Tips for handling the history that may lie beneath your project
by Cris Kimbrough
April 20, 2016

The recent discovery of long-buried crypts during a routine water main replacement project in New York City's Washington Square Park should serve as a reminder to developers and contractors that a review of archaeological records should be an important part of their due diligence prior to beginning construction, according to CBRE Valuation & Advisory Services group.

Another $2.9 million project to improve waterfront access in the Bronx unearthed more than 100 pieces of Native American artifacts, dating back to 200 A.D. Experts called the trove of ceramics, pottery, stone tools and other artifacts found in the southeastern section of Pelham Bay Park one of the most important archaeological finds in New York City history. Tests showed that the rare artifacts date back to between 200 A.D. and 1000 A.D.—centuries before European settlers ever made contact with Native Americans.

The first of the artifacts were dug up in 2012, but more extensive excavation work and testing done in the past year made it clear to city officials that they were sitting on top of history worthy of additional exploration. Some of the artifacts were uncovered just 2 feet below the ground, and city officials said early evidence shows that the site was likely once a meeting place for Native Americans who would go there to harvest clams and other food.

According to the city, the waterfront-access project, which includes removing a deteriorating seawall and adding a walking path, dog run and other amenities, will eventually be completed, but the top priority currently is ensuring that the artifacts are protected. Construction on the project was formally put on hold. The find may now force the city to redesign the waterfront project to go around the archaeological site. The city may also attempt to protect the historic area from future development by declaring it a landmark, although no decisions have yet been made.

In another example, the cost of the Indianapolis, Indiana, new downtown bus transit center has grown by $5 million due to archaeological finds that halted work on the project for months. Archeological finds during construction are not uncommon, especially in urban settings where over 500 years of American history and thousands of years of Native American relics may lie buried just a few feet below the surface.

In the United States, builders are obligated to report archaeological finds if the project requires a federal, state or occasionally local permit, license or funding that triggers compliance with historic preservation laws. If archaeological resources are identified during construction and development for a project that has gone through the federal, state or local historic preservation process, all work must stop until further preservation measures can be determined and completed.

Because U.S. law is very much focused on the protection of private property, there are few rules governing artifacts that are encountered on private land. As a consequence, artifacts located in areas where no historic preservation rules are in place are at risk. However, this does not apply to human remains. Human remains must always be reported to the local authorities and treated appropriately.

In the case of the Washington Square project, the crypts were reburied and the water main replacement will be re-routed around them. The State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) maintains records on identified archaeological resources in each state. In addition, museums, colleges and universities may also have records, but these are most often registered with the SHPO or held in lieu of SHPO archaeological files. These files are not accessible to the public and can only be viewed by qualified individuals—usually a qualified archaeologist or another historic preservation specialist.

Most states have a project review process, wherein staff at the SHPO reviews project plans and files to determine if there are any potential direct or indirect impacts to historic and archaeological resources. If there are, SHPO may request archaeological or other studies be completed prior to construction. Native American tribes also maintain archaeological and other Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP) records, but access to these files is almost always restricted. Tribes are consulted regarding their cultural resources as part of the federal historic preservation process and most state preservation processes.

If artifacts are discovered as part of the predevelopment review, then additional archaeological surveys may be required. The federal process dictates that any impacts to historic and archaeological resources should be avoided, minimized or mitigated—in that order.

The overriding message these examples deliver is "get the archaeological consultant on board as soon as possible." The reason for the rush is to allow the experts to assess the degree of risk involved. The impact of archaeology on sites can translate into huge extensions to project cost and time. Archaeologists can make cost estimates and carry out preliminary desktop studies, based on local knowledge and archaeological records, to give some indication of what might be lurking in the subsoil of a jobsite.

Often, the degree of risk is less than clients fear. Experienced, well-informed clients understand that guidelines call not for the preservation of all archaeological remains at all costs, but a representative sample of relevant items. The extent of that sample depends on the location of the project, the amount of previous development and adjacent archaeological assessments or reports. The involvement of archaeologists in the formative stages of a construction contract may allow a risk assessment to ascertain not only the extent, but also the importance of any archaeological finds that may exist on the jobsite.

Archaeological projects now take place only if they address valid research questions, meaning that some sites may be studied in detail, while others are studied only minimally. Often, the archaeologist's task will be simply to preserve finds in "situ," which means "on-site." The presumption here is that it is better to preserve the artifacts for future generations than to remove them now, given the imperfect knowledge available. One of the first stages of any archaeological involvement on a site is to determine whether historical questions are at stake. This allows the archaeologist to maximize the relevant information within a given time and budget. In many cases, only 10 percent of the site may need to be excavated to gather sufficient information to write the archaeological report. However, there is always the possibility of coming across a significant find.

Without exception, archaeologists encourage clients to plan early and enable any archaeological involvement to be fully integrated into the planning aspects of the project. For example, with telecom projects, carriers are usually asked to move the tower site if artifacts are found. If this is not possible, an additional survey is usually completed to better understand the archaeological resource in question, and suggestions are made for moving forward with the project as is or minimizing the effects of the project on the resource. If significant impacts to the archaeological resource cannot be avoided, then the impact on the resource must be mitigated. The mitigation that will likely have to be employed is often in the form of extensive excavation, data analysis and/or public outreach. Developers often talk about losing a project to SHPO, but often, it is just a matter of working through the process and being creative.

Archaeological due diligence is usually not a part of normal Phase I or Phase II Environmental Site Assessments. Builders should be aware of federal, state and local historic preservation laws and be fully compliant. When required, an initial project review with the SHPO involves hiring qualified environmental and cultural resource management consultants who understand what the applicable historic preservation processes entail.