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Oil from the spill has reached the beaches of Pensacola, Florida. (Samir S. Patel)

With vast sheets of crude from the Deepwater Horizon spill inching closer to a coast that has been inhabited for thousands of years, archaeologists are racing to document its extensive shell middens, military forts, and historical fishing camps before they are mired in toxic gunk. "We have 20 guys working 15 hours a day," says Jeff Hokanson, a contract archaeologist hired by BP. "We are doing our best at making sure no sites are being impacted."

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill, which began on April 20 and is estimated by some to be growing by as many as 60,000 barrels per day, has already sidelined the region's shrimp boats, coated Louisiana's barrier islands—and their wildlife—with gooey tar balls, and polluted Florida beaches. The next potential casualty could be human history. Chip McGimsey, Louisiana's state archaeologist, says oil has swept past the booms and into the gunports of Fort Livingston, a red-brick structure built on Grand Terre Island after the War of 1812. A team from the National Park Service's National Center for Preservation Technology and Training are already assessing the damage and preparing a cleaning strategy.


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Oil at Louisiana’s 19th-century Fort Livingston (Courtesy Louisiana State Parks)

Older sites are also at risk. Pre-Columbian shell middens are ubiquitous along the coast, but are poorly documented. McGimsey is particularly worried about the Toncrey site, which is a mile inland but sits below sea level. "You have to have hip waders on to walk between the mounds," he says. The site consists of three large mounds, a village midden, and a shell midden, which date to between A.D. 900 and 1500. If oil does make it to the site, it can be absorbed by the shells. Radiocarbon dating can be adjusted to take contamination into account, but stickier questions will arise if researchers ever want to excavate and store material from the site. "People may have to dress up in hazmat suits and wear ventilators," McGimsey says of the worst-case scenario.

The most significant damage may not come from the spill itself, but from cleanup efforts using heavy equipment and untrained volunteers. Richard Kanaski, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service archaeologist, says that's the lesson the agency learned from the much, much smaller 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. At that time, 24 prehistoric sites up to 4,500 years old were adversely affected by cleanup, looting, and outright vandalism. "Everyone is in a 'hurry up and get it done' mode rather than a 'let's think about it' mode," Kanaski says. As part of the Trustees Cultural Resource Working Group, the interagency team overseeing the response effort in the Gulf, he hopes to include an archaeologist on every scout and cleanup team.

Unfortunately, there are some indications that the disaster response is already causing damage. Read Stowe, a retired archaeologist from the University of South Alabama, complains that the Coast Guard has been anchoring booms and airboats on significant shell middens on Bangs Island, Mississippi, and was storing equipment on sensitive areas of Fort Morgan—the site of some of the final battles of the Civil War—before the Alabama Historical Commission arrived to supervise. "There's 50 miles of beach," he says. "Why do they have to put it on an archaeological site?"

For its part, the Coast Guard says they respect archaeological resources, but don't believe surface staging is especially damaging. However, "sometimes you step on some stuff, and you don't mean to," admits Ernie Shirley, an environmental scientist with the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, to whom the Coast Guard referred questions.

"Many of these sites have never been reported," says Stowe. "Those are the ones that we can ill afford to have destroyed."

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