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An Online Guide to Health and Safety for Archaeologists

by Jennifer Palmer


Greg and Amanda wearing orange safety vests on a Phase II roadside excavation, Kingston, Pennsylvania, Summer 1999.  Photo by author.

        Indiana Jones faced Nazis, crumbling tombs filled with snakes, and cult followers on his adventures; real archaeology is fraught with dangers of a different variety.  The following excerpt is from a job description for a federal archaeology position on the USAJobs website, and paints an fairly accurate picture of what most individuals working as archaeologists can expect:

PHYSICAL DEMANDS: Assignments will require a combination of strenuous field work and sedentary office work. Field work may necessitate strenuous exertion including hiking, climbing steep slopes, stooping, bending and exposure to sun, wind and rain.
WORK ENVIRONMENT: Some duties will be performed outdoors. Incumbent must be able to prepare for, and cope with uncomfortable weather conditions that may include temperature extremes (cold snowy winter/spring, hot, dry summer). Hazardous environmental conditions may exist on work sites, such as falling/rolling rock. Incumbent will be required to work in awkward or strained positions that require stooping, stretching, bending, etc, in areas with heights and depressions often in the company of insects, rodents, or poisonous reptiles. Field work requires extensive walking, including traversing deep canyons, often through rock outcrops or dense vegetation, carrying heavy packs of tools and equipment. Incumbent may be required to camp for extended periods under primitive camping conditions.

        This online guide to health and safety will discuss potential hazards that every student of archaeology and field archaeologist should be aware of.  It is based largely on my own experiences working on archaeological projects in cultural resource management in the U.S., though this may also help someone participating in any type of project from a field school to a volunteer project abroad.  Please note: this document was written as a rough guide to some of the hazards archaeologists may encounter in the field.  It is not meant to be authoritative nor comprehensive, but merely food for thought, and perhaps an impetus for further research.  The author takes no responsibility for injuries sustained from the use or misuse of advice offered herein; it's up to you to use your own good judgement and common sense in the field, and to consult with professionals regarding potential hazards where you are planning to work.  Your comments and suggestions regarding this guide are welcome, as this is a work in progress.  Please e-mail me with any corrections or additions if you believe something important was inadvertantly omitted.  My thanks go out to everyone from, HISTARCH, ARCH-L, ACRA-L, and ASNJ who responded with their own hints and tips from many years spent in the field.  Jennifer Palmer, webmaster,

       (Please note:  this guide is still being written, and I wanted to put up what I've finished on thus far. If you would like to author any sections or contribute content, please e-mail me.  I would also like to hear your comments on what has already been written. Thanks.)

Table of Contents

  (This section is still being written!)

Call Before You Dig

Links to Utility Protection Services in the U.S.: Alabama - Alaska - Arizona - California (north) - California (south) - Colorado - Connecticut - Florida - Georgia - Hawaii - Idaho - Illinois - Indiana - Iowa - Kansas - Kentucky - Louisiana - Michigan - Minnesota - Mississippi - Missouri - Montana - Nebraska - Nevada - New York - North Carolina - Ohio - Oklahoma - Pennsylvania - South Carolina - Tennessee - Texas - Utah - Vermont - Virginia - Wisconsin -

Canada: Alberta - British Columbia - Ontario - Quebec 

Here are phone numbers for some other countries:

Australia - Melbourne One Call Service, Inc. - 61 1100 or 1300 652 044
Australia - Perth One Call Service - 61 1100
Australia - Sydney One Call Service, Inc. - 61 1100 or 1800 642 006
Australia - Queensland Call Before You Dig Service - 13 21 29

Finland - Johtotieto Oy - 011-358-09-271-1181
Republic of China - Dig Center, Directorate General of Telecommunications    02-351-2345
Scotland - Susiephone - 800-800-333

Please note: It's your responsibility to find out exactly who you need to notify before you dig.  These links listed above are only a starting point for research.   Make some phone calls, spend some time on the internet, and figure out who you need to contact before you set out for the field.  You'll be glad that you did...and remember, it is likely required by law wherever you're working.

(If anyone has information on similar programs in other states not listed or countries, please e-mail me.)



    I suppose I may have had a good education for my first crew chiefing position, as my boss was not only an archaeologist, but an OSHA trainer.  One of the first things I learned was that on all field projects, even ones lasting for a day, we needed to take along a map to the nearest hospital.  With the internet and sites like Maquest, there is no excuse not to include this with a field supervisor's maps and other material for a new project.  It is a good idea to leave a copy of this map in each field vehicle, as having this information at hand may save precious time in the event of an emergency in the field.

    Each crew member should fill out a medical information sheet when hired on for a project, listing basic information such as information on allergies, someone to contact in an emergency, etc.  If someone has a severe allergy such as bee stings, they should also make this known to their supervisor in the field.

    Field supervisors should immediately fill out an accident report if a crew member is injured in the field.  This procedure has been followed at every company I've ever worked at, and is essential in establishing a worker's comp claim if someone requires a doctor's visitor or hospitalization for their injury.


    A field supervisor should have a cell phone or CB in case outside contact needs to be made quickly in the event of an emergency.  Many remote areas aren't adequately covered by cell phone signals; nevertheless, it's good practice.   If crews are split up while covering a lot of ground during a survey, everyone should have a map and a compass so that they don't end up lost in the woods.  I like to employ walkie-talkies in this sort of situation.


    Some companies like to have crew members dig alone, doing their own shoveling and screening (these are in the minority, in my experience).   Personally, I find this practice undesirable.  Individuals digging and screening alone are more prone to injury from having to constantly put down the shovel, pick up the screen full of dirt, put down the screen, pick up the shovel...  Digging in teams allows individuals to switch off between shoveling and screening, giving crew members a break between activities, as well as a potential morale boost in having someone to converse with.  The added benefit here is that working in teams, a crew member is never alone.  If they injure themselves in the field, their partner will be close by to help out. 



    Many archaeologists don't seem to drink enough water.   One misconception is that you should only drink when you're thirsty; in fact, if you're thirsty, it's a sign your body is already low on water.  People also seem to believe that they only need to drink water in the summer when the weather is hot.   It's actually very easy to become dehydrated at any time of the year... even in the winter.

    Drinking a lot of alcohol the night before an archaeological project isn't advised.  I've seen more than one person become sick the next morning when faced with working in the hot sun after partying the night before.

Nalgene bottle

    People have different ways of toting along water to the field.  Some field directors will bring a 5 or 10 gallon jug along for everyone.   Personally, I don't rely on other people to bring my own drinking water.  Most of the time, these jugs will be filled with tap water from the bathtubs in hotel rooms, and topped off at the ice machine in the lobby.  The water at many hotels is fine, but a word of caution: I have been on at least 2 archaeological crews in the past where everyone has gotten sick from drinking hotel water and ice from this method.  I usually will buy my own spring water from a grocery store (the 2.5 gallon sizes are the most economical), and then bring it to the field in several Nalgene bottles.  These bottles are extremely durable and hold up to a lot of abuse in the field, though I wouldn't recommend freezing them.  Plus, their wide mouth makes them easy to clean out at the end of the day (not washing your water bottles daily is also a good way of getting sick).  I have also been on some archaeological projects in the southern U.S. where people simply tote along a gallon jug of spring water with them in the field.   This method is fine, however, if you choose to do this, be sure to buy water which has a secure twist cap.  It is unpleasant to be left with no water at all for the rest of the day if your jug falls to the ground and empties as you are scaling a fence...especially if you are a few miles from your vehicle, and it's 95 degrees outside.


  Art and Jimmy on a Phase II excavation somewhere in central Florida, 2001.  Photo by author.


    Medical literature seems to suggest that individuals who spend a lot of time outside should wear sunscreen.  Most people believe sunscreen should only be applied in the heat of the summer, but if you are working outside year-round, you may also want to consider applying it at other times of the year.  Whatever you choose for sunscreen is of your own personal preference, though going with a higher spf rating is universally recommended.  I have heard that bottled sunscreen loses its efficacy after sometime in storage (a year? 2 years?) so you might want to pass on the discount bin for this stuff: buy it new and fresh.  Personally, I've had good success using Avon's Skin-So-Soft Bug Guard Plus, which combines an spf 30 sun screen with insect repellent.  A word of warning, however: whatever sunscreen you choose, please try to choose something that does not have a very strong odor, especially if you are digging in an enclosed area or in close proximity to other crew members.  Some folks are very sensitive to strong smells (more on this in the next section on personal hygiene).  To prevent sunburn, you may also want to wear light-colored clothing (incl. long sleeves) and a hat with a wide brim.  I worked in Florida for two years and almost always wore very thin, long-sleeved clothing made out of cotton blends or synthetic fabrics.  My personal favorite for avoiding sunburn in the field (and also not overheating) is clothing made by Ex Officio.  Some of their clothing is made of a 85% nylon/15% polyester blend that is very lightweight and comfortable even when the temperature rises.  Clothing like this is often priced out of the reach of most field techs, so I always shop for bargains on e-bay or for closeouts on  A good pair of sunglasses is also recommended for working in bright sunlight.

