The risk of harm to archaeological artefacts in soil from dynamic subsurface pressures generated by agricultural operations: experimental studies



An investigation was made of the fracture risk to buried ceramic pots and bones from the subsurface pressures generated by agricultural operations. A method for generating subsurface pressures at 0.25 m depth in a soil bin was developed and used to explore fracture failure of modern replicates of ceramic pots corresponding to different archaeological periods and aged medieval human bone. Application of conductive traces to the objects’ surfaces allowed detection of fracturing in real-time without excavation. Predictive models relating fracture of objects to subsurface pressure application were developed by relating the probability of fracture to observed survival statistics at increasing subsurface pressures. Subsurface pressures of above 100 kPa were sufficient to fracture the more fragile pots at a probability level of 90%. The lowest subsurface pressure causing bone fracture was 280 kPa; however, no relationship was observed between subsurface pressure and bone fracture, probably due to variation in bone material. The subsurface pressures generated and applied are within the range reported from field measurements during typical agricultural operations. They indicate that measures to control the generation of subsurface pressures would be necessary to mitigate risk of harm from agriculture to buried archaeology; for example, via low-pressure tyres, tracks and appropriate tillage.