Surgical masks in the field?

There was program on Norwegian TV yesterday about archaeology and the topic was burials: http://tv.nrk.no/serie/arkeologene#t=33m28s¬†It was a fine program and I enjoyed it, but one thing made me wonder. They showed a clip from an excavation in Denmark where skeletons were being exhumed and the excavators wore surgical masks. It was stated that they wore the masks to protect the bones from DNA contamination; they didn’t want the excavators’ DNA to be left on the bones in case they wanted to extract DNA from the bones at a later stage. My first reaction was, does this really help? The bones will be handled by many people during and after the¬†excavation and will be transported, examined and stored. Unless people have become exceptionally disciplined, I find it hard to believe that every person coming in contact with the bones would wear gloves and a mask. Especially as we see in the next clip bones being handled by the osteoarchaeologist who was not wearing a mask or gloves.

DNA is also being extracted from deep within the bones or from inside the root of the teeth, so does breathing on the surface of the¬†bones really contaminate the material? DNA is also being successfully extracted¬†from bones excavated many decades ago which must have been handle by a great number of people. I am no DNA expert, so if anyone who reads this has any information or an opinion on the matter, please leave a comment. I am all in favour of taking all necessary precautionary measures, but there’s got to be a sound reasoning behind it. I struggle to see the real value of wearing surgical masks in the field but I would be pleased¬†to be convinced otherwise.

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One Response to “Surgical masks in the field?”

  1. Darren Mann Says:

    I am also no expert in this field, but given that disposable surgical masks are quite cheap and easy to use, I can’t imagine that it would hurt to include their use as part of protocol when handling or examining skeletal remains. The chances of contamination might be small but the small investment required to reduce that chance even further may well be worth it.

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Immigration and mobility in mediaeval and post-mediaeval Norway
Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion, University of Bergen
E-mail: stian.hamre@ahkr.uib.no

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