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Archaeology and public perception of a trans-scientific problem; disposal of toxic wastes in the unsaturated zone

January 1, 1994

Predicting the effects of toxic-waste disposal on the environment over periods of millenia to hundreds of millenia is a transscientific problem; that is, one not fully addressed by quantitative scientific and engineering endeavors. Archaeology is a pertinent adjunct to such predictions in several ways. First, and foremost, archaeological records demonstrate that delicate, as well as durable, objects buried in thick unsaturated zones of arid and semiarid environments may survive intact for millenia to tens of millenia. This successful preservation of Late Paleolithic to Iron Age artifacts provides independent support for the tentative favorable conclusions of earth scientists regarding the general utility of thick unsaturated zones for toxic-waste isolation. By analogy with the archaeological record, solidified toxic wastes of low solubility that are buried in arid unsaturated zones should remain isolated from the environment indefinitely; modern man presumably should be able to improve upon the techniques used by his ancestors to isolate and preserve their sacred and utilitarian objects. Second, archaeological evidence pertinent to the fate of objects buried in unsaturated zones-although qualitative in nature and subject to the limitations of arguments by analogy-is meaningful to the public and to the courts who, with some scientists and engineers, are reluctant to rely exclusively on computer-generated predictions of the effects of buried toxic wastes on the environment. Third, the archaeological record issues a warning that our descendants may intrude into our waste disposal sites and that we must therefore take special measures to minimize such entry and, if it occurs, to warn of the dangers by a variety of symbols. And fourth, archaeology provides a record of durable natural and manmade materials that may prove to be suitable for encapsulation of our wastes and from which we can construct warning markers that will last for millenia. For these four reasons, archaeologists must join with earth scientists, and other scientists and engineers, in addressing the likely fate of solidfied toxic wastes buried in the thick (200-600 m) unsaturated zones of arid and semiarid regions. Indeed, the input of archaeology might be crucial to public acceptance of even the most carefully chosen and technically sound waste repository.

Citation Information

Publication Year 1986
Title Archaeology and public perception of a trans-scientific problem; disposal of toxic wastes in the unsaturated zone
DOI 10.3133/cir990
Authors Isaac Judah Winograd
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Circular
Series Number 990
Index ID cir990
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse