Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself

“Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. More than 3.5 million skin cancers in over two million people are diagnosed annually.”


“One person dies of melanoma every hour (every 57 minutes).”

The facts about skin cancer are scary.  But the scariest part for archaeologists is that SUN IS THE PRIMARY CAUSE OF SKIN CANCER.

“About 86 percent of melanomas can be attributed to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.”


“About 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.”

The average archaeologist spends about eight hours out in the sun on any given day of fieldwork.  That’s 40 hours a week, which totals to up to 720 hours a season, and potentially 28,800 hours in the sun over a 40 year career.

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Here’s the good news:  Skin cancer is relatively easy to cure if you find it, diagnose it, and begin treatments early.

“Proper performance of self skin-examinations may reduce the chances of dying of this potentially deadly disease by as much as 63 percent”.

So, make sure you perform monthly skin self-examinations.  The Skin Cancer Foundation provides a step-by-step guide to conducting a thorough self-examination.  Doctors recommend using a Body Map to keep track of any changes.

There’s no shame in asking someone to help you do your exam either.  Your loved ones will prefer a little awkwardness now compared to the consequences of skin cancer later.  If you still feel embarrassed, you can ask someone to just check your back and scalp, which are some of the harder places to examine by yourself.  Make sure your ears get checked too because we often forget to apply sunscreen there!

WebMD provides the ABCDE’s of what to look for in your moles:

  • ASYMMETRY:  One half of the mole does not match the other half
  • BORDER:  The border or edges of the mole are ragged, blurred, or irregular
  • COLOR:  The mole has different colors or it has shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red
  • DIAMETER:  The diameter of the mole is larger than the eraser of a pencil
  • EVOLVING:  The mole appears different from others and/or changing in size, color, shape


However, moles aren’t the only thing you need to be checking on your skin!

Actinic keratosis is the most common type of precancerous skin growth and typically appears scaly, rough like sandpaper, or crusty, much more like a wart than a mole.  Actinic keratosis typically appears on areas that are most frequently exposed to the sun.

Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most frequent type of skin cancer.  It usually looks like an open sore that refuses to heal, an irritated patch of skin, a shiny bump similar to a mole, or a scar.

The bottom line:  see your doctor right away if you have any concerns about your skin.  Better to be safe than sorry!

It’s All in the Wrists

Archaeologists depend on our wrists, among many of our other body parts, every day at our jobs.  Unfortunately, our wrists are one of our joints that is highly in danger of suffering a repetitive strain injury.  In general, repetitive strain injuries are some of the most common occupational injuries in the United States today.

Hand and wrist injuries may be affected by handedness—a four-month study of almost 2,500 wrist injuries in Northern Ireland indicated that right-handed people injured their right wrists 55% of the time, and left-handed people injured their left wrists 58% of the time.

The danger to our wrists depends on the type of work we are doing and the type of soil in which we are working.  My wrists are in a lot less danger when I’m excavating sand in tenth-of-a-foot levels at Fort Michilimackinac than they were when I was excavating hard-packed clay in central Illinois, where I experienced wrist pain.

David Procyshyn teaches an excellent “5-Minute Stretching Routine for the Wrists.”  I would recommend this stretching routine before and after every workday in the field; it takes only five minutes to care for a part of the body that is so vital to our occupation (passion!).  You could even do the routine together as a crew to build camaraderie!

Making a tight fist and then slowly and conscientiously rotating your wrists nine times clockwise and then nine times counterclockwise will help strengthen them as well.  Standing side stretches are also great for the wrists, as well as the sides.


If you practice yoga regularly on your own, there are poses that are great for strengthening your wrists.  Each should be held for five full breaths once you are into the final posture (which might take several preparatory poses to achieve!).  Of course, if at any time you feel pain, you should stop!

If you practice yoga at a Beginner Level, Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward-Facing Dog, is a great wrist-strengthening pose that everyone can start with.  This is a staple in any yoga practice, so you may have been strengthening your wrists already without even realizing it!


If you practice yoga at an Intermediate level, you can try Purvottanasana, or Upward Plank Pose.  I love the effect this pose has on my wrists, but I find it can be hard on my knees, so proceed with caution!


