At the Well blog


Past for the future: Perspectives of maritime archaeological research in the pursuit of sustainability

Photo: Katerina Velentza

Maritime archaeology provides a huge potential to contribute to the handling of the current climate crisis, writes Kone Foundation grantee Katerina Velentza. Her current project explores the possible re-introduction of traditional, non-polluting watercraft in the Aegean Sea, in Greece, as a step towards a more sustainable environment and economy in the region.

In the face of the current climate emergency, human societies have been called to action to put an end to the anthropogenic destruction of the planet and build a sustainable world. Policymakers, stakeholders, scientists and communities have been mobilized to tackle the impacts of climate change, create mitigation strategies and build climate resilience for the future.

Even though slightly disregarded in the popular media, the significance of the humanities as well as cultural heritage in dealing with the climate emergency has been manifested in the work of several projects, working groups and initiatives. Part of this is the Climate Heritage Network that released a manifesto on ‘Accelerating Climate Action through the Power of Arts, Culture and Heritage’, as part of the 2021 UN Climate Conference (COP26) held in Glasgow.

But, what about maritime archaeology? How could maritime archaeological research contribute to climate action?

Maritime archaeology involves the scientific study, recording and interpretation of material culture related to past human interactions with any aquatic environments including seas, oceans, lakes and rivers. As a field, maritime archaeology incorporates several specializations including underwater archaeology, coastal archaeology, nautical archaeology, island archaeology and maritime ethnography, while also utilizing elements of maritime history, marine biology, oceanography, maritime law and naval architecture. This multi-faceted character of maritime archaeology creates straightforward possibilities for interdisciplinary adaptations and therefore provides a huge potential to contribute to the handling of the current climate crisis.

Photo: Katerina Velentza

First and foremost, the maritime archaeological expertise on submerged sites and environments, including underwater depositions and site formation processes, can provide impactful data for the planning of mitigation strategies required for coastal and land areas expected to deal with flooding or submersion due to the expected extreme weather events and sea level rise.

Furthermore, maritime archaeologists researching human-environment interactions over different regions, eras and historical circumstances could provide examples from human history that could help build future durability into communities and regions of the modern world.

Moreover, the projected impacts of the climate crisis, including global warming, sea level rise, droughts and other extreme weather events pose a threat to coastal, already under water, and other inland heritage sites and cultural heritage assets which could be impacted by the changing nature of environments in their surroundings. So, the role of maritime archaeology working already in the protection and preservation of cultural heritage assets will be of great significance.

Finally, the study of local, indigenous, traditional and historical knowledge in relation to maritime spaces through maritime ethnography has been a very active field of the discipline. From the first stages of conception of the global sustainability goals, local, historical, and indigenous knowledge have been considered a significant asset in the pursuit of climate resilience. Especially local and indigenous maritime people have known and lived with dynamic aquatic environments for centuries. Hence, they have developed traditional ways of building resilience, mitigating their activities and improving their livelihoods while helping the natural environment to recover. The recording and promotion of this local, indigenous, traditional and historical knowledge would be another contribution that maritime archaeological research could offer.

Photo: Katerina Velentza

My project ‘Re-imagining the use of traditional watercraft in the Aegean Sea for a sustainable environment and economy’, funded by Kone Foundation at the University of Helsinki between 2021 and 2024, attempts to highlight the applicability of maritime archaeological research in the pursuit of sustainability.

This project explores the possible re-introduction of traditional, non-polluting watercraft in the Aegean Sea, in Greece, as a step towards a more sustainable environment and economy in the region. The project firstly documents the changes in the use of traditional watercraft in the Aegean Sea and particularly the shift from wooden non-fuel boats to polluting motorboats as it occurred during the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

Moreover, the research aims at determining the socio-political circumstances that led to this transition, as well as the impact that this change had on the local economies, the coastal communities and the marine environment. Finally, the project assesses the possibility of a successful re-introduction of traditional watercraft for various modern maritime activities taking place in the coastal areas and islands of the Aegean. The social impact, the reaction of the local communities, as well as the positive outcomes for the creation of sustainable local economies that preserve the natural marine environment are examined.

Overall, this project aims at demonstrating the relevance of the past to the future of people within maritime regions such as the Aegean Sea in the eastern Mediterranean that is already impacted by extreme weather, climatic and other natural changes due to the global warming and the overexploitation of the local natural resources. It is hoped that this unique approach will make the methodology and results of the project applicable elsewhere in the world, manifesting that recording, preserving, and learning about the past can help to build a better future.

The first fieldwork of the project will be held in the summer of 2022. You can keep up with the latest developments here:

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