Oil spill reveals Gulf archaeological sites

When BP Deepwater Horizon blew its stack and began spewing millions of gallons of crude oil all over the Gulf Coast, archaeologists from local universities and from the National Park Service sprang into action. Environmental resources can spring back from catastrophe. It takes a lot of work and commitment, but it can and does happen. Archaeological resources, on the other hand, once destroyed are gone forever.

The strong response to the disaster from cleanup crews and the archaeological community has made lemonade out of the sourest of lemons. People working to clean and protect land and sea have uncovered at least 40 previously unknown prehistoric sites along the coast.

Shell midden on a tree island in the EvergladesThere are thousands of shell middens (piles of shells left behind by prehistoric Gulf Coast peoples over generations of seafood meals) along the coast, but they have barely been documented, never mind researched. These peoples didn’t leave behind written records or buildings, so going through their trash is our sole source of information about 10,000 years of early American history before the Spanish landed in the 1500s.

Archeologist Michael Church has been doing a wide survey from the Mississippi state line to the Florida panhandle. […]

Church says very little oil has made it to fragile sites like shell mounds and the amount that has should biodegrade. The oil spill presents a unique opportunity. It’s rare archeologists get to do a study encompassing several miles of coastline.

“I think we’ve discovered 40 undiscovered sites between Mississippi, Alabama and Florida,” says Church. For now, most of what church has found is raw data and pictures, he hopes it can be used by other researchers to aid in further study of prehistoric life on the Gulf Coast.

He may be a tad overly optimistic when it comes to oil contamination of these midden sites. It’s great that only a small amount of oil has reached them, but even just a small amount can stymie archaeological analysis. Radiocarbon dating, for example, will no longer return accurate results when organic materials have been mixed with oil. Fossil fuels are really old, after all (hence the fossil), so radiocarbon dated oily midden shells will show as far older than they actually are.

Still, considering the worst case scenarios that seemed very likely during the long months of cleanup, the news for the Gulf Coast’s rich archaeological sites overall is good so far. It remains to be seen how well artifacts and shipwrecks on the sea floor cope with the oil. It’s much more difficult to monitor, document and protect underwater archaeological sites than it is to scour the coastline.

4 thoughts on “Oil spill reveals Gulf archaeological sites

    1. It seems like the survey teams were mainly professional archaeologists, park services employees and students. I could understand if they were wary about volunteers on digs, but given the huge amount of coastline to cover, platoons of volunteers scouring the archaeological sites on land would have been a big help.

      I know there was some concern about the sites being kept essentially secret to protect them from looters. There was apparently some theft and damage to sites from volunteers during the Exxon Valdeez cleanup.

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