    If you've still gotten sunburned, there are many over-the-counter products that will help alleviate your suffering.  I tend to favor products with aloe.  Ask a local pharmacist what he or she recommends.


Personal Hygiene

    I wasn't going to include a writeup on personal hygiene for fear of offending someone, and most people seem to have common sense, but after working in archaeology for many years, I feel it must receive at least a cursory treatment.  There is obviously more than one idea in this world about what constitutes proper personal hygiene.  Some people compulsively shower several times a day, and some once a week, or even less frequently.  Some folks think nothing of wearing the same dig clothes for weeks on end until they're so stiff they can walk away of their own volition.  One person I went to field school with thought it very funny to wear the same pair of socks for 6 weeks without laundering them.  I will only say one thing on this topic: if you have, shall we say, more unorthodox ideas about what proper hygiene means, at the very least, keep your fellow crew in mind.  If you are digging somewhere hot in mid-August in close quarters with a dig or screening partner, they will appreciate someone's decision to shower daily, wear reasonably clean clothing and use deodorant.  Otherwise you may run the risk of making your fellow crew ill.  'Nuff said.


  Vanessa weathering a snowstorm on a Phase II excavation near Liberty, NY, Winter 2002.  Photo by author.

(This section is still being written!) General info about clothing, layering

No matter how many layers you wear in cold weather, it seems that keeping hands warm is always a problem in the field.   I've tried a different approach this past winter which has seemed to work out fairly well for me: I wear a pair of thin liner gloves made of fleece, and switch between several types of  gloves on the outside, depending on the conditions (thick leather gloves for putting up safety fencing, rubber-coated waterproof gloves for wet conditions, etc.).  The plus to wearing a pair of liner gloves is that if you have to take your bulky outside gloves off to write notes, your bare skin will not be exposed to the bitter cold.  Ideally, it would be good to have more than one pair of liner gloves in case the first pair gets wet.  I like to keep extra gloves in a zip-lock bag in my field pack for this occasion, so I always know there will be a clean, dry pair available.



image courtesy of  image courtesy of  image courtesy of  image courtesy of  image courtesy of  image courtesy of
Poison ivy in its various forms, from left to right: poison ivy in summer on the ground; shiny, not shiny, notched, and unnotched - on the same plant, hairy vine climbing a tree in the winter, ground vine, poison ivy bush, and poison ivy leaves changing color in the fall.
(Photos courtesy of Jon at

General info--

If you are working in a heavy area of poison ivy and know that there is no way to avoid touching the plant, you may want to consider purchasing a quantity of cheap canvas gloves that can be thrown away each day.  Gloves in bulk can often be had inexpensively from hardware stores such as The Home Depot.  If you do not want to incur the expense of buying new gloves for each day, you may want to experiment with washing gloves as you go through them each day or two in one of the commercial products such as Technu (read bottles for instructions).  In any case, it's a good idea to come prepared to the field with several pair of gloves.  You never know what you may encounter in terms of poison ivy, and it would not be prudent to continue wearing the same pair of poison ivy-infected gloves repeatedly.




(This section is still being written!)

image from the CDC website:

image from the CDC website:  image from the CDC website:   image from the CDC website:
Deer ticks on a cm scale (adult female, adult male, lymph, and larva); American dog tick; Rocky Mtn. wood tick.

image from the CDC website:   image from the CDC website:
Maps depicting distribution of American dog tick vs. distribution of Rocky Mtn. wood tick in the U.S.

image from CDC website:

Tucking pants into your socks may help prevent ticks from climbing up your pants leg
(photos in this section courtesy of the CDC).



image from the Original Bug Shirt Company -

(This section is still being written!)

