their settlement sites after several generations due to overexploitation of the environment. “What is striking is how dependent positive resource management is on the social constitution and integration capacity of societies,” states Müller. “Societies with large social differences, in which the integration of internal or neighbouring groups is not successful, do not seem to be able to practice resource management that enables adaptability to environmental changes in the long run.”

Another important aspect is mobility. “In-migration and out-migration are basic principles of human society. In almost every sedentary society of the last ten thousand years, up to 30 percent of the population is mobile,” summarises Müller from the research. However, involuntary forms of migration are repeatedly observed involving, e.g., “climate refugees”– people who had to leave their homes because of violence over resources that become scarcer due to climate change.

But there are also positive messages in the declaration, says Müller: Archaeological research shows that climate change and natural disasters often did not leave people helpless. They also actively and creatively tried to find solutions.

Two results emerge as a conclusion of the climate summit: In order to act sustainably and thus also to react to climate change, enhanced cohesion should be fostered and maintained within and between societies. For millennia, this was only the case if social injustices were kept to a minimum, otherwise intra- and inter-societal disputes became too great. Secondly, the basic pattern of mobility, which has been part of human societies for millennia, should not be restricted. “Open borders quite often enable progress that would otherwise not be possible.”

Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA)

The archaeological climate summit took place within the framework of the Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA), the largest archaeological congress in Europe. This year’s organiser was the Johanna Mestorf Academy at Kiel University with its Cluster of Excellence ROOTS and the Collaborative Research Centre 1266. More than 2500 participants from 66 countries held presentations on the topic of “Widening Horizons”. Within this setting, EAA President, Prof. Dr. Felipe Criado-Boado, pointed out that: “Kiel, as the venue for the EAA Annual Meeting 2021, symbolises the widening of horizons through the integration of natural and life sciences into archaeology, through the inclusion of the most diverse horizons between East, West, North and South, and through the development of new research centres that build on proven examples.” Schleswig-Holstein’s Minister of Education, Science and Culture, Karin Prien, described the central position that archaeology assumes in the research priorities of Schleswig-Holstein, and University President, Simone Fulda, emphasised the crucial role that archaeology plays in the internationalisation strategy of Kiel University.

Climate change was also a crucial topic during the Annual Meeting of the EAA, leading to the adoption of a European “Kiel EAA Declaration”. It states, among other things that climate change endangers archaeological legacies. Climate-related forces affecting archaeological sites include coastal erosion, sea-level rise, droughts, floods, the drying of soils, such as peat, soil erosion, increasing frequency and intensity of forest fires, changes in weather leading to extreme heat, rainfall and storms, changes in vegetation and biodiversity, permafrost thawing and glacier melting. Accordingly, archaeological heritage management will face entirely new challenges. A rethink in many areas is necessary.

Opening ceremony of the Kiel Annual Meeting of the European Association of Archaeologists:

EAA Kiel homepage:

Prof. Dr. Johannes Müller
Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology
Kiel University, Germany
: +49 431 880 3391

Prof. Dr. Peter F. Biehl
University of California, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz, California
 +831 459 3336; +831 459 5079

Working on an archaeological site
© Jan Piet Brozio CAU/UFG

Archaeological excavations uncover history layer by layer. The data on environmental and social developments illustrate the tragedy of climate change.

Expedition vehicle on a road
© Johannes Müller, CAU/UFG

The worldwide cooperation of CAU Kiel led to Kiel being able to host the largest European archaeology conference (in the picture an expedition of the Collaborative Research Centre "Transformation Dimensions" in Southeast Europe).