Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Archaeological Hazards of our Future's Past

Theron checked the map again on his hand-held electronic interface unit, or HEU. The HEU was interfacing with Wendy, the crew’s nickname for the main computer back at base camp. The map had been compiled from the various remote sensing surveys conducted since the start of the expedition a few weeks ago. For the past several years, Theron and his crew from the Central Archives Archaeological Division had been excavating in the southeast portion of what had once been the state of New Mexico, part of a union of fifty states located primarily on the North American continent. Little was known of this union prior to its fragmentation over 600 years ago, but the work of Theron and countless other archaeologists over the past twenty years was beginning to rectify this.

While rummaging through the archive’s myriad of antiquated electronic and print documentation, much of which was very fragmentary in nature, Theron had come across the initials “WIPP” on a map printed in the dead language of English. The lone reference he found to these initials was incomplete, and all that he could translate were the middle two initials – “Isolation” and “Pilot”. Theron found this intriguing. Was this some type of prototype facility built away from the contemporary populations of the day? What secrets might it contain?

It was decided that, for this season, Theron’s team would focus on the WIPP complex. Initial remote sensing surveys indicated a facility located over 2500 feet below ground, embedded in a massive salt formation, with miles and miles of corridors, much of which appeared to have been filled in to varying degrees by the salt. In addition, there appeared to be four vertical shafts, also long since filled in, running from a previous ground surface down to the facility. The team had borrowed a “smart worm”[1] from the Archive’s Geological division to bore down to the facility adjacent to one of the vertical shafts. A smart worm is a self guided, independent drilling device with a menagerie of electronic sensors in its nose to “see” ahead so it doesn’t drill through something dangerous, or in this case, something of archaeological significance.

Today they would reach one of the old tunnels in the facility, and Theron’s anticipation was growing. On the map before him was displayed a rough outline of the facility. At various locations around the perimeter were what may have been different types of electronic markers, all emitting different types of signals – some acoustic, some magnetic, and one other type of signal that no one on the team was familiar with. Recordings of this unknown signal had been sent back to Central Archives for analysis, but with the backlog, who knew when anyone would get to it.

Two days ago, a marker near the old ground surface had been detected that was not emitting a signal of any kind. This had been retrieved using the smart worm. Emblazoned on this marker were several symbols, two of which had caught Theron’s initial attention. One was a human skull with two associated human long bones crossing each other, no doubt a warning of some kind. The other one seemed vaguely familiar to Theron, but he couldn’t place it. It was a small circle surrounded by three triangles, equidistant from each other, each with one point extending towards the circle. Perhaps when the smart worm penetrated the facility they would have some answers. Ten years ago, a place known as Fort Knox had been excavated. This had turned out to be a heavily fortified vault that had stored vast quantities of gold. There had been a great deal of electronic sensors and warning signs of various kinds associated with that facility, and Theron was quite hopeful that this WIPP complex would be of a similar nature.

Ann, Theron’s chief crew manager, came running up to tell him that the smart worm had made the initial penetration and was retrieving a metal canister of some kind. After thirty minutes, the smart worm emerged from the abyss and into daylight. Slowly, the white metal canister came into view. The salt appeared to have protected the canister from any type of corrosion; at least none was visible to the naked eye. Then Theron saw it. There were the triangles and circle again, printed in a deep red against a square of bright yellow. The meaning of this symbol still eluded him, scurrying in the dark crevices buried deep within his mind.

Ann scanned the canister with her HEU, using a mixture of x-rays, magnetic, radar, and electrical waves. An image slowly formed on the screen showing what appeared to be a bunch of old tools, equipment, and maybe some type of clothing. The image was oddly fuzzy as if something was interfering with the scanning signals, and Ann smacked the side of her HEU in a failed attempt to clear up the image. “That’s strange,” she said. “My HEU must need a new imaging collator.”

Well, it wasn’t gold, but finding what appeared to be simple, common items buried deep below ground was very interesting in and of itself. Theron gave the go ahead to open it up. In the mean time he was going to jog his memory concerning this strange symbol. Using his HEU, he took a picture of the symbol, and then accessed Central Archives through Wendy to do a quick and dirty search. Within a few minutes a couple of documents were downloaded to his HEU. As he began to read, the meaning of the symbol emerged from the deep crevices of his mind.

