Preservation Standards

In much of the literature concerning Archaeology in America, the words preservation and conservation appear often. Most people understand these words in terms of resources – we need to conserve water, or we need to preserve the ecosystems in our natural forests. But what does it actually mean to preserve an archaeological site?

Crow Elders visit the site of Fort Parker
A group of Crow elders who came to visit the site at Fort Parker, which is still very significant to the Crow Nation. Marsha Fulton of The Extreme History Project holds the right to this photo.

To answer this, let’s first discuss the underlying framework in which the standard American archaeologist works. Archaeology is partially regulated in the United States, and the work itself is primarily carried out in the private sector. This is in contrast to countries with an overarching policy which considers archaeological sites to be national assets; Examples include France, Scandinavia, and Scotland. In these countries, the government acts as the sole custodian of historic properties and is the principal financial contributor to research. In the US, archaeological sites exist on private property, on federal public and protected lands, and on lands controlled by states and other local governments (such as tribal lands). The sites are then recorded and maintained by a designated agency respective to the land-ownership. As far as private property is concerned, the responsibility of protecting historical sites falls on the land owner or to organizations such as the Archaeological Conservancy who acquire portions of the land with the historical site.

A turning point for preservation standards occurred in 1966 with the passing of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The act was intended to be a comprehensive program that would work to preserve the historical and cultural roots of our nation. Included in this act was the creation of the National Register of Historic Places. This allowed archaeologists to request protection from their state’s State Historic Preservation Office for sites that hold historical significance. Section 106 of the NHPA now acts as a major player in most archaeological projects. The goal of this section is to ensure that federal agencies consult with interested parties – developers, tribes, landholders, etc – to identify and evaluate historic properties prior to any expenditures of federal funding for a proposed project. It requires a mitigation attempt to assess the effects of every project that potentially involves historic properties, and requires that negotiations are made to reach an outcome that balances project needs and preservation standards.1

It is important to note that Section 106 does not mandate preservation – it simply encourages it. There are times when a proposed project cannot proceed in favor of preservation. The requirements outlined in Section 106 eventually allow a federal agency to make an informed decision to approve, change, or deny a project, and there are rare events when approval is the only way forward, often leading to the destruction of a historic property.1

The next major preservation milestone was with Executive Order 13287 entitled ‘Preserve America’, issued on March 3, 2003. This order requires federal agencies to recognize historic properties as valuable assets that can support agency missions and act as important stimulants to local economic development.1

What Exactly Are We Preserving?

Now what is all of this talk about property? Is that the “resource” of the archaeological world? This question really got me thinking: Is an archaeological resource the property of the historically significant event/site? Or rather is it the knowledge and heritage-value which comes along with said property? It is certainly easier to uphold legislation and policy when we think in terms of property, or rather just the physical aspects of a site or event. However, most people would agree that there is much more to a site than what is physically left of it. A site holds untapped knowledge, memories of days gone, stories of our ancestors, and a historical narrative that becomes incorporated into the larger picture of our species’ time spent on Earth.

Carver2 argues that archaeologists must define what is worth paying for, or the product of archaeology, since our relationship with the rest of society depends on it. In the current state of affairs, the ‘product’ of archaeology does seem to focus more on property rather than intangible contributions. When taxes are redistributed in the form of research grants, educational funding, or environmental NEPA and NHPA efforts, what is the public actually paying for? What is actually being preserved?

African Burial Ground Memorial
African Burial Ground Memorial

I’d like to call attention to a case study2 of the African Burial Ground in New York City. Here are the details:

  • Location: Manhattan and 290 Broadway, New York City, NY
  • Dates: 1989 – 1993
  • Project: New GSA (General ServicesAgency) headquarters
  • Impact Statement Authors: Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission
  • Archaeological Contractor: Historic Conservation and Interpretation (HCI) and Metropolitan Forensic Archaeology Team (MFAT)

HCI did note the presence of a “Negro Burial Ground” on a 1755 map, however they assessed that there would be little of this burial ground remaining in the proposed construction area. Of course it didn’t take long before articulated skeletons were discovered. Soon there were claims of builders trying to sneak the skeletons out of the area just to avoid the delays in construction that a full archaeological excavation would bring. This really created a public outcry, and before long people began to demand that the teams make their archaeological research design transparent and that proper scientific exploration begin immediately. As it turns out, there was no research design. ::Sigh::

African Burial Ground National Park ServiceIn 1992, a congressional subcommittee demanded the discontinuation of any excavation andconstruction as a sign of respect. The project and its records eventually were turned over to Professor Michael Blakey of Howard University. His new design plans included the latestscientific procedures including study of African dispora, locating the origins of the people who arrived in the 18th Century as slaves, discovering their state of health, any change in livelihood, forms of worship, communities they were associated with, and much more. In other words, he made certain to prioritize the knowledge and social connections that could be obtained from the site.

Here is an interview with Dr. Michael Blakey 13 years after these events: Return to the African Burial Ground


It’s interesting to note that the people did not necessarily protest the site itself or the lack of preservation; instead they demanded excavation of the site with proper scientific inquiry. They sought the knowledge contained within the site, not the archaeological property. Is it possible to preserve one without the other (knowledge without the physical property or vice versa), and is that the job of archaeologists to sort out? Do we need to sell our ‘product’ as property to be preserved and cherished, or as potential knowledge to be preserved and cherished? I encourage you to share your thoughts and responses to this post. I feel that this would make for a very interesting conversation among our community.

1. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation official website.
2. Making Archaeology Happen: Design Versus Dogma, by Martin Carver. Left Coast Press, 2011


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