Is nothing safe?

Nervous Plastic

The city of York in England is known for its Ancient Roman ruins and coins from the Viking Age, making it a top destination for archaeologists hungry to dig up buried treasure.

You know what else is buried in the ancient hills and fields of York? Microplastics!

British archaeologists have found microplastics amidst historic sediment excavated in York that date as early as the 1st and 2nd centuries, and which were dug up and stored for study in the 1980s.

They published their findings in a new study in the science journal Science of The Total Environment.

"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 plastics, and that this includes deposits sampled and stored in the late 1980s," University of York professor of archaeology and the study's principal author John Schofield said in a statement.

Contaminated History

The team analyzed historic sediment from two sites in York collected from the 1980s, and compared them to samples from two other sites nearby for analysis.

After processing the sediments and performing chemical analysis on the samples, the researchers found microplastics in both the archived sediment dug up in the 1980s and the contemporary samples.

The researchers surmise that microplastics got into the archived samples not while they were stored but when they were still in the ground — basically, the planet is so contaminated with plastic waste that the sites were already contaminated decades ago.

How did they get there? Researchers had dug up the archived samples in sites located in the floodplain of the Ouse River, pointing to water movement as a likely culprit.

With this study, along with another research project in Latvia that revealed microplastics in layers dating back to the 1700s and untouched by humankind, it seems clear going forward that archaeologists will have to contend with a certain level of plastic contamination.

"We are familiar with plastics in the oceans and in rivers," said Schofield. "But here we see our historic heritage incorporating toxic elements. To what extent this contamination compromises the evidential value of these deposits, and their national importance is what we'll try to find out next."

More on microplastics: Your Evil Car is Filling the Ocean With Microplastics, Scientists Say

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