“Radiation.” “Danger.” “Death”. Slowly a deep dread began to form in the back of his mind and expand to encompass him in a cloud of fear and worry, much as the radiation was expanding out of the canister to envelope his crew. Nuclear energy and weaponry had not been a part of the human equation for a very long time, and few people were aware it ever had been. The canister that had been retrieved contained transuranic waste, and unfortunately for Theron and his crew, this particular canister happened to be one of the very few containing waste that would emit deadly levels of penetrating radiation.

Immediately he put a halt to the work and evacuated the area. He called in a medical evac team from Central Archives, but for most of the crew the damage had been done. By the time the medical team arrived, many of the crew were already experiencing severe signs of radiation sickness. The sound of his crew retching filled Theron’s ears as he stared at the clumps of his own hair resting in his hands. Many would die before the end of the day; many others would die within a few years, including Theron.


We typically think of such scenarios as the musings of science fiction writers, but the vast quantity of waste our world produces, along with its varying hazardous nature, suggests that some variation of this story may in fact be inevitable. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the US alone generates roughly 13 billion tons of waste each year. Recycling, composting, incineration, and the reduction of waste generation itself, are all gradually increasing in their use, but contained storage is still the dominant means of dealing with much of the waste we generate.

Initially, one might think that archaeologists would be thrilled with this. After all, their future intellectual progeny will have a wealth of middens to explore. Ah, but then there’s that “little” problem of pollution, in all its various guises, that current and future generations will have to face from the production and storage of waste on a scale that the individual mind can only hope to comprehend. And in case it didn’t come across in print, my use of the word “little” in quotes was meant to convey sarcasm – mass quantities of sarcasm oozing a gooey and toxic mix of understatement, irony, and contempt. The fact of the matter is we do not have a clear, long-term vision of how to limit the production of waste, how to safely destroy it after it has been produced, or how to safely store it until it has either naturally decomposed or no longer poses a threat to humanity or the environment [2][3][4]. In some cases this may take well over a million years.

The question of what to do with our waste is something that anthropology in general, and archaeology in particular, can help answer. Very practical and useful applications of archaeology have been used to study and address the problems of waste. In the case of landfills, archaeologists are able to provide a unique view of what is actually going on inside working landfills and document the variability of this across regions [5]. Through such research, archaeologists can 1) clarify the national estimates of what we are actually putting into landfills, 2) document the links between moisture level and the rate of decomposition, and 3) establish the pathway of migration for heavy metals within a landfill. All of this is important for verifying the effectiveness of current landfills and formulating their future design standards.

Even more important are the contributions that can be made to the contained storage of radioactive waste. Within the US alone, the combined total of such waste includes over 265 million tons of uranium mill tailings (ore extraction residue), 472 million cubic feet of low level waste (radioactive clothing, tools, paper, filters, and the residue from cleaning nuclear reactors), 11.3 million cubic feet of transuranic waste (clothing, tools, etc., contaminated with radioactive elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium), and high level waste that consists of 52,000 tons of spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors and 91 million gallons of waste generated from plutonium production [6][7]. Half-lives for radioactive waste range from a fraction of a second to billions of years, though the longer the half-life the less intense the radioactivity. An element is typically considered harmless after ten half-lives.

Currently, the US has one “permanent” operating storage facility for radioactive waste – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico, which has been designed to house transuranic and low-level waste. A facility to “permanently” house high-level waste is currently being constructed at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, though the state of Nevada and environmental groups are fighting the federal government to keep it from going into operation. And currently, there are no working ideas on how to eliminate or safely store uranium mill tailings, which simply sit out on the landscape. In the US, the EPA has set the time limits for public and environmental health regarding such facilities at 10,000 years [8][9]. Longer times were not considered because the EPA felt there were too many uncertainties beyond that point. Uncertainties relative to what? I typically have little idea what's going to happen the next day. One wonders how the number of 10,000 was finally agreed upon, and what was used to estimate degrees of certainty.

No matter how one views the politics of radioactive waste, there are problems of long-term containment that must be addressed. It would be preferable to destroy the waste as it is created, but there are currently no means to safely do this for radioactive waste (and the “safe” nature of the incineration of other types of waste is highly debatable [10]). So whether we are talking 500 years, 10,000 years, or one million years, the future unknowns regarding containment structure material performance and the environmental/social/political contexts of these containment facilities are two areas that archaeology and anthropology can help address.

