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Professor Part of New Research on Archaeological Site Destruction

Dec 7, 2017

Indiana University South Bend Associate Professor of Anthropology and Social Informatics Josh Wells is part of a team of researchers who have examined how projected sea-level rise will destroy archeological sites in the southeastern United States. The results of the work involving researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, IU South Bend, Alexandria Archive Institute, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and others have been published in PLOS ONE, an open access journal.

Sea-level rise and archaeological site destruction: An example from the southeastern United States using Digital Index of North American Archaeology is a peer-reviewed article that examines how sea-level rise and human population relocation will impact vast numbers of archaeological and historic sites, cemeteries, and landscapes past and present on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the southeastern United States.

Like books, each archeological site provides a window into the struggles and achievements of people in the past. Viewed this way, projected sea-level rise will destroy entire libraries in the coming decades, and the record of millennia of human occupation in coastal settings. Just in the remainder of this century, if projected trends in sea-level rise continue, over 13,000 recorded archaeological sites in the southeast alone will be submerged, including over 1,000 listed on the National Register of Historic Places as important cultural properties. Many more sites and structures that have not been recorded yet will also be lost.

The results published in PLOS ONE come from analysis of data gathered by the Digital Index of North American Archaeology (DINAA) aggregates archaeological and historical data sets developed over the past century from numerous sources, providing the public and research communities with a comprehensive window into human settlement. It is ideally suited for exploring human responses to the dramatic fluctuations in temperature, biota, and sea level over the ca. 15,000 years people have lived in the Americas, informing our understanding of possible human responses to environmental changes predicted for the future.

Dr. Wells led IU’s efforts in this collaborative project that included undergraduates from the South Bend campus in data mining and digital data management, as well as graduate students from the Bloomington campus in ontology research to make continental-scale archaeological data interoperable. Wells has been teaching at IU South Bend since 2008. He has a doctorate and master’s degree in Anthropology from IU Bloomington.

This research is critical to making well-informed forecasts and public policy decisions about the consequences of rapid climate change, extreme weather events, and displaced populations. These are factors that will shape civilization profoundly in the years to come. The study also highlights the critical importance of sharing data and developing partnerships between government agencies, the research community, and the general public to stimulate new research and public understanding that will help protect our nation’s rich heritage.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation as a collaborative project in 2012. In 2016, NSF funded a second collaborative project to expand the effort. Funding was also obtained by Open Context and subcontracted to IU South Bend from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

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