Friday, November 19, 2010

Compliance Archaeology

We’re busy folks here at TWIPA and we’d like to think we do it all, but we know that’s not the case. With our field season at Fort Hunter finalized and all the pomp and circumstance of Archaeology Month celebrations dispensed and comfortably in the rear view mirror, the staff of the State Museum Section of Archaeology can return to the business of managing and curating the archaeological collection of the Commonwealth for its citizens, now approaching 5 million individual artifacts. What are these artifacts, where did they come from, why are they sent to the State Museum of PA?

These are some of the typical questions we hear from people not familiar with the state of archaeology as its practiced today in Pennsylvania and across the nation. It is a difficult task to fully explain the context in which the majority of archaeology these days takes place in the span of a 700 word or so blog post, but it is important stuff so we’re taking a stab at it anyway. We’ve touched on this topic in several previous posts so if you have the time we encourage you to do a little “digging” through the TWIPA archives.

Most archaeology today is conducted prior to some type of development; roads, bridges, housing subdivisions, dams, prisons, railroads, post offices, courthouses, pipelines – you get the idea. All of these projects have the potential to disturb or destroy archaeological sites. Fortunately, Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 created a framework as part of any federal undertaking by which sites can be identified, evaluated, and if warranted, destructive activities mitigated. In a nutshell NHPA acknowledges that it is in the best interest and to the benefit of the American people (current and future generations) that significant cultural resources, historic and prehistoric, be documented and preserved where possible. It also recognizes that federal agencies have a responsibility to take into account adverse effects their development projects may have on these significant cultural resources. If this is beginning to sound like contorted legal mumbo jumbo, we apologize, but that’s what it is.

While the artifacts themselves are the property of the landowner on whose land the site was excavated, in Section 106 projects the information recovered, the data (the field forms and notes, artifact inventories, photo documentation and reports) is owned by all of us, as we the taxpayers are ultimately footing the bill for not only the development but also the preservation efforts.

More often than not, the landowner understands the artifacts have more scientific value than they do monetarily, and generously donates them to the State Museum where they are incorporated into a comprehensive database and made available to researchers the world over for a wide variety of scholarly studies, as loans to local historical societies, and of course permanent and temporary exhibits both large and small in the Anthropology and Archaeology Gallery of the State Museum, as well as other historic sites administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

One common criticism directed towards archaeologists is that results from these excavations are not shared with the public often enough or in a timely manner. Doing our bit to dispel this shortcoming, we’ve contacted some good people at PennDoT, and they were all too happy to pass along a link to popular publications here , resulting from transportation projects. The page is a little buried, then click "kids page" and then click "highways to archaelogy".

This week we’re highlighting a few of the unsung heroes of Cultural Resource Management (or CRM for those readers who don’t have enough acronyms in their life) the archaeological foot soldiers in the trenches, literally, doing battle with deadlines on compressed time tables, emaciated budgets and inclement weather – just to name a few typical obstacles. While we can’t claim these woes, or any others for that matter, are bedeviling this particular project, its recent appearance in the news seemed to make it a timely and appropriate example of Pennsylvania CRM archaeology. Currently underway is a road re-alignment near the borough of Macungie in Lehigh County, and people are curious and asking questions, and that makes it the perfect opportunity for the archaeology community to engage the public and hammer home the message that archaeology is good for them.

For more information, visit or the Hall of Anthropology and Archaeology at The State Museum of Pennsylvania .

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