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.

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.

public archaeology

An Archaeology Ordinance for Savannah

Why do we need an archaeological ordinance? How would Savannah benefit? Why should you bother to attend a public meeting on the potential ordinance? I’m going to answer the last question first- The City of Savannah has previously balked at creating an archaeological ordinance, citing pressure from looters. Without a big turnout, I fear they will drop the issue, and we won’t get another chance. Join us tonight, September 26, 6pm at the Coastal Georgia Center (305 Fahm St, Savannah, GA) and speak out about the importance of archaeology.

How Savannah Benefits from Archaeology

1. Reduces expenses to city departments currently required to deal with unexpected crises such as adverse impacts to archaeological sites from hurricanes, discovery of buried explosive ordnance, and other issues.

2. An awareness of heritage decreases blight by providing a sense of place, pride, and connection for residents of all parts of the city. “Heritage anchors people to their roots, builds self-esteem, and restores dignity.” Cities such as Phoenix, AZ include archaeology in blight-reduction plans.

3. Eliminates “surprises” to developers and the city, such as the discovery of unknown graves, unexploded ordnance, and other PR issues that would slow or stop development. Who remembers the family cemetery found on White Bluff Road that delayed the auto parts store?

4. Provides developers with unique content, artifacts, and information that can be used in exhibits and marketing within their development.

5. Diversifies tourism and provides authenticity and accurate information for tourism content. This makes Savannah more than just another ghost tour town. “A city’s conserved historic core can differentiate that city from competing locations – branding it nationally and internationally…”

6. Provides outreach opportunities for disenfranchised youth, K-12 STEM educators, and all residents.

7. Documents and preserves local cultures before they are destroyed (ex. Gullah-Geechee village). 

 Savannah is Georgia’s oldest city and holds national and international significance. Its history drives a massive economic engine. This history, most abundant in its archaeological sites, is being destroyed daily. Savannah can stop this destruction without slowing or stopping development. Savannah lags behind more than 269 cities, including ones in Mississippi and Alabama, in protecting its priceless archaeological sites. During the past 30 years, Savannah has revisited an archaeology ordinance but taken no action. In that time, hundreds of archaeological sites have been decimated. The irreplaceable information they contain is now lost forever, but it is not too late to save what remains. 

Number of people who signed the 2016 petition for an Archaeology Ordinance in Savannah: 1,245 

Myth 1: Archaeology will slow or stop development. Wrong. An archaeology ordinance will enable developers to know exactly what they need to do far in advance, allowing archaeology to be completed prior to construction start dates.

Myth 2: Archaeology is cost-prohibitive. Incorrect. An archaeology ordinance will allow developers to plan accordingly and include the low cost of doing archaeology along with other routine costs of developing a property. Archaeology costs are negligible on most projects and especially on many of the current projects such as the $270 million dollar development along River Street.

Myth 3: Developers will not develop if they are required to have archaeology done on their property. Not true. Other cities with archaeological ordinances have shown no decrease in the level of development as a result of archaeology ordinances.

Myth 4: A City Archaeologist position is an unnecessary expense. False. A dedicated position will save the city money by helping insure front-end planning for developers, on-call expertise available for all city departments, lower cost and quicker “in-house” archaeological investigations, and the competent creation and execution of MOAs, PAs, Scopes of Work, RFPs, and RFQs. In 2011, San Antonio, TX saved “several hundred thousand dollars” by having a City Archaeologist.

Myth 5: Few in Savannah really care about its archaeological sites. Untrue. Residents, businessmen and women, and tourists care. The reason policy makers haven’t heard this concern is that the public thinks the city is already protecting its non-renewable archaeological sites. In fact, many city leaders incorrectly think the same thing. The public is appalled when they learn otherwise. 

Heritage tourists spend more per day (27%) and stay longer (1-3 more days) than other travelers. Archaeology feeds heritage tourism.

Credits: Rita Elliott wrote most of this in a two-page brief for distribution to the public and city officials. It was written explicitly for R&D (rip-off and duplicate) and was designed to be shared. Please do!

