public archaeology

The Ordinance: Where We Stand

The Need to Know

The city is putting forth a very weak archaeology ordinance. City Council will vote on it in late December. Then a committee will be formed to explore an ordinance that might actually be useful and lots of different groups will have input.

The Details

At the October 24 meeting, city officials presented the feedback received about the possible archaeology ordinance. I was hoping to have a copy of the presentation to share, but I’m afraid you’ll have to do with my notes and crappy pictures taken during the meeting.

Quick summary of survey findings:

  • 567 people took the survey
  • 85% believe we need an archaeology ordinance
  • 70.5% believe it should apply to the whole city (as opposed to just the downtown historic district or just historic districts)
  • 84% believe the ordinance should apply to both public (city) and private projects

Acting Zoning Administrator Bridget Lidy, who led the meeting, also stated there was a very vocal minority who were strongly against the ordinance.

The bottom line– Lidy is writing an ordinance that will only apply to city projects, meaning the city will have to do archaeology in some form before doing development projects. Artifacts found during this process will be placed in an archaeological repository. The ordinance will require any city property sold to have an archaeological survey. It will prohibit metal detecting and other archaeological-type activities on city property. Note digging on city property without a permit is already illegal in general (not for archaeological reasons). Here is the timeline.

This is a very tight timeline. Early next year, the city will form a committee charged with:

  • studying the impacts of the initial ordinance and
  • determining the components of a (potential) more robust ordinance

The committee members will include archaeologists, developers, hobbyists, historic preservationists, the Metropolitan Planning Commission employees, and representatives from the Gullah Geechee and Native American communities.

At the meeting, community members expressed two general concerns. One is that residents will have to do archaeology every time they plant an azalea or do other minor changes to their homes. This is not how archaeology ordinances work. Most archaeology ordinances do not even apply to individual homes, and if they do, it’s only for new construction or major renovations that would significantly destroy an archaeology site in the process. Whether residences should be included or not would be up for discussion during Round 2.

The second concern was that the ordinance would prohibit hobbyists and metal detectorists. This concern was couched in terms of private property rights. The hobbyists criticized archaeologists for not finding anything, never sharing their finds, never publishing, and generally being stingy. The hobbyists did not seem to be able to distinguish between the process of professional archaeology and what hobbyists do. It is true, archaeologists do not always find sites. But sometimes we do. When we do, we share those reports whenever possible. See my technical reports here and here, and LAMAR Institute’s 200+ reports here for example. Sometimes CRM (cultural resource management) companies cannot share their archaeology reports because of contractual obligations, or the reports are shared on a very limited basis because they don’t have the budgets for large scale publications.

More importantly, everyone needs to understand the difference between hobbyists and professional archaeology. Both hobbyists and professional archaeologists destroy archaeology sites. Much as the Mythbusters always said, “the difference between screwing around and science is writing it down.” Professional archaeologists record archaeology sites through maps, photographs, and (yes) paperwork. They also take soil samples to extract tiny artifacts, pollen, and phytoliths, which can tell us about people’s diet, climate, and environment. Soil samples taken from privies (outdoor toilets) can contain parasites that let us know whether people are healthy (or not!). This recording process is critical because each archaeological site is unique and irreplaceable. Once excavated, it is gone forever, along with all of the (pre)history contained in it. Archaeologists use these records and paperwork along with their lab analyses of artifacts, soil samples, and soil stratigraphy (layers) to understand the history contained in the site. This is a relatively slow process. It’s not just about fieldwork. The real understanding comes in the lab using the scientific research process.

After analysis, artifacts go to an archaeological repository so they are accessible for other researchers. They write technical reports that go the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and usually local libraries or archives. Since the 1990s, public outreach and education has been an increasingly important (and often unpaid) part of the job too– including social media, lectures, visiting classrooms, site tours, kids books, popular publications, and the ArchaeoBus, just to name a few.

Hobbyists pull artifacts from the ground. They may even research those artifacts. But their understanding of those artifacts and the larger history of the site are minuscule compared to professional archaeologists because they don’t have the context, or all of the information surrounding an artifact (remember that annoying paperwork?). Hobbyists also often rely on metal detectors, so they only look at metal artifacts. Imagine someone trying to understand your life by only looking a very small portion of the evidence. Their conclusions would be seriously skewed.

I look forward to the continuing dialogue about how Savannah should treat its archaeology sites. I’m happy to answer questions about how archaeology really works. (The guy in the fedora isn’t really an archaeologist).

Quick edit- there are many, many excellent programs that include volunteers working with professional archaeologists. These types of partnerships are incredibly valuable, and I would love to see more of them everywhere, especially Savannah. The hobbyists I refer to above are folks working independently.

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