Ines Nastali
Washing away history? How climate change influences Thames archaeology

During the last months, I interviewed a lot of people working around the London (and English) Thames coast, mainly doing archaeological work on the foreshore. For my master's project at City University London, where I am finishing the MA Science Journalism with this project, I wanted to know how the changing climate influences the historic relics that hide underneath the water and come to light when the tide is low. 


The London river history is slowly vanishing due to rising sea levels and the resulting erosion as well as the change of sediment, the researchers and community archaeologists told me.


I then approached more researchers working on the Thames, one is a dendrochronologist who analyses the environmental data stored in tree rings, which is one key to unlock the climatic history of the Thames


The other scientist is reviewing the method to use rubbish as flood defence, stored in landfills that were built near the Thames. They are exposed to the changing climate now as well and could potentially erode out and pollute the river and designated wildlife are around them.


Based on all their stories, I created videos, I took pictures and created more interactive stories for you to dive into the history of the Thames, discover, what is protecting London from the North Sea at the moment (except the household waste from the 1980s) and how future archaeology might look like when there may be only plastic bags left of us, buried on the foreshore.


A greenish glaze can be medieval

15 May 2015


Before you can go and explore the shore, the archaeologists from the Thames Discovery Programme talk you through what you can expect to find on the shore. So, before you get hands, clothes, hair and nose near any mud, you should watch this video and learn:





When the Thames was a major highway in London

22 May 2015

Scroll through the timeline and learn how Londoners crossed the river a couple of hundred years back - because at that time, there were no bridges...

These watertaxis will be part of a new project the community archaeologists will explore this coming summer. Hear also Nathalie Cohen speak about the new project, who is involved and why it is important:



Now, off to Greenwich!

17 May 2015

Now that we know what to look out for when going on an archaeological adventure at the foreshore, we should get an overview of the area that we are exloring, so watch this short video and familiarise yourself with the Greenwich foreshore:





Thames Discovery Programme
Eroding Almhouse stairs at the Greenwich foreshore in 1996 (left) and 2013 (right)
Gustav Milne talks climate change and the Thames

20 May 2015

In the next video you can hear Gustav Milne, working for the Thames Discovery Programme, talk about how the River Thames in Greenwich changed over the last one hundred years and how this is attributable to climate change. He also has an advice for us, what he thinks we should do, to flee from the rising water level!



His statement shows how important it is for archaeologists to record and update their data as the material and sites they work with can change quickly. Depending on the tidal range, which is in general several metres in case of the Thames, they sometimes discover a timber or part of a pathway that will not be there the next time they visit the site. 

This applies to the climate change phenomenon as well. Erosion due to rising sea levels, and resulting Thames level rising, is changing the outline of the foreshore constantly. 



This is the foreshore of Bermondsey over the last ten years

Bermondsey 1995
Source: Thames Discovery Programme
Bermondsey 2007
Source: Thames Discovery Programme
Bermondsey 2009
Source: Thames Discovery Programme
Bermondsey 2013
Source: Thames Discovery Programme
Ines Nastali
"They will come up with a mad idea saying it's a religious thing"

21 May 2015

 ...what is he talking about?

He, Eliott Wragg, working for the Thames Discovery Programme, is talking about what future archaeologists will say about our extensive use of plastic bags. He also answers the question what future archaeology might look like.

Hear him also talk about why the community work they are doing is important and why dumping rubbish used to serve a purpose. 






Eliott Wragg tells you more about the Thames

21 May 2015

Hover over the picture and click on the microphones to listen to Eliott Wragg talking about the history of Thames pollution and what is being done today to keep the rivers status of being the "allegedly cleanest urban river in Europe".





Ines Nastali
Timbers and an anchor at the Greenwich shore.
Let's hear the community archaeologists!

28 May 2015

During the foreshore recording of historic remains done by the Thames Discovery Programme, I had a chat with some of the community archaeologists about why they are there and if they witness how the Thames shore is changing.  





Thames Discovery Programme
A walkway at the Bermondsey Thames shore, left in 1995 and right during recording in 2009.
Time for a short recap...

