Frequently Asked Questions
Frequently, while in the field, I am asked questions regarding archaeology. Go figure. While most of them revolve around whether I have found gold or dinosaurs yet (Ha Ha! It just gets funnier after the thousandth time), other people have serious questions that really concern them. Here are some answers to some of these questions (I’ll post more as I think of them but feel free to email yours to me- please no gold or dinosaur ones).
-Why do historic archaeology, don’t we already know this stuff from history books?
We know a lot about history by studying the historical record but generally this record needs to be thought of as representing a view through a telescope versus the contributions made by archaeology, which is more like a view through a microscope. What did George Washington eat? Did he have parasites? What kind of dishes did he eat off of? How did he treat his slaves? We get a glimpse of the answers to these questions through written records, but the people who wrote the records, especially when they regard important historical figures, were often biased and either didn’t think little details or even intimate or embarrassing details about these people’s lives were worth mentioning or appropriate for the general public. IN THEORY, archaeology can provide a more unbiased view of people’s lives (as long as the interpreting archaeologist accepts that her or his views are shaped by the culture that they currently live in). Archaeology also gives voices to the voiceless, the poor, the enslaved, the repressed who rarely show up in the records at all.
-Why does archaeology even matter?
Archaeology only matters if you think it does. Just like professional sports. I couldn’t care less if all professional sports disappeared. Other people couldn’t care less if archaeology didn’t happen. I think archaeology matters because it is a way to look back in time and see what life was like in the area where you live hundreds or even thousands of years ago. It is a physical way to connect with our shared human past. I personally am fascinated by the idea that I am standing or living on a spot where a person physically like me, but culturally very different, once lived or worked. The archaeological record, the record of our past, is a fragile resource that need as careful investigation but this investigation can be done by anyone, as long as they are competent with basic archaeological theories and methods. It’s not rocket science, and by using the basic methods, anyone can responsibly investigate the past.
-Who pays you?
Occasionally I am paid by developers who are sometimes required by law to conduct surveys. Other times I am paid by individuals, historical societies or organizations and sometimes by towns through the use of Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds (at least here in Mass.).
– If you find something really important will it stop this project (usually asked when I am working on a cultural resource management [CRM] that neighbors want to stop)?
Generally, no. I have seen a couple of cases in my experience where the project has been stopped because of something really amazing, but such an occurrence is really, really rare. Most often what happens on CRM projects is that I am hired by a developer to conduct an initial archaeological survey (called an Intensive Survey or Phase I) on a piece of property because the project review has triggered one of the thresholds that requires such a survey. Developers don’t usually want surveys done unless they are forced to do them. I dig a bunch of 50 cm square holes in a grid or transect pattern and if I find something that may be potentially significant, I recommend the project for the next phase of investigation. Potentially significant usually means concentrations of prehistoric artifacts or soil stains that could represent features such as pits or hearths. Just finding a few flakes or an isolated projectile point or some 19th century refuse doesn’t mean the site is potentially important, it really depends on what I think could be there. The next phase of investigation (called a Site Examination or Phase II) is designed to determine how big the site is, how intact it is, roughly when it dates to, how complex it is, and what its research potential is. If it turns out that the site is potentially important and may be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, then it is recommended that it be preserved in place and if that is not possible, it is recommended that the final phase of investigation be carried out (called a Data Recovery or Phase III). Sometimes only part of the site needs to be investigated and part can be conserved. Most times this doesn’t happen. At the Data Recovery level, a research design is created that will THEORETICALLY retrieve what is determined to be an adequate sample of the site. Most often the whole site is not excavated. Generally, a maximum of 5-6% of the site is actually excavated. That’s all, 94-95% is left to be destroyed by bulldozers and carted away by dump trucks. As long as the developer is willing to shell out the funds to follow through with the whole CRM process (Phase I-Phase III if necessary) most projects, no matter how old or significant a site is, will proceed (sometimes at a somewhat slower pace due to the time constraints of field work, labwork, report writing, state review, negotiation, etc.). That’s the point of CRM, get the stuff out of the way and stored in a curation facility so that development can proceed. It is not the same everywhere, but that’s the view from my backyard.
