It was a surprisingly sunny and slightly windy day as a group of archaeologists, heritage professionals, climate change specialists, and community members walked out to see some of the archaeological remains half-hidden in the meandering coastlines of Sanday. A place of stunning white beaches and exciting wildlife, the Orkney island of Sanday in northern Scotland is less well-known for its abundant coastal archaeology, which is being revealed, as well as destroyed, by the waves and tides of the mighty North Sea. While the adults were observing and discussing the fascinating evidence of past human activities, keeping a safe distance from the notorious spitting fulmars, local children were laughing and playing nearby. What the children may not know is that, exposed to the effects of a changing climate and rising sea levels, much of Sanday’s coastal archaeology will be lost to them, and rest of the world, in the relatively near future.
Children playing on Augmund Howe Cairn, Sanday [Photo credit: SCAPE]
This summer morning is one snapshot from the 12-day “Learning from Loss” fieldtrip. Throughout the trip, it was inspiring to see the commitment and enthusiasm of community members who are taking the lead in monitoring, maintaining and sharing their local heritage at carved stone and coastal archaeological sites. While in some cases community members work voluntarily to try and slow the rates of deterioration and loss, it is clear that most of these heritage sites cannot be preserved indefinitely in situ. The number of sites is overwhelming and the environmental processes they are subject to are relentless. Therefore, practical realities demand some form of prioritisation, particularly when it comes to the allocation of limited professional and financial resources for investment and protection.
Eroding dune edge with fulmar circling overhead at Newark, Sanday [Photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]
When making a decision on what/how to prioritise, there is a tension between the interests and values associated with individual sites and the need to differentiate at a macro, national level between thousands of sites that are at risk of loss. For much of the trip, we struggled to find an approach that could bring a consideration of “social values” into the macro decision-making framework alongside professional concerns (e.g. historic, scientific and aesthetic qualities) and practical imperatives (e.g. economic demands). Social values refer to peoples’ sense of belonging, identity and place. They are potentially multivocal, sometimes contradictory, and location specific. It is important to note that social values are not static and can change, for example in the light of new information or following material modifications to a site. This is of course also true of the other concerns, though they tend to be seen as more definitive and fixed. When prioritising, we are therefore dealing with the interplay between three complementary but dynamic factors, all of which are subject to change in response to shifts in the community, the site and the context.
Community meeting with residents of Sanday [Photo credit: William Lees]
In meetings with community members during the trip, it became apparent that a complex process of decision-making was taking place locally that might provide some insights into how a larger scale prioritisation exercise could take social values into consideration, albeit indirectly. When discussing the role that heritage plays in their communities, people talked about it within the context of overall sustainability and resilience. Tied up with the loss of physical or intangible heritage were wider concerns of economic viability, the continuation of community lifestyles, opportunities for children and young people, as well as the vulnerability of other community assets, activities and infrastructure to the same natural processes that threaten the archaeology (e.g. coastal erosion and weathering). In the case of Sanday, for instance, the inundation of coastal archaeology would, rather more concerningly for residents, most likely also mean the flooding of much of the island.
Community members stand on the road, just above an eroding ‘burnt mound’ site (partly protected by sandbags) at Meur, Sanday [Photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]
Since every historic site is unique and potentially of significance to one or more communities, comparing specific values may not be that helpful when it comes to establishing a relative prioritisation. Instead, we suggest that consideration of “resilience”, in relation to heritage and communities, could be useful. The concept of resilience was initially developed and applied in the fields of psychology and social-ecology, before being taken up and referenced in other disciplines. In psychology, resilience is often understood as the capacity of individual(s) to thrive despite significant adversity. While in social-ecology, resilience refers to the capacity of a system to continually change and adapt so as to retain essentially the same function, structure and identity. Both of these concepts are potentially helpful in the heritage context.
On the one hand, the role that heritage plays in a community’s collective sense of belonging, place and identity, how fundamental heritage is to a community’s wellbeing, and the opportunities heritage provides to share and sustain these values through economically viable activities, are indicative of how heritage is supporting the overall resilience of the community in the face of social, economic and environmental changes. On the other hand, the ability of an historic site to sustainably provide emotional, cultural and economic opportunities to a community when it is facing sudden catastrophic loss, a prolonged period of deterioration or physical modification (due to conservation, restoration or replication), indicates the resilience of the heritage associated with the site. Advances in science and technology are providing us with creative and innovative ways to retain the values associated with historic sites, but we also see instances where the materiality and location of a site are integral to the social value it holds. We therefore propose that, in terms of the social dimension of the prioritisation framework, the highest priority for intervention (whether preservation, investigation or commemoration) should be given to sites where:
heritage plays a significant role in supporting communities’ overall resilience AND
there is a low probability the social values and benefits associated with the site would be sustained in the face of irreversible changes or loss.
Reconstruction of the Meur ‘burnt mound’. Archaeological deposits at risk of loss were excavated, recorded and then moved to a new location outside the Sanday Heritage Centre [Photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]
Further research is needed to identify how this proposal could be followed through in practice. However, significant work has been done over the last decade in sectors such as international development and disaster risk reduction to identify measures of social resilience. More recently, resilience thinking has been coming through in heritage conservation and critical heritage studies. The concepts of heritage and resilience have already been brought together in the Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in 2015 (see Target 11.4 in particular, although the contributions heritage can make to this global agenda are by no means limited to Goal 11). Such existing discussions might be usefully referenced in developing these ideas further and in exploring the linkages between material and social resilience.
Imagining the original extent of this eroding site at Lopness, Sanday [Photo credit: SCAPE]
It should be noted that we are not suggesting that community priorities or social values are the only ones that should be considered in prioritisation. Some sites that are of relatively little interest to communities currently may be identified as having great potential from a research perspective and therefore warrant investigation and/or preservation. However, consideration of resilience, in relation to heritage sites and communities, could be one way of bringing social and material concerns together in what have, to date, been largely scientifically (in the realm of professional guidance) and economically (in reality) driven decision-making processes. Including reflections on how sites and the heritage associated with them are actively sustaining communities that are themselves responding to global processes of change, would bring the wider context of those communities into the prioritisation framework, helping us to make more informed and nuanced decisions in the protection and utilisation of heritage.
Lowtide at Newark, Sanday [Photo credit SCAPE]
Authors: Elizabeth Robson and Qian Gao, University of Stirling
We would like to thank Joanna Hambly and Siân Jones for their feedback in finalising this blogpost.