Freedmen school & monastery

Pride Month: One Historical perspective

For nearly four years, I have been researching the Benedictine monastery and Freedmen school on Skidaway Island, first through archaeological field work in 2016 and 2017. Since I have continued my historical research with the goal to write a book. This monastery was one of several started in 1870s Savannah, with the aim to convert the African American families living and farming on Skidaway Island, teach boys in their boarding school, and train adult African American lay brothers to further spread Catholicism.

One of the richest data sources are the letters between the monks. Most, but not all, of the letters are the Skidaway mission founder Father Oswald Moosmüller reporting to his superior Abbot Boniface Wimmer at St. Vincent Abbey in Pennsylvania. In one letter, I was quite shocked to find a reference to gay sex. Really I was shocked to find any reference to sex, because these were monks. In March of 1878, Father Oswald wrote to Abbot Innocent Wolf of Kansas (honestly, the best name ever) and explained why he dismissed an unnamed African American lay brother,

“Yesterday I found myself obliged to raise a row and expel that fellow, after having heard two witnesses in his presence, which proved that he is a Sodomist etc. etc. I claimed that right for myself 1, because there was periculum in mora* 2, if I have the right to receive brothers & let them make their novitiate and take their vows so I have also the right to dismiss them; 3, moreover according to the laws of Georgia there is capital punishment on such crimes; with a nigro [sic] they do not make much ceremony in that matter”.

source: Benedictine Military SChool Archives, Savannah, Georgia

It is unclear whether Father Oswald means that homosexuality is rarely tried and punished when African Americans are involved, or whether an African American accused of homosexuality would simply be lynched without a trial. Either way, Father Oswald expelled the man without further mention. While this man lost his home and possibly his vocation, according to the contemporary laws, he could have lost much more. The punishment for having an LGBT+ relationship was capital punishment. You could be put to death. Pause for a moment and consider those implications.

This document leaves so much unexplained. Nothing is mentioned of his partner. Presumably, it was not someone in the monastery, as no one else was expelled. So his partner was likely another person on Skidaway Island. Further, since we do not have the man’s name, it is nearly impossible to trace his life further. Did he leave the island? Did he leave the Catholic faith? How did he make a living? Did he ever get married or have children?

*Latin for “danger in delay”

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.

Alliance series, Backyard History, public archaeology

October 9, 1779: Backyard History

October 9, 1779, is the anniversary of the Battle of Savannah. Most people don’t know there was a major Revolutionary War battle in downtown Savannah. At 800 casualties, this is considered one of the bloodiest battles of the American Revolution. However, only approximately 50 of these were British. We lost. Badly. The British held Savannah until the war’s end.

Archaeology has contributed to to our knowledge of this event. The Coastal Heritage Society manages a small, but critical, portion of the battlefield, Battlefield Memorial Park. In 2005, the park was scheduled for rehabilitation and a make-over. Archaeologist Rita Elliott asked for one last chance to find the redoubt, or small fort that the Americans and their allies attacked in an attempt to retake Savannah. She was successful, and Rita’s findings were incorporated into the reconstructed redoubt, memorial stones, and interpretive signs throughout the park. This work was also the catalyst for two National Park Service American Battlefield Protection Program grants, starting in 2007. I was fortunate to be part of the “Savannah Under Fire” project team, who extended the excavations throughout downtown Savannah’s greenspaces, finding more intact pieces of the battlefield.

Archaeologists are often criticized for being “elitist” and not sharing artifacts or knowledge. Especially for this project, that cannot be farther from the truth. In addition to the signs on Battlefield Park, there is an exhibit in the Savannah History Museum next door, where you can see the artifacts recovered from the battlefield. The project’s social media is still floating around including this brochure and (my favorite) a video of us in the field. The technical reports for all phases of the project are available as free downloads on the LAMAR Institute website:

(While there, you can also look at more than 200 other archaeology reports from Georgia and the Southeast.)

Finally, today, and every October 9, the Coastal Heritage Society holds a Battlefield Memorial March. I attended several years under obligation as an employee but was always impressed by the event and its significance.

October 9, 2018, Battlefield Memorial March. Photograph courtesy of the Coastal Heritage Society Facebook page.
October 9, 2018, Battlefield Memorial March. Photograph courtesy of the Coastal Heritage Society Facebook page.

I urge you to explore your Backyard History, our Revolutionary War battlefield. There is so much more than I could possibly cover in one blog post. Battlefield Memorial Park is a great place to start.