Poetic Archaeology 11

test units finished

feature profiles cleaned and drawn

backfill and wrap up

For protection, black plastic is placed over features that will be excavated at a later date.

With a last push, Meghan and her crew have finished their Phase II excavations somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic. They’ve “backfilled” the test units and most of the machine-excavated trenches so no one accidentally falls into a hole and gets hurt. The features they found but didn’t excavate were protected with a layer of heavy plastic sheeting before piling the dirt over them. This excavation isn’t over. And you’re in for some bureaucratic jargon with this post.

Meghan knows the site is significant. It meets the eligibility requirements for the National Register of Historic Places. She’s been in contact with her client and the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) and kept them up to date on her findings. Her client has several options. He can modify his proposed project to avoid damage to the archaeological site, such as by setting it aside as greenspace that will be protected by a legal covenant. In this case, he’s decided that isn’t feasible. He could abandon his plans. But he won’t do that, either. His project is a good one and will be profitable. Instead, he’s already contracted with Meghan to do a Phase III mitigation or data recovery project.

A small “pit feature,” as yet unclassified. Can you see the slight differences in soil colors on the ground surface between the feature and the “normal” soil behind the board? Hot dry summers make seeing such changes even more difficult than normal.

After Meghan presents her formal Phase II findings in a report and the “SHPO” formally concurs with her findings, she’ll begin work on the Phase III project. Mitigation, or data recovery, usually entails more intensive excavations and historic research as well as specialized analyses. Sometimes an entire site is excavated at this stage, mainly if it’s small or won’t yield huge numbers of artifacts. Larger sites, and those with potentially thousands (or tens of thousands) of artifacts are “sampled.” A plantation site like Meghan’s, which also contains a Native American component, will usually be sampled. She’ll excavate some of the smaller features (especially the Native American features) completely and only selected parts of larger features like cellars or other structural remains.

This small feature, the stain left by a wooden post, is similar to some Meghan found.

Archaeological projects like this are often lumped with the larger environmental studies that are done for major construction projects. Sometimes, environmental conditions are enough to stop a proposed development. Endangered plant or endangered species might live in the area. Or critical wetlands could be present. Often, though, a significant archaeological site is “mitigated.”

Because the artifacts can be sent to a museum, along with the excavation notes and photographic documentation, the information about the site is “preserved for posterity.” It’s a relatively straightforward process to excavate the site and allow the project to continue. It costs a few dollars, but usually not too much to stop a project, especially something like a new interstate or cross-country gas pipeline. (Or, in Madeleine O’Brien’s story, a subdivision of million-dollar homes.)

So it’s back to the lab for Meghan and her crew. They’ll finish washing, labeling, and analyzing the artifacts from the project. And Meghan will write up her Phase II report and recommend that the site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Looking ahead, we know the SHPO will concur and find the project will have “an adverse impact” on a historic property. Later this year, Meghan and her crew will be back on site.

But you never know what kind of project might pop up before then….

36 thoughts on “Poetic Archaeology 11

  1. JM, you mentioned that hot, dry summers make it difficult to detect changes in soil coloration. What are ideal conditions? And how often would an archaeologist in the Mid-Atlantic find “ideal” conditions? Is there a perfect time of year to excavate? As long as I’ve lived in the South, we have had very few wet, rainy summers. Or non-drought-type summers. Do archaeologists dread summer digs? Just curious.


    • Archaeologists are a lot like Goldilocks when it comes to soil conditions. We want them not too dry and not too moist. Too dry, and many soils get rock hard—and difficult to excavate. My husband recently had to use pick axes on one site to break up the soil. It’s also harder to see changes in soil color, which makes it more difficult to see features. Too wet, and it’s hard to maintain a level excavation, and the soils will clog up the screens we use to recover small artifacts.

      In the Mid-Atlantic, the summer usually isn’t ideal for excavations. But we can’t always be choosy. Spring and fall are better, as long as we’re not getting too much rain. But there’s often enough moisture to keep the soils “workable” in those seasons. Good conditions for farmers are usually good for us, too.

