Sunburn? Unfortunately. Meeting a stranger with a gun. That’s happened. Dehydration? All the time. Ticks? Yep. Chiggers? My sworn enemy. Snake bite? Mmmhmm.
Going in to the discipline of archaeology, students rarely think of the dangers they may face while out in the field. While many of the dangers of archaeology are occupational hazards for anyone who works outdoors, some of these hazards are unique to archaeologists. Inevitably, every archaeologist will have their own list of what dangers they make sure to stay aware of; for this post (and Part 2 of Dangers of Kentucky Archaeology), I will discuss some of the dangers I think are important- mainly because I have experienced them first hand in the field.
Warning: In order not to scare anyone off the bat, Part 1 will start with some rather routine dangers. Stick around for Part 2 to learn more about the creepy-crawlies archaeologists may encounter in the field!
Back in the summer of 2010, I received some advice from my professor during field school. It went something along the lines of “When you are out in the field, be aware of strangers with guns.”
Fast-forward to 2016, and this advice came to mind twice while I was excavating at one of my dissertation sites. In the first encounter, I had received permission from the landowners to do some survey, but had not yet talked to the farmer. Word travels fast in western Kentucky, and very soon the local farmer came around wondering who was out on his farm. A few minutes into our conversation on why I was out in the middle of a field, he looks over to his wife and says, “Well, now that I know y’all are good people, I can give you [his wife] my gun.” It startled me momentarily because I had forgotten that advice handed down to me during field school.
My second encounter occurred during the first day of deer hunting season at that same site. Not being a hunter, I was (again) caught a little off guard arriving in the field and realizing everyone in the area would be hunting. A few local hunters came by to ask what we were doing on their way to hunt- obviously this was a little less startling than the first instance, but still a good example of how archaeologists should be aware of their surroundings. Luckily, all of these strangers with guns are some of the nicest people I have met: they have opened their homes to me on multiple occasions! Still, these incidences are reminders to be aware.
SHARP POINTY ROCKS & RUSTY NAILS
Often some of the most important artifacts that archaeologists recover at prehistoric sites are projectile points (what many people call “arrowheads”), stone drills, and other lithic (i.e., rock) tools. In the process of making these lithic tools, prehistoric peoples produced a lot of sharp rock debris- what archaeologists call lithic debitage (see photo to the left). The sharp flint that makes up lithic debitage can pose dangers to archaeologists sifting through large piles of dirt because, to put it simply, they are sharp, pointy rocks.
Those who excavate historic sites may have to watch out for other sharp, pointy objects like nails and glass. For that reason, archaeologists try to prevent injury by using leather gloves, or gloves made of thick material, for sifting. For those cases where an archaeologist or volunteer is not lucky, First Aid and knowledge of the nearest hospital are always handy things to have.
POISON IVY & POISON OAK
Speaking of first aid, let’s talk calamine lotion. As my colleagues can attest, beyond being able to identify the fuzzy vine that poison ivy allows to crawl up trees, I have yet to remember what poison ivy (photo on the left) and poison oak (photo on the right) look like in the field. Luckily, while I am a magnet for chiggers (see Part 2 of Dangers of Kentucky Archaeology) I have yet to feel the wrath of a poisonous plant despite my ignorance in identifying these itchy culprits (there is still time though!). That being said, poisonous plants can often be found in areas that archaeologists survey, especially dense forests. This is just one of the reasons that you may notice an archaeologist’s wardrobe often consists of long pants and long shirts, even during the hot summer months.
SUNBURN, DEHYDRATION & HEAT EXHAUSTION
We will end Part 1 with what may be one of the most boring dangers, but still a very important danger, and a very, very common danger. A lot of archaeology involves being out in the sun all day doing shovel tests or excavating units; thus, the dangers of getting a sunburn or getting varying forms of dehydration are always on an archaeologists’ mind. For that reason, sunscreen, bottles of water, and sun-protecting clothing are staples in a good archaeologist’s field bag… unless, of course, that archaeologist is in a cave, then sunscreen isn’t that important!
Want to learn about more of the dangers of archaeology? Not afraid to look at some creepy-crawly critters? Stick around for Part 2 of “Dangers of KY Archaeology”!
Photo Citations (in order of appearance):
- “Construction Reduce Speed Sign,” licensed under CC0 Creative Commons
- “A white-tailed deer” by Scott Bauer (USDA), Public Domain
- Lithic Flakes from 15HE637, surface collection. Photo by Karen Stevens.
- “Poison Ivy” by Stilfehler, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
- “Poison Oak” by Fell Wraith, Public Domain
By: Karen Stevens