The opening issue of 1975 alerted readers to a major collapse of the north wall at Koster. It was estimated that more than 25 tons of earth spilled into the main pit. Fortunately, the collapse happened after the excavations had closed for the 1974 season. If you recall from the last issue of Early Man, archeologists had already identified the north wall as a threat to the safety of those working in the pit.

A prescient warning from the December 1974 Early Man issue

A prescient warning from the December 1974 Early Man issue

Hindsight is 20/20. With our current knowledge of workplace safety we’re probably all thinking that this could have been avoided (not to mention how lucky that it happened while the site was vacant). But we’re good archeologists, so let’s look at the context a bit closer.

At this point, OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) was a fairly new entity having only been created in 1971. It’s application to the world of archeology was slow to develop and really gained momentum with the rise of contract archeology in the 1980s. Even today, the guidelines set by OSHA don’t always apply at research oriented digs (i.e. those funded by universities or scientific institutions for the sole purpose of investigating an anthropological or archeological question, as at Koster) and the rules are generally more lax than if you were digging for a government contract crew.

While we are aware of the scholarly contributions to come out of Koster, it was also a test bed for many of our modern field methods and greatly contributed to the professionalization of the field. Practices now considered standard to any archeological excavation, such as piece plotting, were introduced and tested right here in the Lower Illinois Valley. Similarly, safety measures, like stepping back the walls of deep holes (usually 1m out for every 1m down), were also being developed.  Back then there were no previous archaeological excavations in North America that came close to the depths reached at Koster. Therefore, work proceeded straight down in order to expose as much of the earliest horizons as possible. It wasn’t until the collapse of the north wall that site directors turned to the expertise of the mining and construction sectors for advice on preventing further disaster.

First mention of "stepping back" at Koster (Early Man April 1975, page 2)

Pitfall of “stepping back”: less exposure of earlier horizons (Early Man, April 1975, pg. 2)

Koster was already a large-scale excavation, so could you imagine how much more dirt would have needed to be moved in order to step out the 20ft north wall of Koster? I’m not sure that it would have been possible to expand the excavations out enough to afford the same access to those lower strata. This is partly the reason why you don’t see Koster-scale excavations taking place today in North America. The time and labor needed to safely expose such a large area would be immense.

While it makes for a cool picture, these deep test pits at Koster wouldn't fly today.

While it makes for a cool picture, these deep test pits at Koster wouldn’t fly today.

It goes without saying that the way in which Koster was excavated in the 1970s would not be permitted in today’s world.

April 1975

April 1975


As always, we are ready to hear from you. Tell us your story or send us your photos. We’ll feature them on our Facebook page as part of our popular #ThrowbackThursday or post them to our blog (all with appropriate credit, of course).

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