    For working in really bad mosquito country, I would recommend the purchase of a bug shirt or jacket.  True, wearing netting on your face and body can be annoying, especially if the weather is hot, but often this is better than being eaten alive.  The best product I've used for this is called The Original Bug Shirt, picture to the left.  At $52.95, many people would consider this very pricey, but if you spend a lot of time dealing with mosquitoes, it may be a worthwhile investment.





Bees, Hornets, Wasps

    It has been reported that one to two million people in the U.S. are severely allergic to stinging insects.  I have been well-aware of the dangers of bees, hornets and wasps as members of my family fall in this category.  There are several steps you can take to avoid being stung.

- If you encounter bees, hornets and wasps, do not flail your arms wildly.  Common wisdom maintains that you should remain calm and hold still - going crazy will only excite them and you'll probably be stung.  Move slowly away from the insects.

- Avoid wearing anything strong-smelling in the field (perfumes, after shave, using heavily-scented shampoos, etc.).

- Some have suggested that bright-colored clothing should be avoided.  This counters the suggestion that you should wear lighter-colored clothing to make spotting ticks easier on your body.  Which is the lesser evil?  Use your own judgement.

- Tucking clothing in (shirt into pants, for example) might prevent a nasty yellowjacket from being trapped next to your skin.

- And in the field, don't be afraid to not volunteer to test in an area with a hornet's nest if you are one of the few who are severely allergic.  This should go without saying, but I've seen people do some, shall we say, less than safe things in the field.  Archaeological work can be important, but not as important as your own health and safety.

    For those who have been stung, there are many over-the-counter sting relief applications (Sting-Eez, Bite-Away, etc).  Obviously those who are severely allergic should bring along whatever their doctor has prescribed for an insect sting.  If you come from a family with a medical history of severe insect allergies or suspect you may be allergic, ask your doctor about being tested...before you come out to the field.

(Preceding information on bees, hornets and wasps from William F. Lyon's Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet HYG-2076-96).



The  Brown Recluse Spider

Brown recluse spider... Image courtesy of Smoke Pfeiffer    This is one critter you definately want to avoid contact with.  The following excerpt is from Dr. Kenneth Burton's The Brown Recluse Spider: Finally Stopped in its Tracks:


Rarely does the patient know they have been bitten by a spider, as the bite is painless. The patient notices later that they have been bitten by something.  It may look as innocuous as a mosquito bite! However, they soon notice the changing appearance of the lesion and the malaise, fever and flu-like symptoms that often occur from 4-8 hours after the bite. If untreated by the nitroglycerin patch there soon forms a series of ulcerations and debridements of varying degrees. Surgical Excisions could span up to 18 months. This is followed by residual disability that is often of a major nature, such as chronic weakness, an inability to stand for extended periods, recurring migraine headaches, loss of limb and even death.

Here are some pictures of an untreated bite 4 days and 10 days after:

an untreated brown recluse bite, 4 days later  an untreated brown recluse bite, 10 days after
    William F. Lyon has a fact sheet on the web which discusses first aid for brown recluse bites, and well as steps you can take to prevent a bite.  Lyon says the brown recluse is found most often in the southern and midwestern states of the U.S., especially Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri.  If you are working in brown recluse territory, do a little research before you hit the field.  See Lyon's fact sheet at the following URL:  Also be sure to read the aforementioned web article by Dr. Kenneth Burton, which discusses his recommendation for treatment which may prevent someone's bite from turning into something nasty like what is pictured above.  This is the URL for his page on the subject: (thanks to Smoke Pfeiffer for material and references on the brown recluse)


The  Black Widow Spider

Black widow spider, image from spiders_scorpions.html    I have only run into a black widow spider once in the field, and I was sure to give it a wide berth.  This is North America's most venomous spider, though most healthy people who are bitten will recover in a few days from a bite (after going through reported "agony").  Black widow webs can be found in dark areas often near the ground, near places such as trash piles, stacks of wood, stones, and near structures.  These spiders will only become aggressive and bite when disturbed.  I don't know what precautions one can take to avoid a black widow other than to be keenly aware of your surroundings and what critters might be lying on the ground where you place your shovel or set down your pack.