You might also want to try Vasisthasana, or Side Plank Pose.  Some days, I can do different variations of this pose with ease, but other days, my wrists aren’t yet strong enough to maintain the pose.


If you practice yoga at an Advanced level, you might want to try Eka Pada Koundinyanasana II, or Pose Dedicated to the Sage Koundinya II.  This pose is still beyond my skill level.


But remember, always consult your own health care professional for your individual health questions and concerns!

One Important Blood Test Every Archaeologist Needs

Studies show that over 30% of Americans may not have sufficient levels of Vitamin D.

The United States may be suffering from an epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency, whose symptoms range from subtle bone pain and muscle weakness to serious cardiovascular issues, cognitive impairment, and cancer; low Vitamin D can increase the risk of diabetes, hypertension, and multiple sclerosis.

Luckily, 5-10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a few times a week should be enough for our bodies to manufacture sufficient Vitamin D.  So, as archaeologists who spend thousands of hours in the sun over our lifetimes, we have nothing to worry about, right?

Not necessarily.  We can’t assume that just because we work outside that our bodies are manufacturing and absorbing Vitamin D effectively.

The first time I had my Vitamin D tested was in August 2010, after I had spent about 360 hours in the sun doing fieldwork for the summer.  Two-thirds of those hours had been in Havana, Illinois, situated at 40.3° N, which has a UV index of about 8.5 in June, which is a “Very High” level of UV radiation.


When the doctor suggested I might be low in Vitamin D, I thought that was a ludicrous suggestion, but I thought the test couldn’t hurt.  It turned out that after all that sunshine, my Vitamin D level was barely adequate according to the most forgiving scale.  My Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D] level was 21 ng/mL.  That level is well within the “deficient” range according to most testing laboratories and the Vitamin D Council and barely better than “deficient” according to the Endocrine Society.  I was baffled; how could this be?

Table 1: Serum 25-Hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D] Concentrations and Health*
nmol/L** ng/mL* Health status
<30 <12 Associated with vitamin D deficiency, leading to rickets in infants and children and osteomalacia in adults
30–50 12–20 Generally considered inadequate for bone and overall health in healthy individuals
≥50 ≥20 Generally considered adequate for bone and overall health in healthy individuals
>125 >50 Emerging evidence links potential adverse effects to such high levels, particularly >150 nmol/L (>60 ng/mL)

* Serum concentrations of 25(OH)D are reported in both nanomoles per liter (nmol/L) and nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL).
** 1 nmol/L = 0.4 ng/mL

Vitamin D 25(OH)D range guidelines from various organizations:
Vitamin D Council Endocrine Society Food and Nutrition Board Testing Laboratories
Deficient 0-30 ng/ml 0-20 ng/ml 0-11 ng/ml 0-31 ng/ml
Insufficient 31-39 ng/ml 21-29 ng/ml 12-20 ng/ml
Sufficient 40-80 ng/ml 30-100 ng/ml >20 ng/ml 32-100 ng/ml
Toxic >150 ng/ml

Being a scientist, I decided to conduct an empirical test to determine the effects of my work in the sun on my Vitamin D levels.  In 2011, I had my Vitamin D tested in May, after nine months of graduate school studies in the library.  My Vitamin D level was on the verge of dangerously low:  a mere 15 ng/mL.  I then proceeded to spend about 440 hours doing fieldwork in the sun in Mackinaw City, situated at 45.8° N, which has a UV index averaging around a 7, which is still in the “High” range, for the months of June, July, and August.  After all that sunshine, my Vitamin D was still only 24 ng/mL.

So, it turned out that my fieldwork in the sun did have an impact on my Vitamin D levels, and a significant impact at that!  But it still wasn’t enough to raise my Vitamin D levels to a healthy range.

Since then, I try to take a 1000 IU Vitamin D supplement daily.  Vitamin D can be difficult to get from food, but fish is one of the best sources, especially salmon, mackerel, and tuna!  Other foods rich in Vitamin D include fortified cereals, oysters, eggs, salami, and mushrooms.

But remember, always consult your own health care professional for your individual health questions and concerns!