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Arsenic and Old Graves

A Method for Testing Arsenic Contamination in Historic Cemeteries

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 December 2020

Maureen S. Meyers*
Affiliation:
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Mississippi, 560 Lamar Hall, University, MS 38677, USA
David Breetzke
Affiliation:
District Archaeologist Forest Service, Daniel Boone National Forest/Redbird Ranger District 91, 91 Peabody Road, Big Creek, KY 40914, USA (david.breetzke@usda.gov)
Henry Holt
Affiliation:
Manager, Environmental Health and Safety, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, IL, 62026, USA (hholt@siue.edu)
*Corresponding
(corresponding author, memeyer1@olemiss.edu)

Abstract

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, arsenic was used as an embalming agent in the United States. In 1996, Konefes and McGee brought the potential danger of arsenic poisoning during excavation to the attention of archaeologists. They developed methodology that was later refined by the present authors. This article discusses the history of arsenic as an embalming agent, explores socioeconomic and demographic factors that might suggest the presence of arsenic in certain burials, and presents methods for testing arsenic in archaeological contexts. We also discuss environmental impact mitigation considerations and review examples of arsenic testing in archaeological contexts.

A finales del siglo XIX y principios del XX, el arsénico se utilizó como agente de embalsamamiento en los Estados Unidos. En 1996, Konefes y McGee señalaron a los arqueólogos el peligro potencial de envenenamiento por arsénico durante la excavación. Desarrollaron una metodología que luego fue refinada por los autores actuales. Este artículo analiza la historia del arsénico como agente de embalsamamiento, factores socioeconómicos y demográficos que pueden sugerir la presencia de arsénico en ciertos entierros y presenta métodos para probar el arsénico en contextos arqueológicos. También discutimos consideraciones de mitigación del impacto ambiental y revisamos ejemplos de pruebas de arsénico en contextos arqueológicos.

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Copyright
Copyright © The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Society for American Archaeology

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