-This site is on the National Register of Historical Places. Can you still dig here?
Yes. The National Register of Historic Places is “the United States federal government’s official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects deemed worthy of preservation. A property listed in the National Register, or located within a National Register Historic District, may qualify for tax incentives derived from the total value of expenses incurred preserving the property.” (from Wikipedia). It is an attaboy that’s a cool site/ building/ road that is recognized as having National significance, but it is not a protection measure.
-What happens if you find human bones?
We find historic and prehistoric graves pretty often in archaeology. In Massachusetts we have an Unmarked Burial Law which states that if you find an unmarked grave, you are legally required to tell someone- police and State Archaeologist. The archaeologists and the medical examiner determine how old it is and if appropriate will contact the local Native tribes (if it is determined to be a Native grave). A determination is then made if the grave can be left in place and development can proceed around it (leaving a 25′ buffer and putting a preservation restriction in the property deed) or if it can be removed and reburied. As long as the proper authorities are notified and no one “accidentally” bulldozes it over a long holiday weekend, the process works and there is little impact to a project’s schedule. Finding graves does not generally stop a project and someone telling the State Archaeologist that they heard that one time someone told their cousin that the big rock over there where the developer wants to put his multi-million dollar housing project marked the location of an ancient Indian burial ground, does not stop the project.
-Where does all the stuff you find go?
If the project was done under a permit from the State Archaeologist, then the material has to be curated by a certified curation facility. Once it goes into those curation facilities, it is kind of like the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark- an indistinguishable box stored among indistinguishable boxes, gathering dust. Why is this? Mostly it is because of the role of CRM and the limitations imposed by the beast itself. CRM is archaeology as a business. You get paid to dig stuff up, write a mediocre report because the reviewers are so overworked that they want just to be able to quickly work through the 12,000 projects each has to do every year, and then the stuff gets stored away. The ideal is that we are creating a database that researchers will continue to use for generations to come. The reality is that we create an often formulaic “gray literature” report and the stuff goes into storage with nary a hope of seeing the light of day for a long time. Don’t get me wrong, graduate students sometimes use the material dug up for dissertations and thesis, but this is the exception not the rule. There are many really great collections out there that have not been given their due and a real possibility that important discoveries are yet to be made using these collections, but truth be told there just is not the money to do it.
If the material was excavated on private property, then it belongs to the homeowner (unless the project was done under permit from the State Archaeologist, in that case, see above). Homeowners with collections should be encouraged to make provisions for what will happen to the collection when they die (we all do, circle of life an all, maybe you’ll end up in a collection some day too!) or move. It can be stipulated that the artifacts remain with the house or, what is a better option, they should be donated to a local museum so that they stay in town where people will appreciate them more. I always hope that the material I find on private property will not end up on Ebay, and generally I find that a) people who allow surveys to be done on their private property have a great appreciation for history and b) the stuff we find is mostly nails, chips, brick fragments, broken ceramics, broken glass, with the very rare occurrence of coins, thimbles, or whole things.
-You must have a great collection at home. Do you get to keep stuff?
No, and I wouldn’t want to. I believe that all of our past belongs to everyone and it is not fair for me to want to amass a huge collection that no one would ever see.
-What is the coolest thing you have ever found?
Hardest question ever! It all depends on what you define as “cool”. Here is a review of some things I consider to be the coolest things I have found:
-the remains of a complete Native village
-a Native storage pit reused as a trash pit
-a 17th century burial of a chicken at a Native homesite
-a Native storage pit containing only a cow bone, a piece of Native pottery, and a flake of glass from an English wine bottle
-a Native arrowhead made of English flint
-a 19th century homesite of a lower class, working class, family
-a privy from the richest 18th century family in Plymouth, MA
-a silver button from the 1630s
-whale vertebra used as chopping blocks from two separate 17th/ 18th century homesites in the same town
-a preserved 17th/ 18th century wall behind a modern wall
-evidence of 17th century post in ground houses from two sites on Cape Cod
-a mass grave from the Revolutionary War
-the remains of 60 people in a former cemetery where they had been supposedly removed years ago
Just read some of my posted reports and you can see that I find “cool stuff” all the time.
