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Environment

Pristine Stone Age wood and bone artifacts are being dissolved by sulfuric acid in the soil

Draining of the boggy area for agriculture turned a pristine archeological site into a treacherous place for artifacts

by Sarah Everts
November 7, 2016 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 94, ISSUE 44

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Credit: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci./Scarborough Museums Trust
This pristine 10,000-year-old deer antler from the Star Carr site was likely a headdress used by shamans.
Credit: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci./Scarborough Museums Trust
This pristine 10,000-year-old deer antler from the Star Carr site was likely a headdress used by shamans.

For millennia, the wet boggy conditions at the Star Carr archeological site in Eastern England kept a cornucopia of 10,000-year-old, Stone Age wood and bone objects, including 22 red deer antler headdresses used in shaman rituals, in pristine condition. But in the early 2000s, the land was drained for agriculture, dropping the water table and drying out the archeological site. Since then, archeologists have been alarmed to find that recently unearthed objects at the site are degrading rapidly. Scientists believe oxygen is now reaching sulfur-rich sediments lying below the artifacts. Consequently, sulfides are being oxidized to sulfuric acid, causing acidification of soil near the artifacts to a pH level of 2. A team led by the University of York’s Kirsty Penkman created a lab model of the site to figure out how this geochemistry is affecting the artifacts (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2016, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1609222113). The team found that these changes in soil geochemistry have accelerated the breakdown of hydroxyapatite in bone artifacts and lignin in wood artifacts. “Our research demands a reassessment of the assumption that sites such as Star Carr should be preserved in situ,” the study’s authors note.

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