29 May 2015

... so by this point we have learnt how the community archaeologists do their work, how cleaning the foreshore remains and taking pictures of them helps to identify London's rich river related history.

It is also not deniable that the rising sea level influences the River Thames in London and that the Thames Barrier in Woolwich keeps the sea out but in the end, London has to move up north - as far as the Peak District maybe ;)

I also learned that the regular boat service on the Thames accelerates the washing off of historic remains and  that the foreshore is vanishing more and more, which is dangerous on the one hand but interesting for archaeological findings that lay underneath the sand and gravel.

So, after I learned all these things mainly from speaking to members of the Thames Discovery Programme, it is time now to move on.

I am going to prepare two more articles to let you know what else is happening around the Thames. For instance, I spoke to James Brand who is a researcher at the Queen Mary University in London.

Here is a picture of what he is dealing with:


James Hamilton Brand landfill waste 1980s

Right, waste. This is no ordinary waste, this is waste from a 1980s disposal site that was filled near the Thames in Essex and James' work is to examine if this landfill could harm the Thames should it erode out - caused by climate change.

I also spoke to dendrochronologist Nigel Nayling from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. He - simply speaking - analysis the rings of trees in order to read the saved environmental data that is in the tree's structure.

Stay tuned and learn what this has to do with climate change!





The rubbish flood defence – built from 1980’s household waste

1 June 2015





Thames Discovery Programme
Trees: storing century-old environmental data

1 June 2015

A lot of the material that is found on the foreshore is wood: ship timbers, jetties, walkways, stairs - wood was the preferred material in the past (and of course it is still used today) for construction.

A lot of the timbers at the foreshore are actively eroding and have been, over the last centuries. This also means this wood stores a lot of information, about the weather of the nearby area – so for example the climatic zone, the changing climate and of course the age of the wood. Wood is sensitive to change.

tree rings

With help of the date rings, scientists can examines a pattern of climate, was it always sunny where the wood is found, so how much solar radiation did the tree receive?: “Oak trees are especially good for dating as they produce date rings every year, while pines are challenging."

Nigel Nayling

The science behind dating trees based on their yearly tree rings is called dendrochronology. Doctor Nigel Nayling is working at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David and does exactly this.

“When taking samples, it is important to maintain the integrity of the object and the information return must be appropriate,” he explained, standing at the Thames foreshore. A sample should always be a cross section of the object, to get the complete overview of all data and time involved.

“This is erosion in action,” Nayling says about the waves coming in continuously especially caused by the Thames Clipper that is passing by every 30 minutes.

In order to see how stones, timber and other material is moving on the shore, Nayling marks the material he finds, with paint or simply by attaching small cardboard tags to bigger, more stable timbers.

marked material

Dendrochronologists work with the so called radiocarbon dating. Radiocarbon is an isotope of carbon, it is unstable and weakly radioactive. It is part of the atmosphere and therefore taken in by plants and animals through cellular respiration. At the point when the organism dies the radiocarbon exchange stops and the remaining amount slowly decays.

Therefore, the amount of radiocarbon left in the organism can help to determine how old the organism was when it died. About all organic material can be dated by this method.

“We get a signal from trees, from now back until the ice age,” Nayling said. This means the scientists can work with trees that are up to 5000 years old.

Caution needs to be taken when it comes to dating correctly as the wood can be re-used. “Marks and joints that have no apparent need in their current position can be a sign that the wood is older than other parts of a construction,” Nayling explains how to determine whether the wood is second-hand material.

palace walkway

Material being situated in a wet environment like the foreshore is also practical for scientists as “with water you get life, plants that reside in the water for example, which you don’t have in a dry area,“ Nayling said. With plants he refers to microfossils for example, preserved remains and traces of animals or plants from the past.

But also: “living trees can show that with begin of the industrial revolution, which meant an increase in fossil fuels, there is a cause of link to the impact of the atmosphere”.

So, his work is also helping to pin down the changing climate. So especially historic remains are datable with the radiocarbon method because they contain a lot of different wood and organic material from over a long time, and so help shaping a comprehensive picture not only of human activity but also of the environment.





Ines Nastali
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