How to save your fieldwork season

You just know it when it’s time to leave the field and head for home. When the thought of one more day collecting rocks in the field is just too much to handle; when the mosquito bites feel like personal attacks and the homely daily routines appear in your mind as something heavenly: DVD’s, your favourite coffee, the bed of course, but most of all, the bathroom. Ahh, say no more.

So you pack the tent and the dirty boots, seal off the bag with dirty clothes and head for civilization and the airport. Nearly home now. But only nearly, as you have a bag number two, the really heavy one, and that bag contains a decent number of precious rocks, all collected for the sole purpose of unravelling the mysteries of your favourite field area (and perhaps result in a brilliant paper, too).

Do I hear Nature potential? Undoubtedly. But that bag of rocks is also potential trouble. Depending on where you are and where your home is, bringing rocks out of a country via an airport may pulverize your imaginary Nature paper. Do you have the right permission to export the samples? If not, you and the samples may have seen each other for the very last time. And no, crying in front of the custom officers won’t do any good.

To make the process of returning home, with the samples, as smooth as possible, I willingly share my experiences (in a distilled way) doing the same from countries as diverse as Argentina, USA, Greenland, Russia, South Africa, Mali and Azerbaijan. I assure you that everything is based on true stories. Really.      

  1. You are never home until you are, well, home. Do not forget this simple fact.
  2. From time to time, in very specific countries, you may have to provide the chemical composition of the samples you have collected before shipment is allowed. Don’t ask me how the custom department think you can actually get that information in the field, since this is why you collected the samples in the first place. Be imaginative, and provide a list of typical compositions of what you have. Like a SiO2 content of 55.4 wt% (pick a number). Remember to use normal rock names as granite or basalt (picrite or monzodiorite will not work). Whatever you do, NEVER mention that the rock may contain ore minerals.
  3. Or for that matter, coal. We all know that coal is a very dangerous substance that for sure will self-ignite in high altitude. Describe the sample as a “dark rock”, most likely “dirt”.
  4. Then know what to do if you have collected rocks containing petroleum or oil residues (if you don’t, it’s bye-bye samples).
  5. Fossils are trouble. Even a rock that bears no resemblance what so ever to a fossil can give you a hard time. And having to explain why a travertine sample is not a dinosaur bone when you do not speak Spanish (as the custom officer) is harder than it sounds like.
  6. The case of bringing gas bottles out need special mention. Vacuumed steel bottles are useful for sampling gases in the field, but if you describe the bottle as a “gas container” to the custom officers, I can predict the outcome. Replace “gas” with “air” and do not mention that you intend to measure the non-radiogenic isotopes in that bottle. When they insist that you open the bottle so they can “see” the sample themselves, advice is hard to give. Thus could be the only situation in which crying actually may help.  
  7. Do not underestimate the value of official documents. The more you have, the better, since even custom officers get tired of papers eventually and may let you pass if they feel like it.  
  8. To re-iterate point 1, the samples are not safe until they are at home. Passing the final boarding counter is not sufficient. Are you sure your documents permit export out of the country and not just out of the province? If you have to explain your case with a custom officer in the hallway in front of the “boarding completed” airplane, make sure you are able to speak the same language as him/her. Always insist that you have done everything in the right order and that your signed documents are sufficient. When the captain waves from the airplane, pray that it gives you a green light.

May the samples be with you.

This blog post is also published on the new blog site for the European Association of Geochemistry, the EAG Blogosphere (

Photo: Rocks, rocks and rocks. Let the sampling begin. Here from  an expedition to East Siberia in 2010. (Photo: Henrik Svensen.)

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