    If you are bitten by a black widow spider, you may feel a small pin prick or no sensation at all.  Two red marks may appear where bitten, as well as some minor swelling.  Pain will become intense within 1-3 hours, continuing for up to 2 days, and can spread from a bitten limb into the abdomen or back.  A bite victim may also exhibit other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, shaking, profuse perspiration, and labored breathing and speech, possibly progressing to a weak pulse, clammy skin, unconsciousness, and convulsions.  Very few deaths from black widow spider bites are reported in the U.S. but the risk of death from a bite remains, and immediate medical attention is strongly recommended for a victim of a black widow bite.  If possible, it is also recommended to bring the spider to the hospital to aid in its identification (probably a good idea for any type of serious spider bite so the doctor knows what he or she is dealing with).

(Preceding information on the black widow spider from William F. Lyon's Ohio State University Factsheet HYG-2061A-97).



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    Chiggers are so small (about 1/20th of an inch in size) that it is difficult to see them before it's too late.  In my experience, chiggers have seemed to gather along pant waistbands, their bites looking like another belt going around your waist.  I've always thought that chiggers burrow into your skin - in reality, they secrete an enzyme which causes skin cells to be liquified for easy digestion as food for their larva.  They will finally drop off the skin within four days, leaving behind a red welt with a hard white center on the skin.  This area will then itch severely for up to a week.  Scratching a chigger bite is not advised, as infection could result, though chiggers aren't known to carry diseases. 

    What do you do if chiggers are encountered?  Laundering your field clothes in hot, soap water is recommended, as chiggers are so small that there may be more hiding in your clothes.  Hot water and soap may help to dislodge the chiggers from your skin.   Over the counter itch remedies such as calamine lotion, hydrocortisone, or After Bite may help to relieve the itching.

    You can try to avoid chigger bites by applying a DEET-based insect repellent every few hours, or wearing clothing treated with permethrin.   Tucking your shirt into your pants, and your pant legs into your boots can also help deter them (as well as ticks).

(Preceding information on chiggers from the William F. Lyon's Ohio State University Extension Fact Sheet HYG-2100-98).

Fire Ants

Fire Ant Mounds - image from the Texas Imported Fire Ant Applied Research and Education Program website -     My least favorite insect encountered in the field is, hands down, the fire ant.  I had never encountered such an insect before working in the southern U.S. The thing that struck me about fire ants is that you won't know that there are a dozen crawling up your leg until they all decided to sting you simultaneously.  I used to attribute this behavior to the 'hive mentality' of insects.  However, information from the Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Education Program website suggests that the simultaneous stings are caused by the sudden movement of an individual...not the fire ants necessarily being nasty on purpose (who would have known?).

(To the left, fire ant mounds in a pasture, and below, typical appearance of fire ant stings)

 Fire Ant Stings - image from the Texas Imported Fire Ant Applied Research and Education Program website -    The imported fire ant can be found in many places in the southern U.S.  In the field, try to avoid digging or walking near any mounds above the surface.  Sometimes you will also find them in unlikely places where no mound is apparent (especially if they are building a brand new mound).  One of my most unpleasant memories stems from crossing a deep agricultural ditch in Florida with shovel and screen in hand, immediately having to shimmy on my belly under a rusty barbed wire fence on the opposite bank of the culvert, and coming face-first into several hundred very active fire ants in the sand.  If you are stung by fire ants, your first reaction will be to immediately brush the ants away from your skin.  A small percentage of individuals may be susceptible to systemic allergic reactions to their stings.  Fire ants will leave you with very unpleasant burning, itchness, and redness in the area where you've been bitten.  For relief from these symptoms, I recommend a product called After Sting Fire Ant Sting Relief manufactured by Tender.  A bottle can be obtained very cheaply for $2.90 at the website.  I've also seen this sold at some drug stores and in the camping section of department stores in the southern U.S.  If you are going to be working in fire ant country, do yourself a favor, and throw a bottle of this in your pack.  It can make the difference between a somewhat miserable and an extremely miserable day in the field. ;>

  Scott removing a bull snake from his dig area, somewhere in Florida, 2003.  Photographer unknown.
    And if the insects weren't bad enough, anyone who spends 8 hours a day working outside is bound to run into animals.  Be aware of what you may encounter in the area you are in.   This almost goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: leave the animals alone.   I have worked with several individuals who thought it funny to chase after a cow, or poke a scorpion with a stick during a lull in digging, then wondered why they got themselves in trouble.


    The most frequent undesirable critter I've had to deal with on archaeological projects have been snakes.  Several times, water moccasins have attempted to strike while I've been crossing creeks and culverts, laden down with a heavy backpack, shovel and screen.  I've also had many a snake slither across the top of my boots while walking through the woods, or scatter when my shovel has been inadvertantly thrust into their nest in the grass.  It may be a little unnerving for those who aren't found of the reptiles.  Some people choose to wear leather gaiters or leggings in heavy snake country, which afford some protection. Forestry Suppliers and Ben Meadows both stock a variety of these, but they can also be found in many hunting or sporting goods stores.

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Wild Pigs




Smaller animals (dogs, rabid foxes, armadillos, etc.)

Exotic animals


    Archaeologists may find different types of hazards in different places.  Are you traveling to an area where you haven't worked before?  Are you aware of any potentially hazardous flora and fauna, as well as other things to look out for?  Is your project in another country that you aren't familiar with?  Many field schools and volunteer projects will help to prepare individuals signing onto their projects by giving them information on what they can expect.  I wouldn't rely solely on this information, if it is even given.  Being prepared for anything in the field is a personal responsibility.  In this day and age of the internet, there is no excuse for not knowing some of the things you may encounter in a particular area ahead of time.  Spend a few hours, make some inquiries, and do your research.  It will be time well-spent in the event that you do encounter health and safety concerns somewhere that perhaps you are not familiar with.


    I've been on many a project where hunters have fired shots in my immediate vicinity, or we've stumbled upon hunters with rifles and bows perched above us in tree stands.  It's a little unsettling, to say the least.  What are the hunting seasons where you are going to be working?  Again, spend a little time on the internet, and find the organization in your area which oversees hunting.  Find out if the woods is going to be crawling with hunters where you are.  Will you be working on or nearby public or private hunting lands?  Many agencies recommend the wearing of blaze orange hats and clothing for maximum visibility.  Some companies I've worked for will require their field crew to wear blaze orange vests during the most popular hunting seasons (such as the first two weeks of December's deer season in Pennsylvania).  If you find yourself out in the woods while people are hunting and you forgot to bring blaze orange clothing, here's a quick fix: you can affix a generous amount of brightly colored flagging tape to your clothing and pack to increase your visibility.  It's not as good as the real thing, but it might help in a pinch, especially if you're decked out in brown from head to toe at the same time people are looking to shoot at large brown critters in the woods.  A word of caution, too: just because it's not hunting season doesn't mean people might still not be in the woods with guns (think poachers or those engaging in target practice).  Sometimes the forest is quiet and peaceful, other times it can be a scary place to be.  Try to be aware of what's going on in your surroundings, and take the proper precautions.


    Insects and animals can be hazardous to your health, but don't forget about the hazards posed by your fellow human beings.  They can be just as, if not more dangerous, to archaeologists.

  collapsible survey sign available from  Anyone who has worked in cultural resource management for a length of time has probably been on a road project.  Perhaps the work you were doing was for a road shoulder widening, a bridge replacement, or something else which had you digging shovel tests and/or units in the right-of-way close to the pavement.  Digging so close to traffic isn't always a pleasant endeavor.  Usually drivers will rubberneck to see what people are doing digging holes on the side of the road, or just simply fail to slow down for any reason.  Most companies I've done road surveys for have required their crew to wear blaze orange safety vests and hardhats (as depicted in the photo below - even though I was digging in someone's front yard, it was for a road survey).  Sometimes it is also helpful to have one or two large orange signs (such as the diamond-shaped 'Work Area Ahead') to place in the shoulder to encourage traffic to slow down, and orange traffic cones.  Construction signs are available locally in most places, or online at vendors such as Street Signs USA or The Sign Men. Some companies such as Forestry Suppliers also sell collapsible signs which break down into a compact package for easier transport, like the one depicted to the left.  Be sure your signs aren't placed too close to the road itself, however.  You may be violating the law by doing so, and your sign may be hurled through the air like a projectile by someone who drove a little too close to the shoulder. 

    When working along the side of the road, take care in crossing bridges, culverts, drains, and other obstructions.  Also watch your step - the roadside is often littered with trash that can trip you up such as discarded tires, auto parts, beer bottles, and wire.  Additional dangers await those who are working underneath bridges.  Last winter I found myself working on an excavation in New Jersey where debris frequently flew off the vehicles above on the highway, including chunks of ice and snow from passing automobiles.


