Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (Part 2)

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With summertime coming around again, it is time for archaeologists to post photos of breathtakingly dangerous practice. I wonder sometimes if the digital age will eventually help improve practice at archaeological excavations through public censure and raised awareness. I’m not sure–my first Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (part 1) was posted in 2011 when I was shocked and outraged at stunning disregard for the wellbeing of workers displayed in photographs in the New York Times. But have things changed? Apparently not.

I was alerted to this particular instance from BAJR’s Facebook page, and there are nearly 100 similarly outraged comments below the link. The university backing the project has been notified by members of BAJR, but can we all agree to stop this now? This is not something that we should be teaching students. Projects that post photos like this should not be funded and should come under serious censure.

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We need to do better. We need to teach proper health & safety to the next generation of archaeologists. We need to require project directors and supervisors receive rigorous training.

This 2x1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.
This 2×1 was excavated to a depth of 3 meters.

Curious about health & safety on archaeological sites? A good start is the CIfA’s Risk Assessment documents:

Lest you think this is UK-only, you can garner a very handsome fine from OSHA:

OSHA guide for trenches & excavation:

OSHA Trench Excavation Fact Sheet:

* All trenches over 1.5 meters require a protective system.
* All trenches require safe means of egress at all times.

As I said in my previous post:

Never work over your head. Never let anyone tell you that it is a good idea or that you aren’t being tough enough. Never work alone.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

8 thoughts on “Health & Safety for Academic Archaeologists (Part 2)”

  1. Couldn’t agree more on this, perhaps because I was lucky enough to be part of (some) very safety-conscious research teams.

    One year, we managed to have a different student speaking out basic emergency procedures in front of the entire team, every day. Point was: minimise risk, but don’t be fooled into thinking you can avoid accidents, big and small.

    But more to the point of photographs, I would advise with equal urgency against unhealthy practice that is less visible – less prone to generate well-documented cases for outrage – and equally dangerous, such as lifting heavy weights (wheelbarrels, rocks, buckets..) or keeping the same position for a long time without pause (e.g. on your knees). This is so obvious of course, but I can’t say common sense is a good guide to habits. Sometimes you’re young and strong, sometimes you want to show off, or affirm independence (girls, I’m looking at you), but really, don’t do this. Ideally, supervisors should enforce weight limits on buckets & co. And, yes, this is marginally less of a problem when you’ve got workers supporting the archaeologists.

    Stay safe this summer!

  2. It can’t hurt–to publish the pictures now they are so easy to take and post! Glad you see the need and can do something meaningful to spread the word. Just hope no one decides to glamorize the risks involved.. People are perverse. –Carol

  3. Reblogged this on BLACKWATER LOCALITY #1 and commented:
    I have personally encountered some seriously ridiculous practices; nearly all from summer dilettante professors playing at archaeology. With a few exceptions, they get people hurt, destroy sites, and make foolish decisions.

  4. Great post – another picture from the same facebook link shows an alarming lack of safety measures when using a grinder to sharpen a shovel.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly that the safety of workers, especially students, is of the utmost importance, and it has been on this project. I would like to take the chance to respond to this post and to some of the comments that have been posted on the BAJR Facebook page.

    My decisions as the director of SCAP come from a decade of experience with the specific geological and environmental conditions of this place and from the training I received from archaeologists who have worked here for the entirety of their careers. I assure you that the safety of the crew is continuously and carefully considered. To address a few small points for which I see no need for long explanation:

    ·The crew is required to wear work boots except in the process of cleaning and mapping intact living floors when their presence may damage the archaeological record. When someone has removed their boots, no shovels are being used.

    ·What you are seeing weighted by cinder blocks is not a breeze block but a tarp covering a portion of the excavation that is not currently active. No crew member would be under, or even near, those cinderblocks which are carefully situated on fairly flat ground far from the edges of the trench.

    ·Our back dirt pile was gradually moved further from the edge of the excavation as the unit expanded. The portion of the pile that is close to the unit edge has been compacted purposefully to decrease the chance of erosion, but we’ve certainly learned our lesson about starting it so close.

    ·You’re absolutely right about the tools near the edge of the unit. While we discussed this with the crew, we did not do a good job of enforcing it.

    The most legitimate concern, which I am very used to explaining when asked, is about the depth of the trenches. The ability to dig trenches of this depth safely without shoring is a result of the unusual local geology. The deep loess that makes up the Natchez Bluffs has an exceptionally high angle of repose and thus remains remarkably stable in dry conditions. Many towns and homes in the region are situated directly on the edge of these nearly vertical bluffs and sloughing only occurs when the soil becomes thoroughly saturated with water. Vertical road cuts more than 5 m tall are common in this region and remain stable for decades. Our trenches do not come close to the height of these road cuts and show no signs of cracking, slumping, or sloughing. Should signs of those conditions ever appear due to water getting into an excavation area, appropriate methods would be taken to mitigate the damage, and weather conditions are closely monitored so that we are never working in or near trenches during rain. The safety of the crew was thus carefully monitored. Moreover, the strategy was designed with their safety in mind based on mound excavation strategies that have worked without incident in this region for over 70 years.

  6. Dear Megan,

    I intentionally did not name names so as not to impact the online results for your project, nor for yourself. While I do not know you, we have friends in common and I wish all the best for you. My interest is in promoting better practice in the discipline.


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