Backyard History, public archaeology

Graves in the Airport Runway

Have you ever seen two gray rectangles distinct from the surrounding gray of the Savannah airport runway? A friend’s Facebook post of the Dotson Runway Graves led me to several articles on this oddity. In short, as the Savannah Airport expanded into the surrounding farmland, it took over a family cemetery as well. Many of the graves were exhumed and the bodies reburied in another cemetery, but per the family’s wishes, Richard and Catherine Dotson were left in place. According to the Atlas Obscura article, “Citing the fact that their ancestors would have wanted to stay on the land they worked so hard to cultivate and purchase, the surviving Dotson relatives refused to allow Richard and Catherine to be moved.” So the runway was built around them and the graves given new markers.

The Dotson graves. The picture is from the Atlas Obscura article. I suspect it’s a Google maps or Google Earth capture, since we can’t walk out on the runway to take photographs.

While this may seem like a bizarre story, these are exactly the type of problems and solutions archaeologists face everyday. Most archaeologists (probably around 80%) work in Cultural Resources Management (CRM). This means they don’t work in academia or in museums but work for archaeology companies or in government. CRM essentially began in 1966 with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act. This federal law mandates archaeology and historic preservation for projects with certain conditions:

  • projects on federal land or in federal waters (like National Parks or the White House front lawn)
  • projects involving federal permits or federal money (like the Savannah Harbor Deepening)

But the laws do not mandate how the archaeology is done. In fact, the law only requires that the project managers “consider impacts” to cultural resources eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Of course, I am radically simplifying a complex process. My point is that archaeologists do more than dig. Archaeologists and their cousins (such as historic preservationists) manage archaeology sites and cultural resources to find solutions that work for the most number of stakeholders: the project developer, descendants, businesses, neighbors, etc. To do so, they often mix many techniques like “consultation with stakeholders”. In the case of the Dotson graves, it was the descendant family members whose ancestors’ graves were disturbed. In other cases, such as the CSS Georgia ironclad, the Army Corps of Engineers represented the military’s constituency, since the Confederate Navy no longer exists.

Barge over the CSS Georgia. From this platform, archaeologists recovered artifacts and pieces of the ironclad for study and preservation.

Most importantly, cultural resource managers need and want your input on projects. Resources on public lands belong to all of us, and we are all stakeholders to varying extents. The CSS Georgia project was much more successful than others in sharing the project with the public. The CRM firm, Panamerican Consultants, Inc., hired an archaeologist specifically to do public outreach, resulting in the Raise the Wreck festival. A documentarian was hired, the CRM company head Steve James spoke to my students at Armstrong, and much more. We need to demand that more projects follow this model so this becomes the norm and not the exception.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s