This week I was sent the disaster plan and risk assessment for the work I’ll be doing in northern Iraq in April and May. Normally archaeological risk assessments make for pretty dull reading – risk: falling into the trench; Action: look out for trenches. Risk: getting a pick through your head; Action: look out for picks, and so on. I had high hopes for this one, however, as it claimed to assess the risk of CBRN and UXO, terms which are not actually explained in the document but in context reveal themselves as Chemical, Biological and Radio/Nuclear materials and UneXploded Ordinance (which should of course be UEO to anyone with basic literacy. In fact this document is not strong on basic literacy because it has been produced (cut and pasted) by a Health and Safety drone who has so little pride left in his job that he couldn’t bear to read the thing). My hopes of an exciting read were crushed, alas, largely by the weight of it as it runs to a pithy forty-two pages.
I did learn about some of the delightful charms of the region, chief among which are:
Tabun – a lethal nerve agent, possibly present in the soil as a viscous oily residue.
Sarin – a lethal nerve agent, more potent than Tabun, possibly remaining in unexploded ordinance.
Mustard gas – a blister agent, lethal if inhaled, persistent in the soil.
Cyanide – a lethal blood agent, possibly remaining in unexploded ordinance.
Cutaneous Anthrax – endemic in the region, found in soil and animal carcases.
Explosives – there are an estimated 3500 known minefields in the region, mostly left over from the Iran-Iraq war.
As no actual nuclear/radiological risks are present in the area, the cheery possibility that we might be nuked by Iran is considered, just to cover the N and R of the acronym.
In fact, this risk assessment doesn’t mention anything about falling into trenches, or leaving one’s spade lying face down so it doesn’t smack you in the nose when you step on it like in a Laurel and Hardy film. This is because it was written by people who know a great deal about chemical and biological weaponry and nothing at all about archaeology. Usually risk assessments are written for free by the dig director on the back of an envelope in the back of a pub. Despite concluding that the risk of all the nasty things discussed was virtually zero, unless we should happen to put a trench through Saddam’s missing WMD bunker, the risk assessing company has of course had to come up with some actionable advice and suggests the wearing of stout boots, face masks, gloves, goggles, and hard hats, which all sound like a great deal of fun in 45°C.
Usually in the Middle East for shoes we dig in trainers or socks or nothing. When things get really bad I put my sun glasses on and wrap a scarf around my head. I can’t imagine how much of a twat I’m going to look in Iraq in my face mask and goggles when the local workmen show up in their flip-flops.
The thing is, in the Middle East where the archaeology is mostly made of fragile mud, and the temperature itself is a major risk to health, the safest clothing is soft light stuff. Of course, when I dig in the UK I wear steal toe-capped boots and a hard hat and a nice fluorescent jacket, but this is because I’m usually working in 4°C and six inches of mud, surrounded by heavy machinery and builders throwing bricks. And it’s not like that’s all too safe – I once dug out a cellar in Stoke-on-Trent that turned out to be entirely lined with asbestos. I also dug up an old lubricants factory once, which the risk assessment swore was fine, but every time we dug a hole it filled up with a different coloured puddle.
Of course, the biggest risks in field archaeology are actually early onset arthritis, repetitive strain injuries, skin cancer, irreversible psychological damage, sclerosis of the liver, crocodiles and poverty, but these are rarely mentioned. The biggest killer of archaeologists abroad is road traffic accidents.