Statement Details

The SAA Extends Our Sympathies to the Family of Kaylen Gehrke

Jul 18, 2022
The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is deeply saddened to hear about the tragic death of Kaylen Gehrke, a 24-year-old archaeological technician who was performing an archaeological survey in the Kisatchie National Forest, Louisiana. According to news reports, Ms. Gehrke fell ill with heat exhaustion and passed away on July 11, 2022, despite the efforts of coworkers and paramedics to revive her on-site. Local conditions were reportedly 98° with a heat index over 107° at the time of her passing.
Ms. Gehrke had earned a bachelor’s degree in forensic archaeology and Spanish from the University of Montana in 2019 and was described by her loved ones as a force for positivity and inclusion. As a high school student, Kaylen organized “Day Without Hate” activities to emphasize kindness and positivity among her peers. It is clear that Kaylen had much to offer our field and the world, and we extend our deep sympathies to Kaylen’s family, friends, and colleagues. Her obituary is at this link.

The broader archaeological community is deeply saddened by this loss, especially so early in her professional career. No one should face death or long-term injury performing archaeological work. The SAA wants to encourage everyone to recognize the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke and to follow the OSHA-NIOSH heat safety tools when assessing safe levels of heat exposure on your projects. Additionally, we recognize that the ongoing effects of climate change, global warming, and forest fires will likely increase the frequency of dangerously high temperatures.

Further, we recognize that the most vulnerable employees disproportionately face risks of heat-related illness and other field-related injuries, particularly younger field technicians and archaeologists on temporary work contracts who may feel a need to prove themselves in the field. These problems are often exacerbated by insufficient training for new technicians, lack of adequate healthcare benefits for temporary and part-time employees, and understaffing. We encourage all principal investigators, project directors, and established archaeologists to create cultures that prioritize safety and communication. The SAA is in the process of adding recognizing heat stroke and other dangerous conditions to its upcoming trainings and will consider other ways to propagate and encourage best practices in field safety.

The SAA would like to thank SAA member Jesse Wolfhagen for bringing this sad loss to our attention and Jesse, Elliot Helmer, and Ellen Chapman for drafting much of this message