The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Plane Crash Part 4

This is part 4 of this series. If you have not already, you may want to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 first.


So, now we come to the 4th and final part of the series on excavating a WWII-era plane crash. In this installment I have no interesting finds, strange characters, or emotional moments. This section is about the efforts that my boss and I made to determine what was to be the regulatory status of the plane crash site itself.

First, I have to give some background – this may not be very exciting, but it’s necessary to understand what happened, so please bear with me.

There is a series of laws that apply to historic sites*, whether archaeological sites, historic buildings, important landmarks, or anything else. If there is any federal involvement, then the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) applies. This law provides some limited protection to historic properties that are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The degree of protection depends on which federal agency is involved, as well as circumstances particular to each case – some important sites may receive no protection under certain circumstances, but other circumstances will see even the most humble site being treated well. However, for a site to even be considered for protection or mitigation, it must first be eligible for the NRHP – not necessarily listed on the NRHP but eligible. If a project takes place on Federal land, it is usually only the NRHP that applies (there are, of course, exceptions).

In order to be eligible for the NRHP, a property must retain integrity (in other words, it must be able to convey its significance, how it retains integrity varies by type of property), be of sufficient age (usually 50 years old**, although a property of exceptional importance may qualify for the NRHP at an earlier age), and meet one of the following criteria***:

A) Be associated with important events
B) Be associated with important historic figures
C) Have exceptional value in terms of art/aesthetics, engineering, or be exceptionally representative of a particular period of time, tradition, or method of construction
D) Is likely to produce information important to our understanding of history or prehistory.

A property that is 50 years of age or older, maintains integrity, and meets one of these four criteria is eligible for listing on the NRHP, and therefore may be subject to mitigation or protection measures, depending on the nature of the project that may impact them.

Within California, if a project does not take place on federal land, then the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) applies. Treatment of historic properties under CEQA are similar to treatment under the NHPA (even the same criteria are used), but the focus is on California’s history or local history, and not national history, as is the case with the NHPA, and CEQA is concerned primarily with properties listed on the California Register of Historic Resources (CRHR) rather than the NRHP. The specifics of the process, and who the players are and the roles the play change, but there are more similarities than differences as far as evaluating historic properties is concerned.

One level down there are city and county regulations and ordinances, but most of these either state that the city/county will comply with CEQA, pay lip service to historic preservation without giving specifics, or apply primarily to historic architecture with only limited reference to archaeology.

One other thing that needs to be explained – all of this takes place within the context of environmental review. As practiced in the United States, environmental review, usually conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA – that’s the last acronym, I promise), is about the process, not the conclusion. People often claim that the environmental laws prevent construction or stop projects, etc. I call bullshit on this – the laws are about process, not about conclusion or protection, and projects are stopped by decision making on the part of developers and government agencies, not be the laws. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either wholly ignorant of the process or is intentionally lying to you.

Okay, that’s the regulatory setting. Still with me? Good. I promise this gets more interesting.

This was not a normal project. Normally you perform a small-scale excavation or perform a structural assessment in order to determine whether or not a property is eligible for the NRHP or CRHR. In this case, because of the nature of the property, we had to excavate all that we could first and then determine what was to be done with the site afterwards. The remains were with the coroner, and the wreckage was being taken care of in conjunction with the Navy. Now we had to determine whether or not the plane wreckage or the site of the crash were eligible for either the NRHP or the CRHR, and determine from there whether or not there needed to be any further efforts to protect or mark the location. I should say that, in the end, the pipeline’s owner decided to do some work to mark the spot and show respect to the pilot and gunner. They were not required to do so, but they did nonetheless.

So, the first thing that we had to do is determine what kind of property we were dealing with. Was it an aircraft? Well, for the purposes of this project, no. The plane had been smashed on impact, and lacked integrity as an aircraft. Essentially, from a regulatory standpoint, it had ceased to be an airplane the moment that it broke apart.

Okay, so was it an archaeological site? As it turns out, yes. Archaeological sites, from a regulatory standpoint, can be thought of as the residues of past human activity. As a location of a plane crash containing a fair amount of wreckage but no standing objects or structures, this certainly met that description. So, did it maintain integrity? That’s a tougher call. After the crash, there was some recovery of material, thus disturbing the crash site. However, if you consider the Navy’s recovery of material as part of the events of which the site are the remains, then yes, the site does maintain integrity. To add to this, sediments from a flood quickly covered the location and the crash site was essentially sealed from disturbance. So, it’s kind of a tough call, but I argued that, as an archaeological site, the crash site did maintain integrity. And it was over 50 years old, it was, in fact, 63 years old.

Okay, so does it meet one of the criteria for listing on either the NRHP or the CRHR? Well, to determine that, we had to work out what the historic context of the plane was.

Well, the broad context is World War II. However, that’s big and vague, too big and vague to be useful as any number of things are related to WWII, and only a few of them are likely to gain any sort of legal recognition, and nothing about this crash was especially evocative of WWII (a requirement for listing under Criterion A) so we had to narrow it down. World War II aviation – better, but still big and too vague to be useful. But the plane was on a training mission when it crashed…ah, now we have the proper context – WWII aviation training, and California was a hub for aviation training.

Okay, so now we had to figure out if the crash site qualified for the NRHP or CRHR under Criterion A. Was this training mission especially important in the context of the war? No, it was a standard training mission. Was the crash itself important, either on a national level, a state level, or a local level? No, training crashes were a common occurrence during WWII. One estimate holds that more planes crashed during training during one month in 1944 than were shot down during the Battle of Midway. Also, other than adding some unique elements to local folklore, the crash did not have an impact on the “broad patterns of local or state history.” An argument could be made that the crash was relevant to the history of the county in which the crew were stationed, but the crew were stationed in Stanislaus County and the crash occurred in Monterey County, and because of the way that the regulations are written, this meant that the crash could not be considered locally relevant.

Okay, so it doesn’t apply under Criterion A. What about Criterion B?

Well, the pilot and the gunner were trainees, and as such had not yet had a chance to make a name for themselves as either aviators or military personnel. Neither had a strong claim to fame outside of their military careers. So, this crash site was not considered eligible for the NRHP under Criterion B.

The plane, as described, lacked all structural integrity, and therefore Criterion C was right out of the question.

So, then, we have Criterion D, the ability of the site to contribute important information to the study of history. Because the plane crash was disturbed, and then left to deteriorate for a period of over six decades, it was unlikely to yield useful information regarding flight training, historic aviation, or the lives of WWII military personnel. Other sources, written and physical, have the ability to produce the same information that might be produced from further study of this crash site, and these other sources would likely produce better information.

So, in the end, the site was recommended not eligible for the NRHP or CRHR. I called the State Office of Historic Preservation to see what they thought, and they agreed, though I have yet to receive a final confirmation.

And with that, my involvement with the plane crash site ended.

*In both legal and technical terms, the terms site, property, building, structure, object, landmark, etc. all have very specific meanings. In addition, the terms cultural resource, cultural property, historic property al have very different legal and regulatory meanings. For the purpose of this entry, I’m going to use these terms more-or-less interchangeably, as they don’t particularly matter to people outside of the historic preservation and research community, but be aware that there are probably archaeologists out there reading this and foaming at the mouth because I am treating these terms in such a cavalier fashion.

**When the law was originally passed in the 1960s, this applied primarily to WWI-era and earlier resources. In fact, I have read numerous reports written during the 1970s where Great Depression-era sites and properties were written off because they were a mere 30-40 years old. Now, however, sites of that era are considered to be very valuable to historic archaeologists. Also, we are now having to consider the tract-houses of the 1950s when we look at evaluating properties – an unforeseen circumstance in the 1960s legislation, but these properties do tell us a lot about our history as a culture and a nation, and therefore may be valuable.

***The actual wording of the law spells out these criteria in considerably more detail. I’m simplifying them here because the full text isn’t necessary to understand the general process, and only becomes relevant when you are in the process as a professional. But if you like, the full text is here, straight from 36 CFR 60.4:

The quality of significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering and culture is present in districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that possess integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association, and

(a) that are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or

(b) that are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; or

(c) that 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; or

(d) that have yielded, or may be likely to yield information important in prehistory or history.


Evan Davis said...

It is analagous to a car crash. We don't revere those either...wait no, I'm wrong. I've seen too many roadside vigils in LA.

Anthroslug said...

It's not about revering the crash site, it's about determining whether or not it's a noteworthy historic event.