The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Another Field Work Lesson Learned

As regular readers know, I was out of touch for two weeks at the beginning of the month, digging holes in the forest. I will be going back out next week to finish some work. I will be dealing with two different sites, one of which is a six mile hike along a rough trail from the nearest road, and I will be performing archaeological survey in a location that, for a variety of reasons, could not have been dealt with before. The reason that I am digging holes in these two sites is to examine what is present below the surface and make a determination as to whether or not these sites qualify for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. If the qualify, then the federal agencies involved in the project that is justifying this work will have to manage these sites as historic resources. If they do not qualify for listing, the agencies might be able to ignore the sites from here on out (depending on the agreements that they reach with other stakeholders in the project).

One of the sites that I will be dealing with was originally recorded as a historic archaeological site. It represents the remains of a shepherd’s cabin (the building is no longer standing) and the debris associated with life at the cabin (food cans, beer cans, the remains of a bed that have inexplicably been cut in two and placed at two separate locations, and some weird early-20th century electronic equipment – this really is the setting for a bad sci-fi novel). While we were digging, we found evidence of a prehistoric component to the site – so, it’s not just the historic cabin remains and it’s trash, we were also finding arrowheads, spearpoints, bifaces (a type of stone tool that has been worked on two faces to create an ovoid blade shape), and a few by-product flakes from making the tools.

Well, when we were out there the first time, we dug a few shovel probes (relatively small holes dug at 20-centimeter intervals to get a rough idea of what is under the ground) in the central portion of the site, and a few on the western edge, as that is where any construction from the project would be hitting the site. We found nothing on the western edge, and only a small amount in the central portion, and we dug very little on the southeastern edge, where the prehistoric materials seemed to be concentrated because that area would not be impacted by the construction project. We figured that we were good – if the site was eligible for listing, and it didn’t look like it was, then we had confirmed that this particular project would not impact the site. We figured that our work was done.

I get back to the office, and tell my boss about our results. He asks if we had enough information to give a confident assessment of the boundaries of the prehistoric component. I responded that we did not, as we had concentrated on the portions of the site likely to 1) hold the materials that would allow us to assess the eligibility to the National Register, and 2) the site boundaries in the area likely to be impacted. I had thought that my boss would be impressed at my foresight and targeted use of resources.

He was not.

My boss, who has a hell of a lot of experience in dealing with these types of issues, pointed out a few things to me. The first is that, while it is true that I had made a determination as to the likelihood of the project to impact the site, AND I may have the information necessary to determine National Register eligibility, the two federal agencies with which we were dealing may nonetheless elect to manage the site as a historic resource due to either public pressure or pressure from stakeholders (such as historical societies, Native American groups, etc.). This being the case, the boundary of the site would become important.

The second was that, even if the agencies chose not to manage the site, our client (itself a county agency) might decide to do so for the same types of reasons that the agencies might rely on. So, we were once again in a position where more information would be helpful, even if the site was not eligible for listing.

The third was that, even in the absence of register eligibility, the federal agencies would see the acquisition of site boundary information as valuable and as evidence that our client had made a good-faith effort to meet the federal agency’s needs. This was likely to make matters easier for our client even if the site itself was ultimately regarded as unimportant.

And so I learn a lesson on how both the regulations and politics of a project can have impacts on fieldwork that are not obvious from the get-go. A valuable lesson, if one that can be a bit embarrassing to learn.

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