Examples of this include the archaeological analyses of long-term material performance being conducted at the University of Sheffield in England and the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education in Suitland, Maryland [11]. Glass currently plays a major roll in the containment packaging of radioactive waste, and glass that has spent hundreds to thousands of years buried in the earth can provide clues as to how the modern packaging might fare over the next 10,000 to one million years. Variations in the composition of the glass and the associated environment greatly affect the type and amount of decay that occurs. And the metals that provide historical glasses with color, such as cobalt in medieval blue glass, can stand proxy for the radioactive elements in nuclear waste. Their leaching into the surrounding soil provides an indication of how radioactive particles might disperse. It’s only a rough approximation, but the deep time nature of the data provides an important supplement to the data obtained from engineering simulation tests of current glass packaging materials.

In addition to materials research, archaeology and anthropology can 1) provide assistance in envisioning potential future scenarios of accidental human intrusion and 2) help develop markers to be used as warnings against such intrusions [12]. In the early 1990’s, anthropologists and sociologists composed part of the panels that did just this for the WIPP facility. Factors that must be considered in developing these future scenarios include institutional memory, predicted changes in language and cultural makeup, forms of written communication, patterns of regional migration, population density, technological advancements, resource use and availability, and developments in the physical environment that could compromise the effectiveness of markers (as well as the facilities themselves).

The envisioning of such scenarios and the design and placement of warning markers to account for all potential scenarios is an extremely daunting process. In the potential cases of language, institutional, political, and general cultural discontinuity over a large span of time, an important issue is the type of visual symbol(s) that should appear on the markers. Carl Sagan once suggested that a simple skull and crossbones be used [13]. Such a simple symbol can be justified through cross-cultural studies demonstrating a common notion that contact with corpses is “polluting”[14]. Corpses can be a source of pathogens, so from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that there is a universal human tendency to avoid or carefully handle them. However, the cultural reasons that are often linked to such avoidances vary substantially across space and time, and such a symbol by itself may not effectively communicate the desired warning. And in addition to the warning itself, there would ideally be some sort of way to communicate the nature of the danger, which would require more than one simple symbol.

Perhaps an even more substantial result of such efforts is the realization that the future is extremely uncertain and almost impossible to predict [15]. Even with the limitations that are placed on the future by the conditions of the present, there are still an almost infinite number of potential future scenarios. About the only thing that can be said with a relative degree of certainty is that things will change. The only true way to limit these potential hazards of the future is to eliminate or at least minimize the production of such wastes in the present and near future. The development, perfection, and expansion of alternative fuel sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal, hydrogen fuel cells, cold fusion, and the like, offer viable alternatives to fossil fuels and fission. Such a transition would reduce much of the production of radioactive wastes. And though waste production is cited less when arguing for a reduction to or stop in the continued manufacturing and proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is none-the-less a very important one. The less WIPPs and Yucca Mountains our future generations will have to deal with, the better.


[1] e.g. Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[2] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[3] Peter Montague. 1992 “Low-level” Radioactive Waste – Part 1: Fifty Years of Failure. Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News #302 September 9;

[4] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[5] W. L. Rathje, W. W. Hughes, D. C. Wilson, M. K. Tani, G. H. Archer, R. G. Hunt, and T. W. Jones. 1992 The Archaeology of Contemporary Landfills. American Antiquity 5(3):437-447.

[6] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[7] Peter Montague. 1992 “Low-level” Radioactive Waste – Part 1: Fifty Years of Failure. Rachel’s Hazardous Waste News #302 September 9;

[8] Michael E. Long. 2002 Half-Life: The Lethal Legacy of America’s Nuclear Waste. National Geographic July:2-33.

[9] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[10] Committee on Health Effects of Waste Incineration, Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology, National Research Council. 2000 Waste Incineration and Public Health. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C.

[11] Philip Ball. 2002 Archaeologists Advise on Nuclear Waste Disposal. Report from the December, 2002 Materials Research Society Meeting, Boston, MA. Nature News Service, Macmillan Magazines Ltd

[12] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

[13] K. Trauth, S. C. Hora, and R. V. Guzowski. 1993. Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. SAND92-1382 UC-721. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: Sandia National Laboratories.

[14] Pascal Boyer. 2001 Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought. Basic Books, New York.

[15] Martin J. Pasqualetti. 1997 Landscape Permanence and Nuclear Warnings. The Geographical Review 87(1):73-91.

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