For 'stop and go' road surveys (testing in a lot of different places), I'm a big fan of using rotating amber lights that affix magnetically to the roof of whatever vehicle I'm driving.  These are readily available at the aforementioned Forestry Suppliers as well as other vendors and plug into the 12v cigarette lighter outlet of most vehicles.   Sometimes parking on the shoulder of a road can be precarious (not to mention pulling back into traffic), and added visibility is a plus. 


  Jennifer digging in front of a modular home, Scriba, NY, winter 2002.  Photo from the author's collection.
    Working on road surveys as well as other types of projects often means digging on private property.  Usually the client (whether it is the DOT, utility company, etc.) should have already informed the land owner of the work you will be doing before you've ever come out to the project.  There are, however, frequently run-ins with an irate landowner who does not understand why someone may be digging holes in their front lawn.  You may encounter a very unhappy landowner in the field where you are supposed to have permission to dig.  Your field supervisor should be able to handle the situation, and explain why you are working on their property.  Usually an official letter from a CRM company office or client's office as well as a company business card is enough to satisfy most landowners of your intent.  If your explanations are not enough to satisfy a landowner, do not continue to argue your case.  Guns have been pulled on archaeologists in the field by landowners who felt that they were trespassing on their property, and I have had the police called on me several times in these scenarios.  The best thing to do in a potentially dangerous landowner confrontation is to pack up your gear, fill in your holes, apologize for bothering the landowner, and be on your way.  Once you are in a safe location, contact the project manager or field supervisor, who will then deal with the landowner, and secure permission for your return.


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lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes


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    On an excavation, everyone should know how to use the tools they are working with.  In other words, if you aren't familiar with that chainsaw, maybe you should leave it to someone more knowledgeable in the use of that particular tool. ;>

    Watch where you are walking on a dig site.  There may be sharp tools laying around, slick and muddy surfaces to slip on, and open holes or tree roots waiting to trip you up.  Try not to leave shovels in a walkway, or anything else lying around where people can trip on them or otherwise injure themselves.  Generally, a tidy archaeological site is a safer site...and the fringe benefit is that you'll probably have an easier time finding that shovel when you need it if everything isn't a mess.

    If you can, wash your hands before eating or drinking water, or if you're going to stick something in your mouth like a cigarette (not exactly healthy in itself, but I'm not touching this one! ;>).  Some folks I know like to bring along some kind of antibacterial hand lotion for the times when they don't have access to water and soap to wash up in the field.

    While digging, if you stumble upon a buried cable, pipe, or other evidence of a utility, stop and inform your supervisor.

    Archaeology can be hard on the body.  Just ask anyone with bad knees, a bad back, carpal tunnel syndrome, or any other afflictions that are the bane of archaeologists.  If you are doing a repetitive activity for a long time, get up, stretch your body, move around a bit, and take a break.  If you are picking up a screen or heavy buckets laden with dirt, lift with your knees, and not your back.  I usually try to stretch out for a few minutes in the morning before working, especially if I know I'm going to be doing something strenuous.  And if you do hurt yourself, stop what you're doing, and be sure to notify your field supervisor...immediately.


image from OSHA website -
Example of sloping for deep excavation.

image from OSHA website -
Example of benching for deep excavation.

image from OSHA website -
Example of shoring for deep excavation.

Scott's surprise over a collapse of unit wall on a Phase III, Citrus Cty, Florida, 2002.  Photo by author.
It's easy for unit and trench walls to collapse,
in excavations shallow or deep.

Archaeologists often need to excavate very deep holes in order to adequately test an area.  There are limits to how far below the surface units can go in certain types of soils, and other steps that must be taken for deep excavations.  In the United States, the Department of Labor's Occupational Health and Safety Administration (or as it is more commonly known, OSHA) is entrusted with protecting the health and safety of workers, including archaeologists.  29 CFR PART 1926, Safety and Health Regulations for Construction, Subpart P addresses excavations in confined spaces.

    This reg is important for anyone who may be testing in deep soils, and can be referenced at the OSHA website:

1926 Subpart P - Excavations

Some other pertinent webpages on this subject:

Excavations: Hazard Recognition in Trenching and Shoring
Construction: Trenching and Shoring
Excavations: OSHA 2226, revised 2002 (.pdf file)
DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 85-110: Preventing Deaths and Injuries From Excavation Cave-Ins
Oklahoma State University Trenching and Shoring Procedures

In print: Ben Meadows carries a Complete Confined Spaces Handbook. There is also a 22-page booklet printed by J.J. Keller & Associates called OSHA Excavation Standard Handbook, which covers 29 CFR Parts 1926.650 through 1926.652, and includes good illustrations.  This would seem to be an inexpensive way to distribute this information to a company's employees.  If anyone knows where to obtain copies of this publication, please let me know.