      If you live someplace with mild summers, they’re great for archaeology. If it’s hot and humid, well, most archaeologists are looking forward to a cold beer (or two, or three) and a shower when the day wraps up. 😉


  2. This post offered some great insights into the nuts and bolts of archaeology. It also left me curious about a few things. How often does a proposed development get canceled because of the archaeological finds on the property? Have you ever been involved in such a project? I’m guessing that must be fairly rare. Also, how long does the whole process of a site assessment take if it goes to Phase III?


    • It is rare for archaeology to cause a project’s cancellation, especially a large one. The costs of the excavations are easily offset by the profits of the development. Imagine, for example, a new subdivision that will contain 50 homes each selling for around $300,000. The archaeological survey might cost $10,000. If nothing significant is found, that’s the end of your historic preservation expenses. A developer could “eat” that cost as part of his expenses, or he could tack it on to the price of each home.

      Once in a blue moon, a small project can be derailed by an important site because the Phase II and Phase III investigations do cost more. I’ve worked on a handful of projects that didn’t go forward because the costs couldn’t be recouped.

      The time frame varies, depending on the scale of the project. I’ve been involved in some where Phase I through Phase III took about six months. And that includes the time needed for state and federal agencies to review the projects. Sometimes, especially with a large and complex site (or multiple sites in the project area), it can take more than a year. That’s why major construction projects start the historic preservation and environmental studies well before the heavy equipment is ready to start.


  3. Another interesting look at the process. I see someone else has already asked this question, but how common is it that a development will get cancelled? Also can you explain a little on what you would be looking for with soil coloration?


    • I’ve only been involved with a handful of projects that were cancelled out of more than a thousand. (Wow, I have been doing this a while….)

      Archaeological features tend to be darker in color than the “undisturbed” soils around them. So when we “strip the plow zone” off a site in an agricultural field, for example, features will “pop out” to a trained eye. The darker color is often the result of a higher organic content in the feature soils (human garbage and, er, other waste, for example).

      But when soils are parched, the different colors tend to be “bleached out,” making it harder to see the feature. That’s the case in the photo above. With all the soils now open to prolonged sunlight, the color differences have faded. This particular feature was identified before the soils got too dry.

      When we work in hot, dry conditions, we’ll often use a large spray bottle to moisten a feature and cover it with black plastic overnight before we excavate it. That can help loosen the soils and make internal changes in soil color easier to see.


      • Oh I see, that makes sense. I figured the different soil colours must be used somehow and a higher organic content would commonly suggest a human influence.

        I like those kind of details 🙂


  4. The things the average person–meaning me–doesn’t think about when driving past the numerous construction projects going on around us. Very interesting. I imagine in some situations, the interaction between a developer and the preservation offices could get heated. Or maybe I’m just imagining more drama than there actually is. I suppose we fiction writers like to do that. 🙂


    • Oh, you’re not imagining the drama—it can be there! Even though the costs of archaeological investigations are lower than many others required to obtain development permits and clearances, understandably people want to keep expenses and costs down, especially if they don’t see the “value” of archaeological sites. (There’s a taste of this in Death Out of Time.)

      Usually you see it from people encountering the regulations for the first time. Many of them, once they get through the process, see that it wasn’t as horrible as they expected. Many developers may not care one bit about the archaeology, but they know it usually goes very smoothly.


  5. This is so interesting. I don’t know much about what happens to the sites being dug up, I would imagine there’s a lot of politics in certain situations, like Carrie said, between developers and archaeologists. Also, at a site like this, how far down would the digging go?


    • On a Phase II on a plantation like this, Meghan probably wouldn’t go deeper than a meter, even in a cellar. Phase II excavations are “testing” projects to see what is likely present on the site and determine if the site is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. On a Phase III, however, she would take at least part of the cellar all the way down, even if that’s six or eight feet.

      Most Native American sites don’t have features much more than a meter deep, and even those are uncommon. But if you’re working on a floodplain, sometimes you have to go through several feet of “alluvial” (flood-deposited) soils just to get to the original living surface. Those are really the exception, though, in the overall field.


