The public has various interpretations concerning the discipline of archaeology. At its base, the practice strives to both understand and protect humanity’s cultural heritage. This heritage encompasses historic and prehistoric resources, spanning the length of time that humans were present in an area. Archaeologists collaborate with a variety of disciplines to ensure any ground-disturbing activities and subsequent development respect the potential or actual cultural resources they may encounter. Our dynamic field includes a variety of work in fluctuating conditions and environments.
Some projects are exploratory, attempting to determine the absence or presence of cultural material in an area through surveying and record searches. Other projects involve the observation of ground-disturbing activities, recording changes in stratigraphy, geology, and material composition in soils. Others still begin to test areas with suspected or known cultural deposits, ending with larger screening operations should substantial deposits be encountered. Cultural material is dealt with according to a project’s parameters. Prehistoric materials are handled by the Native American tribes impacted by these projects. These processes inform the archaeological discipline, allowing us to understand how land was occupied, utilized, and changed over time.
Compliance archaeology ensures agencies comply with state and federal law protecting cultural resources should they be uncovered during ground-disturbing operations. In other words, compliance archaeology is what constitutes the typical construction monitoring jobs to which archaeologists are assigned. This work takes place across the state in both rural and urban settings.
Preliminary record searches detail sites and isolates previously encountered in proximity to project areas, suggesting what we may encounter. Historic topographic maps inform archaeologists about how an area changed over time, including development and modification. Other investigative works such as archival research and interviews provide insight into an area’s history and use. This helps inform understanding of the context of cultural material and its association with historic and/or prehistoric resources nearby. As we conduct our work, we coordinate with construction crews to optimize strategies and operations to complete work in a timely manner which remains in compliance with regulations.
More often than not, work proceeds with little interruption. Smaller, less notable discoveries are quickly recorded and mitigated, depending on their nature. At times, however, larger, unexpected, and more important discoveries are made.
Speak to an archaeologist, and they will likely have stories to share about such discoveries. Typically, when noteworthy discoveries are made, we work with contractors and construction crews to mitigate impacts to the cultural material we uncover.
Work is rarely shut down from such discoveries. As cultural materials are exposed, archaeologists record a variety of data. This information includes the depth of a find, the soil type it’s located in, and the encompassing stratigraphy. It’s also important to note its context, provenience, and whether there is evidence of disturbance in the area.
The context of a find examines the materials it is associated with in surrounding soils. An object’s provenience describes the find’s precise location. This data provides a detailed picture we can examine to understand how and when a material was deposited and the manner in which it became buried over time.
Historic objects can be examined in a number of ways to determine the materials used and the manner in which they were produced. Archeologists take this information to determine when and where the finds were manufactured. Maker’s marks and designs also provide valuable clues as to their point of origin and historical date range.
Archaeologists consider the function of the objects found as well as the settings in which they are likely used. As material is uncovered, we begin hypothesizing the importance of the deposits we encounter. When did they get there? How were they deposited? Why in this location? How might they be related to one another? Answering these questions helps us gain a deeper, more thorough understanding of the history of an area.
Significant discoveries reaffirm the value we provide to the fields of archaeology and history. They paint a more complete picture of our history, revealing the exciting and sometimes unexpected ways our societies flourished or adapted to hard times. Discoveries give insight into the value historic places and structures have provided and often continue to provide in our communities. They develop a deeper understanding of who occupied a space and the practices they carried out in their lives. They enrich our understanding of the past.
Compliance archaeology is just one way archaeologists practice their discipline. While it can seem dull at times, it is important to remember the value it provides to our society. Compliance archaeology protects our cultural resources and provides a deeper understanding of who we are and where we came from. Through its continued practice, we can ensure that operations remain in compliance with regulations in our state. Further, we can guarantee that cultural materials encountered during work will be recorded, mitigated, and protected by a qualified archaeologist.
Written by Archaeologist Ben Rolland and featured in the SDCAS Newsletter