Many CRM firms who engage in frequent deep testing have fabricated their own shoring equipment per OSHA regulations.  For those that are interested in the purchase of ready-made shoring, I have compiled a few websites of vendors on the internet.  It is also possible to rent this type of equipment for projects on an as-needed basis.

American Shoring Inc.
Cormier Shoring & Equipment Co. Inc.
Lee Jensen Sales
Trench Shoring Company



  (This section is still being written!)


Each crew on an archaeological project should be equipped with a first aid kit, and someone should know CPR.  Some CRM companies will require field supervisors to be certified in first aid or undergo some type of advanced training in this area.  On many occasions, crew working on archaeological projects may be far from a hospital (or even a road!), so medical emergencies in many cases will have to be addressed in the field.  Ready-made first aid kits are carried by companies such as Ben Meadows and Forestry Suppliers, and usually include items such as band-aids, burn gel, cold compresses, first aid cream, tweezers, gauze, latex gloves, Tylenol or some other pain reliever, and eye wash.  Some of these kits will also come with an abbreviated pamphlet on first aid procedures.  I would suggest also including a more extensive guide to first aid as well for the crew to read, a title such as Paul Gill's Wilderness First Aid: A Pocket Guide or Wilderness First Aid: Emergency Care for Remote Locations. Common situations requiring first aid on archaeological projects include individuals becoming dehydrated, heat exhaustion in warm weather, frostbite in cold weather, minor cuts, insect bites, sunburn, and muscle sprains.

    It is advisable to carry specialty items like a snake bite kit, depending on what the needs may be where the crew is working.  I also like to bring along a few first aid items in my personal archaeology pack (such as aspirin, Benadryl, Motrin, and something for insect bites).  If you have allergies (anything from hay fever to bee stings), it is your responsibility to take care of this as well. Your supervisor should be notified of any severe allergies you may have, in case they may have to administer medication or assist you medically. Some companies provide sunscreen and insect repellent, but this isn't a given, so I always include a supply in my own gear.



(This section is still being written!)

Dangerous Places

Dangerous Places : Health, Safety, and Archaeology, Feder and Poirier, eds, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.
Paperback, 264 pages.

Recommended reading on issues of health and safety for archaeologists in the field.

Also visit these websites for additional info on health and safety; many of these were used as source material for writing this guide:

Poison Ivy (Think you know poison ivy?  Check out this informative website!)


Sources of some products mentioned:

Campmor (field clothing, boots, packs, Nalgene water bottles)
Ben Meadows (first aid kits, snake gaiters)
Forestry Suppliers (first aid kits, snake gaiters)
Botachtactical (Tender After Sting Fire Ant Sting Relief)


    Many people have contributed content, in one form or another, for this project.  Special thanks go out to K. Kris Hirst at (also be sure to check out her Safety First manual for archaeologists!), Alexy Simmons for offering his firm's Health and Safety Manual, D. Clark Wernecke for his safety plan, M. C. Emerson for a field school guide, and Smoke Pfeiffer for sending a CD chock full of information and helpful links.  Additional thanks go out to the following individuals who responded to this project on, HISTARCH, ARCH-L, ACRA-L, and ASNJ, and offered their own advice on health and safety in the field: Morianna Smythe, Suzanne M. Gurenlian, Denis Gojak, Mary Maniery, Bob Hoover, Dan Allen, Nick Honerkamp, Dave Poirier, Kris Oswald, Ryan J. Howell, Douglas Mackey, Margerie Green, Ron May, Stephen Austin, Lenny Piotrowski, David Babson, David L. Browman, Frank Winchell, Carol Serr, Elizabeth Ragan, Ronn Michael, G. Alcock, Gordon Grimwade, Daniel H. Weiskotten, Lee Cranmer, Jane Brown, Hester Davis, James Landrum, Jack Mauldin, Andrew Black, and Rob Mutch. This document is still very much in the works.  If you have any additional information to offer on health and safety for archaeologists, please e-mail me.  Thanks, and try to be safe out there. :) Return to

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