public archaeology

How does an Archaeology Ordinance work?

Local and state archaeological ordinances often mirror the federal preservation legislation, primarily the National Historic Act of 1966, but there are differences in the level of detail. How do they work? What are these Phases? What does mitigation mean? In order to have an informed opinion when you take the Savannah Archaeological Ordinance Survey, read on.

In general, when a new development (hotel, arena, etc…) is proposed it goes through a permitting process. One of those permits can be for archaeology. An initial check is done to learn the property’s history including known archaeology sites, what has been built, and how previous development may have affected archaeology sites. If there is potential for archaeology sites, then a Phase 1 survey is done. Typically, in the Southeast, this means hiring an archaeologist to do shovel test pits (roughly one-foot diameter holes dug in a grid pattern).

Digging shovel test pits in Emmet Park during the Savannah Under Fire project.

If artifacts are found indicating a site(s) is present, then it’s on to Phase II. Phase II involves more extensive excavations to see if the site(s) is intact and is likely to yield good data. For projects under the federal legislation, the main question asked is, “Is this site eligible for the National Register of Historic Places?”. There are four National Register criteria under which properties can be nominated:

  • Criterion A: “associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.”
  • Criterion B: “associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.”
  • Criterion C: “embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.” (aka important architecture)
  • Criterion D: “have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.” (aka archaeological sites)
Students and volunteers excavating at the Kiah House, 2018. These are test pits, typical of Phase II excavations.

If the site is eligible for the National Register, then you go to Phase III, or mitigation. For archaeology sites, mitigation usually means large scale excavation to get the data from the site before it is destroyed. On extraordinarily rare occasions, mitigation involves preserving in place (or in situ).

At each stage in the process, there should be consultation with any interested groups. For example, if you are excavating a Benedictine monastery and Freedmen school, you would consult with the current Benedictine community at Benedictine Military School and the Savannah diocese. Also, the archaeologists would try to find the students’ direct descendants, as well as reaching out to the larger African American community.

Ordinances have the three phase structure to avoid wasting lots of time and money on unnecessary excavation. The process only proceeds to the next phase if it is warranted. By integrating the archaeology into the permitting process, you get everything done before the construction. It is also important to note, a small percentage of proposed development projects ever get to a Phase I, and very few ever get to Phase III.

Who manages this process? The optimal answer is a city or county archaeologist. They review permit applications and guide the process. The developer (or other permit applicant) hires archaeologists on a project-by-project basis to research, excavate, analyze, and write technical reports for each phase.

Who does the ordinance apply to? This varies widely. Some ordinances only apply to public (governmental) projects. Others legislate public and private developments. Private development usually applies to businesses, not private homes. I’m not aware of any archaeological ordinances that apply to homeowners.

How much development is enough for the ordinance to apply? In other words, we don’t want the ordinance to apply every time someone replaces a fence post. But how much is enough trigger the ordinance? This is another decision to be made as the ordinance is written.

Where does the ordinance apply? Ideally, the ordinance would cover the entire county, but since this is a city initiative, that’s all we have to work with. I cannot stress this enough- there are archaeology sites everywhere, not just in the downtown historic district, or just in the historic districts.

Frequently, incentives are offered to offset the “inconvenience” of doing archaeology. Incentives can include an expedited permit review process and/or reduced development or permit fees. Often, these incentives are used as a carrot to encourage archaeology, rather than requiring archaeology and giving incentives as a benefit. Making archaeology optional and only offering incentives will make a very weak ordinance and will result in very little archaeology completed.

How much is this going to cost me? As a resident, a properly written ordinance should not cost you. For federal legislation, the cost of archaeology is typically 1% or less of the total project cost. The city’s cost could be covered by an archaeological fee assessed on development or as a percentage of the development’s total cost. My opinion is that whoever is destroying the site, needs to pay for its mitigation.

I urge you to look over the gold-standard, Alexandria Archaeology. From their downtown museum, they run student programs, walking tours, kid and adult hands-on programs, field schools, lectures, site tours, summer camps, and many volunteer opportunities.

5 thoughts on “How does an Archaeology Ordinance work?”

    1. All of these are important questions to be worked out in the process of writing the ordinance. One I can answer- Whoever owns the property also owns the artifacts. The landowner can either keep them, or pay to have them curated properly at an archaeological repository. Locally, Coastal Heritage Society is the steward for lots of city-owned property and artifacts. Georgia Southern has a brand-new archaeological repository which would be an obvious choice for a partnership.

      Like

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