advocacy

Archaeology Ordinance Update

Less than a year ago (but 3,168 covid years), the City of Savannah passed an archaeological ordinance. The ordinance has many shortcomings, but the idea behind it is to ease into archaeology, starting with a few public property projects as a pilot program. To assess the pilot program, an archaeology committee was formed consisting of representatives from the city, development community members, hobbyists, historic preservationists, and archaeologists. This committee has met twice to give the city feedback on requests for proposals (RFPs) to hire an archaeological firm to carry out the new ordinance. Several individuals (myself included) with experience in cultural resources management (CRM), the broad industry under which archaeology falls, discussed the importance of having two requests for proposals (RFPs). One RFP would be for a company to conduct the actual archaeology and a second RFP would be for an individual archaeologist or firm to act as a city archaeologist. The “city archaeologist” would be the city’s representative to protect the city’s interests. This is how virtually all CRM legislation works- you have a balance of power between the city/employer and company/employed. We were told this was too expensive. Two RFPs were not going to happen.

Here is a theoretical, while unlikely, example of why we need checks and balances. Let’s say the city accepts Company X’s bid, and Company X now holds the archaeological services contract. Their first project is to assess a piece of surplus property assigned for resale. How would the city know what is an appropriate amount of research and fieldwork? How and who is assessing that Company X is following best practices and not just digging everything in sight while causing the citizens an enormous bill?

The next phase in this pilot program was launched yesterday when the city released an RFP for “Annual Contract for Archaelogical Services” [sic]. Yes, “Archaeological” was spelled wrong.

Once CRM firm(s) are hired, I look forward to seeing how the process works and using these experiences to work out the kinks. Eventually, we need to expand the program to private property and hire a city archaeologist. Without both of these elements, the ordinance is mostly worthless. Despite this slow process (partly due to covid) and the caveats I’ve listed, I am hopeful because we are continuing the process of implementing the Archaeology Resource Protection Ordinance (its official title).

Archaeology sites, once destroyed, are gone forever and so is the history they hold.
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Stop Moving Historic Structures

A fantastic new website, Savannah Agenda, is helping citizens understand our local government, businesses, and most importantly, the relationship between the two. Several recent posts have Savannahians pretty ticked. First, there is City Council’s vote to move the Waving Girl Statue down River Street to a new hotel development. (More on the Waving Girl here and the council vote here.) Second is a proposal to move a historic building two blocks so yet another new hotel can be built. The 119-year-old building, located at the corner of Lincoln and East Bryan streets, houses local favorite Abe’s on Lincoln. It’s a bar. Don’t judge, it’s important to us.

This proposal, combined with several other social media posts I’ve seen recently has inspired this rant: STOP moving old structures. There are good reasons that relocated structures are rarely eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

  1. Most importantly, when you move a historic structure you divorce the structure from its archaeological site.
  2. Relocation is almost always done so a property can be freed up for development, and the archaeological site is destroyed.
  3. Poorly done relocation destroys the larger landscape and viewshed.
  4. Finally, the idea that history should just shove over for new development is deeply arrogant and myopic. Only saving a historic structure while sacrificing an archaeological site is poor preservation at best and short-sighted arrogance at worst.

There are extremely rare circumstances when moving a historic structure is warranted. For example, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse was moved 2,900 feet away from the coast in 1999. Climate change and erosion had undermined the lighthouse to the point it was in danger of toppling. Clearly, a case where moving a structure was necessary for both preservation and safety reasons.

The relocation option needs to be taken off the table except in extreme circumstances. Planning commissions need to stop allowing it, and historic preservationists need to stop condoning it.

“sometimes ownership isn’t just a matter of who holds a mortgage with a bank, or whose name is on a property deed. A community can feel a sense of ownership for a historic site or a natural wonder in its midst.”

SOURCE: Altamont Enterprise Opinion page