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Microplastics have infiltrated archaeological soil samples

Researchers have unveiled the presence of microplastics in archaeological soil samples, challenging long-held perceptions about the purity of ancient deposits.

This disconcerting discovery, made by a collaborative effort between the universities of York and Hull, alongside York Archaeology, links environmental pollution directly to archaeological preservation.

Microplastics are everywhere

Microplastics are tiny plastic fragments, measuring from one-thousandth of a millimeter to 5mm. They stem from a variety of sources, such as the disintegration of larger plastic items and resin pellets from manufacturing processes.

Initially, microplastics were believed to affect mainly oceans and rivers. However, finding these particles in ancient soil samples indicates a contamination that reaches far beyond, spanning both time and technology.

Windows to the past, clouded by plastic

Professor John Schofield of the University of York’s Department of Archaeology emphasized the implications of these findings.

“This feels like an important moment, confirming what we should have expected: that what were previously thought to be pristine archaeological deposits, ripe for investigation, are in fact contaminated with microplastics,” Schofield explained.

Reassessing archaeological preservation from microplastics

This revelation suggests that the preservation strategies for historical sites, which have favored in situ conservation for decades, may need reassessment due to the risk of contamination compromising the integrity of archaeological remains.

David Jennings, the Chief Executive of York Archaeology, reflected on the novelty of microplastics as a contemporary issue, citing their recent identification despite being a product of the post-war boom in plastic production.

He noted, “This new study shows that the particles have infiltrated archaeological deposits,” drawing a parallel to the gradual recognition of microplastics in oceans since the 1960s.

Contamination of historical deposits

The research team identified 16 types of microplastic polymers in both contemporary and archived soil samples.

This diversity highlights the extent of plastic pollution and its threat to the integrity and value of archaeological findings.

Jennings further elaborated on the risk posed by microplastics to well-preserved archaeological sites, such as the Viking finds at Coppergate.

“The chemistry of the soil, altered by the presence of microplastics, could accelerate the decay of organic materials, challenging the current practices of in-situ preservation,” he stated.

How microplastics threaten archaeological integrity

In summary, the recent discovery of microplastics in ancient archaeological sites signals a critical juncture in our fight against pollution, underscoring its pervasive grip on both our environment and historical legacy.

This revelation challenges us to rethink preservation strategies and intensify our research efforts to understand the full impact of these contaminants on our past.

As archaeologists and environmental scientists join forces to address this issue, the urgency to find solutions that can protect our cultural heritage from the insidious spread of microplastics grows ever more apparent.

This shared challenge calls for a global response, leveraging innovation and collaboration to ensure that our history, and the lessons it holds, remain intact for future generations to learn from and cherish.

More history of microplastics and archaeological sites

As discussed above, microplastics have emerged as a significant environmental issue, infiltrating ecosystems and archaeological sites worldwide.

Discovery and early research

The term “microplastics” was not commonly known until researchers began investigating small plastic particles in the early 21st century.

However, the presence of microscopic plastic fragments in the environment predates this focus, with scientists and environmentalists noting the accumulation of plastic debris in oceans and on beaches throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

One of the earliest mentions of microplastics in scientific literature dates back to the 1970s when researchers observed tiny, plastic pellets, often referred to as “nurdles,” along coastlines. These pellets serve as raw materials in the manufacturing of plastic products.

Over the years, the scope of research expanded from these visible particles to include much smaller pieces resulting from the breakdown of larger plastic waste.

Rise in awareness and concern

Awareness of microplastics significantly increased in the early 2000s as scientists began to uncover their ubiquitous presence in marine environments, freshwater systems, and even terrestrial ecosystems.

A landmark study in 2004 by Richard Thompson et al. coined the term “microplastics” and highlighted the widespread distribution of these particles across marine habitats. This study spurred a surge in research focusing on the sources, distribution, and effects of microplastics.

The revelation that microplastics were not just confined to water bodies but had also been found in the air we breathe and the food we consume underscored the pervasiveness of the issue.

Investigations revealed that microplastics could originate from a variety of sources, including the breakdown of larger plastic items, synthetic textiles, cosmetics, and industrial processes.

Environmental and health impacts

As research into microplastics expanded, so did our understanding of their environmental and health impacts. Studies have found that microplastics can harm marine life and birds, leading to ingestion, physical harm, and potential chemical exposure due to the pollutants these plastics can carry.

Concerns also grew regarding the human health implications of microplastic exposure, with research exploring how these particles might affect human tissues and organs.

Global response and mitigation efforts

The mounting evidence of the detrimental effects of microplastics has prompted global action to address the issue. Governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations have initiated efforts to reduce plastic pollution and specifically target microplastics.

Measures have included bans on microbeads in personal care products, improvements in waste management systems, and increased funding for research on the environmental impacts of microplastics and potential mitigation strategies.

Additionally, there has been a growing movement towards circular economy models that prioritize sustainability, reduce reliance on single-use plastics, and promote recycling and reuse.

Public awareness campaigns have also played a crucial role in educating individuals about the importance of reducing plastic consumption and properly disposing of plastic waste.

While efforts to address microplastic pollution are underway, the journey towards significantly reducing their presence in our environment is ongoing, requiring concerted efforts from individuals, communities, and nations alike.

The full study was published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.


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