    • Thanks, Margarita!. You get an entirely different side of it in a city like New York! All that complex architecture and the layers and layers beneath it. Whew!


  6. This is a terrific post. Thank you for it.

    “Rescue” archaeology is a way of life in the UK. At the moment a development on a site in my tiny town centre has been stymied by the suggestion that the site contains the original Roman town. The supermarket chain that wants to develop the site, including a 200 car underground car park, doesn’t want to have to pay for the excavation of the site. No idea what will happen. 🙂


    • Wow, Roman archaeology. That would be incredible. 🙂 Your historic preservation laws are probably different from ours, but I’d love to hear what happens to your supermarket’s project. Here, we have a federal law that prevails for projects that involve federal funding or permits. But the states also have their own varying laws for projects that required state funding or permits. And even some counties have their own laws within a state for projects where they issue permits.

      One of these days my husband and I will take a trip to the UK—there’s so much we want to see!


      • I’m a little bit blasé about history because I work with it every day and because of where I work. My office is in a building built in 1819, within the walls of a castle built in approx 1250 on the site of a Norman fort that was in situ by 1083, which was built on the edge of a Roman fort that was occupied between 75 and 125 AD and overlooked by hillforts and the remains of Celtic field systems going back another thousand years.

        There are remains everywhere so most developers view them as a bloody nuisance rather than as something to get excited about. We’re lucky enough to have one law regarding antiquities that covers the whole country. Local planning departments are in each county and they either employ an archaeologist or have a free lance on call. Any development that may occur in an area that has already been flagged as being of interest has to have regular inspections just in case something interesting turns up. Any builder is expected to keep an eye open for items of interest and call the authorities if anything turns up. A few years back I was passing a man digging a whole for a new drain and he gave me half a Samian bowl that he had found in amongst a load of Victorian detritus. It’s such a muddle! Sadly in the 1840s they put the railway right smack dab through the middle of what we think was the Roman burial ground. 😦 time was money and they might not have known what they were finding.

        I’ll keep you posted about the supermarket but the argument has been going on for 10 years now with no clear end in sight.


        • I guess it is easy to become blasé about the areas where we live and work. But your office sounds like a great location to me. 🙂

          Some years ago, my husband knew an English archaeologist. He brought a piece of Samian ware with him on one visit for my husband. He still has that sherd in his office since he enjoys Roman history and archaeology. Someday …. !


    • Thanks, Vanessa! You have so much interesting archaeology in the UK—for a brief while as an undergraduate I thought about specializing in European archaeology. But instead, I was sidetracked for a few years in Central America and Mexico before deciding I was better suited to stay closer to home.

      But you’ve got Medieval and Dark Ages and Roman and Celtic and even earlier occupations. So much interesting history! I know there are volunteer opportunities here in the US for the interested public. Do you have something similar he can do?


      • Yes, they do have volunteer opportunities here too, he’s spoken of looking into doing that, I’m not sure why he hasn’t actually because he always laps up any bit of news he catches about archaeological discoveries and so on. I’ll remind him…


  7. Again, love these posts from you! I was especially interested in the fact that a proposed development could be stopped due to endangered species or wetlands. Who makes the call and when is that decision determined–before they begin the dig? Or during? It would seem that those factors should be considered *before* anything actually happens, but maybe that’s too ideal of an organized system?


    • Both historic preservation and environmental studies should be done as early as possible in the planning process. Development projects that have federal funding or permits have to go through an environmental review process. The main regulation behind this is the National Environmental Policy Act or “NEPA.” For example, before a new highway is built or a medical clinic can build a new big facility with a federal grant, they go through the “NEPA process” to see what kind of impact the project will have on the environment.

      The first step is often preparation of an “Environmental Assessment” that studies the potential effects on such things as wetlands, waterways, floodplains, coastal zones, threatened/endangered species, historic resources, and surrounding human populations as well as the potential for previous hazardous materials contamination on the site. If this assessment shows potential impacts, a full Environmental Impact Statement is prepared. These are huge, in depth studies that can take years to complete. Both documents must be made available to the public for comment.