-Why do I have to pay for an archaeology survey? (commonly heard on CRM projects)
There are Federal laws and there are State laws and there are local by-laws that determine if an archaeological survey needs to be conducted. It is like that “If you xxx, you’re going to have a bad time” meme:
-If your project requires an Army Corps of Engineers permit, you may have to do an archaeological survey
-If you are doing construction on Federal land, you may have to do an archaeological survey
-If your project involves Federal funding, you may have to do an archaeological survey
-If you have to get a license or permit from the Federal government, you may have to do an archaeological survey
-If your project is on State land, you may have to do an archaeological survey
-If your project gets State money, you may have to do an archaeological survey
-If your project needs a State permit, you may have to do an archaeologicial survey
-If your project is in an area of Critical Planning Concern and the Town has a by-law stating that a review by the Conservation Commission with the potential for archaeological surveys must occur before any construction in that area, you may have to have to do an archaeological survey
From a Federal legislation standpoint, which is what most of the CRM projects fall under, it is review under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act. Basically, this act was created to hold Federal agencies accountable for impacts on historic and archaeological resources that result from their actions and decisions. Here is a good overview of the legislation
In Massachusetts, we have the Massachusetts Environmental Protection Act (MEPA) that does the same thing as Section 106 on a state level
Other states have similar legislation.
Interestingly, MEPA regulations do not stop local towns from casually impacting or destroying archaeological resources on a daily basis. Let’s say that a local town wants to put in a public restroom at a 1670s historic house owned by the town. Because the project is small and doesn’t need any State money, only local funds, and doesn’t fall under state review, the town can just do whatever they want with no archaeology needed. But, let’s say that a certain archaeologists volunteers to do a complete excavation of the area of impact pro bonum so that the information doesn’t get lost, well, because it is on town property, that archaeologist has to get a permit from the State Archaeologist to do that work, no ifs, ands, or buts. That means, in Massachusetts at least, that that archaeologists has to do all the background research, create a multi-page permit application, file it with the state, wait for their review (which generally takes up to a month), address any little changes they want, send the permit back in, wait another month, do the field work, process the artifacts, write a report, submit it to the state for review (another month), address changes, resubmit (another month), and then submit a final report. They also have to find a state approved curation facility, no not the local town museum because they aren’t on the State’s “list”, then pay the curation facility to curate the material. So, a project that suddenly pops up because the town workers never thought that there could be something significant at that property where the 1670s house is, that property on the knoll overlooking the river around which people have found many arrowheads, now potentially has to wait at least three months get done because an archaeologist has volunteered to do an excavation to preserve whatever may be there. Guess what, the town decides to just spend the two days putting the public restroom in before tourist season starts versus waiting the three months to do it in the height of tourist summer. But I digress.
-Is this anything?
Most common answer- it is a rock. Next most common answer- it is a ca. 4000 year old Native spear point made of quartz. Funny as it may seem, these are the most common Native tools that we find in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island- Small Stemmed and Squibnocket Triangle points. Why? Because people made a ton of them and apparently they were very utilitarian (no special importance beyond spear points). They can be easily made and the raw material is very abundant around here. We find them everywhere- near the ocean, near rivers, near swamps, away from water, all over the place. This is not to say that these points are not important, they are. Archaeologists study the distributions of the points and have hypothesized that the abundance of points may indicate an increase in the size of the areas population or that they represent an exploitation of a wider range of areas due to food shortages, climatic changes, or just a increase in the diversity of materials used by the cultures.
Seriously, if you have found something and wonder when it dates to or if it is anything at all, just email me a picture at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll give you my opinion. Don’t bother contacting the Office of Massachusetts State Archaeologist, most days they are too busy to even answer phones.