Archaeological excavation is destructive. Almost everyone knows that.  We try to mitigate that destruction by careful recording and returning the sites to their original condition as much as possible. I wonder though, how many seriously consider the ecological footprint of archaeological fieldwork, meaning to what degree the process of archaeological fieldwork itself impacts the environment; what are the environmental costs of archaeological fieldwork?

While most students were doing regular archaeology during lab days of field project, Stuart Dow was studying the trash generated from the project. Photo credit: Nadine Ryan.

While most students were doing regular archaeology during lab days of field project, Stuart Dow was studying the trash generated from the project. Photo credit: Nadine Ryan.

Many institutions and individuals indeed do recognize the environmental costs of archaeology and attack it head on. The creation of institutional collaborative projects such as Sustainable Archaeology, for example, can go a long way to reducing waste as well as making research much more accessible (eg, through digitization).  Many archaeologists, such as Rudy Reimer/Yumks, are clear in their intent to have a minimal impact on environments, both natural and cultural, preferring to use existing collections in their research.

Many archaeologists are now going paperless in fieldwork, using laptops, tablets, and other electronic devices to replace recording on paper. To be sure, there are many advantages of using computers in the field, including savings in time and cost.  However, the fact of going paperless being more ecologically-friendly is not lost.  Paperless Archaeology is a blog devoted entirely, to nobody’s surprise, paperless archaeology.  Other fieldwork blogs, such as those for the E’se’get Archaeology Project in the northeast and Shishalh Archaeological Project on the west coast discuss going paperless during fieldwork.

E Christian Wells and Melanie N Coughlin had an article called Zero Waste Archaeology published in the September, 2012 issue of the SAA Archaeological Record, in which they discuss the ecological impact of archaeological research, encouraging archaeologists to think about the impact of their choices.  Suggestions for fieldwork include going paperless, and if that is not feasible to consider chlorine free recycled paper. Other ideas include using biodegradable flagging tape and recyclable containers, as well as donating, rather than discarding, used equipment.

Several months ago I wrote a column on contemporary waste, focusing in part on how archaeologists can contribute to waste audits. I subsequently involved the archaeology students I teach in a more recent campus-wide audit. Students were to write a report on their participation giving some context, methods, and results. I did not ask for a discussion but many provided one anyway, invariably describing how surprising and important the audit was from their own perspective and how it changed the way they view their own ecological footprint.

Given my own interest in fieldwork, sustainability, and education, I decided to ask a student to conduct an audit of 2013 fieldwork component of The Seymour Valley Archaeology Project, an archaeological field school I directed for seven weeks in May and June.  Building on the work of the campus-wide audit, one objective was to get students to think about their own ecological footprint, with a view to reducing it.  Another objective was to provide a baseline of data for comparison to other audits, including audits of future fieldwork projects, including my own in 2014 and beyond, with a view to reducing the ecological footprint, including waste.  One of the field school students, Stuart Dow, conducted the audit.

Two major categories of material waste were recorded for the audit of the 2013 fieldwork: Personal Trash and Project Trash.  Waste audits typically indicate that about 40 percent of trash is organic. It was interesting, therefore, to see that the audit of personal waste of field school students indicated organic material accounted for 79 percent of the trash. This can be at least partially explained by the fact that personal trash was largely restricted to material associated with lunch on-site (it was a commuter field school). When the personal and project trash is combined, the amount of organics is 62 percent.

Because of the relatively small amount of trash it was possible to further categorize the organic waste, including creating minimum numbers of specific foods and packaging.  It is clear that among the 2013 crew, fruit was a favored food, at least among those foods that leave evidence, such as cores and peels. According to numbers, the most popular foods were bananas, apples, oranges, grapefruit, avocados, strawberries, and beans.  Of course many foods eaten such as salads, sandwiches, and cookies, left no visible remains at all. By weight, the highest percentage of inorganic personal trash was paper products (mostly food wrappings), followed by soft plastics (mostly food wrappings), hard plastics (mostly drink and yogurt containers), and metal (tin foil, drink can, tuna tin).

By weight, the highest percentage of project trash was in the category of broken tools (hammer and root clippers), followed by used first aid supplies (ice packs), duct tape, safety equipment (used cans of bear spray), hard plastic (packaging for supplies), and flagging tape. Other categories with measurable remains included paper packaging, string, plastic bags, and rope.

I think it is important to think about the ecological footprint of archaeology.  As stated by Wells and Coughlin in their “Zero Waste Archaeology” article, people often do not recognize what or how much they consume, and “somewhat paradoxically, archaeologists are no exception.”  Recognizing that we have an ecological footprint is a beginning.  Kudos to those who have taken it a step further by consciously minimizing their impact, whether by choosing to not excavate, going paperless, or using other strategies.

Robert Muckle  has had his own CRM firm, worked extensively with Indigenous peoples, and directed many field projects. Publications include Introducing Archaeology, Reading Archaeology and The Indigenous Peoples of North America, published by the University of Toronto Press. He  is based at Capilano University. He may be followed on Twitter at @bobmuckle or contacted at
This entry was posted in June, Opinion and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Comments on are limited to current AAA members as Anthropology News is supported by AAA member dues. There is a delay between submitting a comment and it posting while a person’s member status is confirmed.

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

© 2014 American Anthropological Association • 2300 Clarendon Blvd., Suite 1301 • Arlington, VA • 22201 • TEL (703) 528-1902 • FAX (703) 528-3546

%d bloggers like this: