Keeping an Eye on the Sites: Environmental Review
Without question, the greatest threat to archaeological sites, is development. Whenever a bulldozer starts up for new construction -- whether for a highway or a subdivision -- the potential exists for cutting into and destroying an archaeological site.
Years ago, the federal government recognized that some of our nation's most important historic and archaeological sites were being destroyed by federally supported projects. A number of rather complex laws and regulations were passed to deal with the problem... to try to identify and protect at least a portion of the important sites. Most state governments followed suit, passing laws and regulations that went a little further towards protection and preservation. North Carolina has been particularly conscious of the problem, and now has a fairly comprehensive set of protective laws and procedures on the books.
Under the federal and state laws, one of the most important tasks of the State Historic Preservation Officer (the SHPO), and therefore the Office of State Archaeology, is the review of development projects funded, licensed or permitted by the federal or state governments. Generally referred to as the Environmental Review Process, it is the means by which archaeological and historic sites are considered in the planning stages of at least some of the many thousands of projects undertaken each year in North Carolina.
When a proposed development action falls into one of the categories covered by the laws, the SHPO is given the opportunity to review and comment on its potential for affecting significant sites. [A "significant site" is defined under the laws as one which is either listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places, a listing of local, state and nationally important historic and archaeological sites.] If a project is considered likely to damage an important site, some form of impact mitigation may be undertaken, either through project avoidance and site preservation or, if necessary, total or partial data recovery ("salvage" excavation).
The review process involves an evaluation of' (1) the type and location of the project proposed (good maps are essential), (2) the presence or absence of known sites in the project area, and (3) the potential for significant sites in the area. The first two steps are pretty straightforward. If the project involves no ground disturbance or will take place in an area where previous disturbances have been severe, such as along an existing highway, there may be no need for concern. A check of the archaeological site files is still conducted, however, just to make sure. The difficult step is the determination of the potential for significant sites. Since only a small fraction of the state has been systematically surveyed for sites most of the review work involves the assessment (a prediction) of whether sites are likely to occur in a project area and, to make matters even more difficult, whether they're likely to be important enough to be concerned about.
In assessing the site potential for a project area, the reviewer considers a number factors; for example, the proximity to permanent water, the soil type(s), and any previous land uses. As important, if not more so, however, is what we know about where people lived in the past, and the different types of sites (villages, camps, etc.) they created across the landscape. This is generally referred to as settlement pattern analysis, with the result being a settlement model (also called a predictive model when used in the review process). The models form the basis for much of the reviews conducted each day at the Office of State Archaeology.
The accuracy of our model(s) of prehistoric or historic settlement, however, is dependent upon the amount of information already available about a given area or similar areas. The greater the information about the locations and contents of sites, the better our models and predictions, and the better the chances for identifying and protecting the resources.
Information about sites (of all kinds) comes from both professionals and amateur collectors and should be reported as soon as possible after discovery. If the information is on file, it can and will be used in the review process. "The more the better" is an accurate statement when it comes to preserving the past.
by: Mark A. Mathis, NC Office of State Archaeology
Reprinted by permission from the NEWSLETTER of the Friends of North Carolina Archaeology, Inc., Fall 1985, Volume 2, Number 1. © North Carolina Archaeological Society 1985
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