      It’s during these early stages that potential significant impacts should be identified and alternatives considered for the proposed project. That’s why many transportation projects and large oil/gas pipelines, for example, have several alternate routes studied. If one shows too many difficulties (sometimes geological, not just “environmental”), another alternate can be selected.

      It may not seem like it, but public opposition to a project because of possible environmental consequences can derail a project or force adopting a less-desired alternative.


  8. It’s heartening to know that archeological digs are among the considerations for major construction projects. How much would be lost to the ages, otherwise? This is a very revealing post–thank you, JM!


    • Thanks, Robin! We would have lost a lot of history if we didn’t have preservation laws. And I think if people really understood how much we can learn—and how painless the process usually is—we archaeologists wouldn’t hear as much grumbling as we do…. 😉


  9. Here in California what we usually hear about is construction running afoul of Native American burials and there are local tribes who then get involved. I always had the impression that these were accidental discoveries – that is, the developer started work and unearthed something. Or maybe the site was previously known and the tribe objected to proposed work. It never occurred to me that doing an archeological survey might be standard practice. How standard is it? We recently had a two-car garage built on our property and to my knowledge the subject never came up. (We actually tore down a shed in the process that we’d been told housed some Japanese-Americans trying to avoid internment during WWII. Don’t know if the story was true…)


    • Private property laws are strong here in the US. It’s rare for a private landowner to ever need an archaeological study done on his property. Most likely historic preservation legislation would only come into play if you were developing the property for non-personal use and needed county/state permits or if you had a building or archaeological site already listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

      It’s my understanding that California’s state historic preservation laws include requirements for Native American consultation, and there are many tribes in California. Burials in general (Native American, European, and American) often trigger another set of state and federal laws beyond those dealing with archaeology and historic buildings. They also tend to attract more interest from the press….

      The federal historic preservation laws cover every US state and territory and apply whenever federal funds or permits are involved. Not every project will require an archaeological survey. Usually federal agencies follow the recommendations of the State Historic Preservation Office as to whether a survey should be conducted for the proposed undertaking.

      Each state has its own set of historic preservation laws, and these vary widely as to when they require archaeological work. Some are strict and others less so. But again, they usually apply when a project includes state-level funding or permits. And some counties even have laws that apply when a development project wouldn’t trigger the state or federal regulations but does require county approval.

      Archaeologists who work in multiple states have to deal with multiple regulations and field/reporting methods. 🙂


    • Hi, Shakti. Thanks for stopping by and joining in the conversation. 🙂 I hope I’m helping people see archaeology beyond the Hollywood images. The real work is far different than we see in the movies. 😉


    • Comments like this give me the drive to keep working on it! 🙂 Draft 3 will be going to a beta reader this week. I would love to tell you this is the last major draft and I’d be shopping it to agents within a few months.

      However…. I know it still needs work. I really don’t want to rush it out before I’ve really got a well-polished and tight store that will hold your attention. Ideally, I’ll get a publishable-quality draft done sometime next year. Then I’ll test the agent waters. But I do know, I will publish it—if not with a traditional print press, then with an e-publisher or go e-indie myself. I hope you can bear with me! 🙂


  10. Once again really dig your posts. (couldn’t help that.) I always wondered what happened to the site once the archeologists left for the season. Makes to use the heavy plastic under the dirt. ( and to backfill holes).
    Enjoy the comments, too


    • I get some great questions and comments on these archaeology posts—they’re great for keeping me on my toes. We try to be good about filling in the holes, especially in working pastures. You don’t want a farmer’s cattle or other animals twisting a leg in a forgotten shovel test!


  11. Fascinating look into what happens next at the dig site. I like how you weave in the actual digging with an overview of the paperwork and the historical landmark possibility. 🙂


    • Thanks, Kourtney. 🙂 The paperwork would really get to most people. From all the notetaking in the field to the library research, analysis, data interpretation, and report writing, most people would fall asleep in a minute! They’d never really want to be an archaeologist. But those of us who stick it out find a way to deal with the headaches. Sometimes by writing novels…. 😉


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