"The experts told Fort Frederica staffers that 4th and 5th graders were too young to learn the complexities of archeology. They were wrong."
The person who described archeology as "the pursuit of gentlemen scholars" never considered a simple fact about soil: it can be deadly. In the desert, a cubic foot of it can weigh up to 140 pounds. Take the recent excavation of an historic well in downtown Phoenix. As the well's profile was being photographed, an archeologist attempted to step out of the hole. The well face collapsed, burying her chest-deep. The woman, rescued after a 911 call, spent a day in the hospital.
The accident prompted OSHA and city safety officials to visit the site to see what went wrong. City archeologist Todd Bostwick, a witness, was left pondering an aspect of the profession that is too often taken for granted. Archeology can be a dangerous business.
The perils of archeology are not restricted to collapsing trenches. Archeologists risk exposure to Lyme disease, valley fever, rabies, hantavirus, cryptococcosis, and an assortment of toxic wastes.
It occurred to Bostwick that archeologists are often unaware of the potential hazards of their work. So he and John Hutira, a project manager with a cultural resources firm, created "Archeology and Safety," a workshop designed to heighten awareness.
The workshop was a sobering experience for Carol Ellick, public education coordinator for Statistical Research, Inc. Driving home, she recalled one of her own experiences in the field: working in an orchard while spraying was going on nearby, which may have caused the headaches and fatigue she experienced afterward. She thought of the time a dig partner had excavated in a 3 x 3 foot hole that was almost 10 feet deep. The soil was a fine-grained, sandy loam, and each time a bucket was set down on the edge, bits of the wall would crumble. "We've all excavated in holes that were dangerously deep," she says, "and were very lucky."
Since 1970 and the advent of contract archeology, the number of excavations has mushroomed. Crews work the field longer, going from project to project, which amounts to an overall increase in exposure. Michael Fink of the Arizona Department of Health—one of the few to have written on health hazards in archeology—says that just the fact that archeologists spend so much time around dust poses a potential threat. "One never knows what's on those dust particles," he says. Aerosolized droplets of urine from rodents, for example, are known to carry hantavirus. In 1993, there was an outbreak of the disease in the Four Corners area, resulting in several deaths. Trash and packrat middens are a potential source of hantavirus, whose symptoms are similar to the flu, but which can obviously get much worse.
There are a number of fungal spores that, when stirred up with dust and inhaled, can have effects ranging from flu-like symptoms to sinus and pulmonary infections. In advanced cases, lung damage can result. Coccidioidomycosis (valley fever), mucormycosis, histoplasmosis, cryptococcosis, and blastomycosis are all fungus-borne. The list gets longer and the symptoms more worrisome when ticks, spiders, snakes, and scorpions are considered. Archeologists "need to tell doctors where they've been and what they've done," says Fink.
For Ellick, the issue was important enough to warrant attention at the national level. She contacted Bostwick about cosponsoring a workshop at the Society for American Archaeology's annual meeting in Minneapolis last May. "Archaeology and Safety: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You" was the result. The workshop featured Mitz Del Caro of the Minnesota OSHA office, industrial hygienist Charles McJilton—an expert in toxic waste—and Dan Williamson, who represents a manufacturer of hydraulic trench-shoring equipment. Bostwick recounted the Phoenix incident (complete with slides), and Fink discussed infectious diseases.
To those who may suggest he's exaggerating the problem, Fink says he is calling attention to the potential of sickness and injury. One of the workshop's main objectives, says Ellick, was simply to clarify "who to contact and what you should know before you go into an area to dig or do a survey."
One thing to know is past land use. It's entirely possible, for example, to find oneself knee-deep in PCB-laden soil. Fink remembers an excavation in which the crew discovered pipes full of a black syrupy substance. "We didn't know what it was, but we had to leave." A member of a crew searching for the 1691 bulkhead of the historic Derby Wharf in Salem, Massachusetts, recalls everyone having to don protective masks because the harbor was loaded with lead contaminants from 18th century tanning. Lead-laced sediments, freeze-dried by the winter temperatures, swirled around the site when the wind blew in off the harbor. Historic period bottles can also contain toxics, such as radium.
OSHA, says Bostwick, plays little active role in monitoring sites or informing archeologists. Many say there is plainly "some confusion" on what OSHA's role is. Safety standards often differ from state to state, and although they must all meet OSHA minimums, this makes it difficult for crews to keep track.
OSHA does have explicit standards for construction excavations, with fines of up to $7,000 for violations. Citations can be issued for not having a person versed in the standards on site, for inadequate access to it, for sharing drinking cups, and for the absence of shoring. By many accounts, however, these standards are seldom enforced at archeological excavations.
Thanks to recent efforts like hers, Ellick says that "OSHA is now beginning to look at archeological fieldwork and realizing that standards need to be developed." Says Bostwick, "It's been a lack of information on both sides." Part of the problem is a reluctance to call attention to a project. Another is a long-standing attitude of complacency, the assumption that somehow digging for artifacts doesn't entail risk.
Some report a troubling but pervasive attitude that archeologists are lucky to be working in their chosen field and so are not expected to be too particular. Recalling the colleague who dug in the unstable pit, Ellick says the message is "If you don't do this job, there's someone else waiting in line."
One archeologist involved in promoting safety says that because contract archeology is so competitive, firms are reluctant to adopt safety measures that might add to a project's cost. He suggests that contractors be instructed to separate out safety costs when bidding on projects.
The most common hazard, says Bostwick, is a lack of shoring. "You could probably walk onto many of the archeological sites in this country and see instances where they are violating shoring and trenching standards," he says. This despite what he describes as "an amazing variety" of hydraulic shoring devices considered effective on construction sites. One model operates like a piston, expanding and exerting pressure on either side of a trench. These units, placed at four-foot intervals, leave the trench profile visible. Some companies will customize equipment.
The potential for innovation is great, but, says Bostwick, "there's no dialogue because archeologists aren't using [the equipment]." Another archeologist observes that, for digs and surveys associated with highway construction, an investment is made in flashing barricades to ward off traffic but not in shoring equipment.
Clearly there's still a lot of work to do. Bostwick recently witnessed attendees from the Phoenix workshop in deep, unshored trenches. And the turnout for the SAA session was dispiriting. One of the participants asked "Why, if there are 2,000 people attending this conference, are there only 8 of us in here?"
There are signs, however, that some are getting the message. One firm, among many calling for information after the recent workshops, plans to incorporate the SAA outline into its company manual. In Iowa, the office of the state archeologist now complies with federal occupational safety standards. Supervisory archeologists and field crews must be familiar with safety procedures and document measures taken to comply.
Meanwhile, Ellick is planning another session at the SAA annual meeting next year. She sums up the situation succinctly. "Archeologists are working in very unsafe conditions. We need to work with OSHA so that we can be safe and do our jobs."
For more information, contact Ellick at (520) 721-4309