Sharring experiences in urban infrastructure delivery.

Urban Archeological Investigations

By: Tom Davis Category: Misc Urban Infrastructure

S2400031.JPGI have had the great opportunity and pleasure of managing three archeological investigations related to projects in the oldest part of Houston Texas that is also in the core of downtown. This post is to share my experiences and what I learned to hopefully assist someone who may be where I was when I began the RFP process for the first project.  I acknowledge I had the benefit of Bob Eury’s (Central Houston and the Downtown District) experience and great advice from Dr. Roger Moore that helped me avoid  learning some things the hard way.

The terms used here are those I learned for projects being pursued under the regulations of the The Antiquities Code of Texas as administered by the Texas Historic Commission (THC). They may not have the same meaning in a different state. As you read through this please remember I am not an archeologist and only relate my experiences to help others anticipate what may be necessary for their urban project.

The process begins in Texas when you have a publicly owned site where you will be excavating and there is potential to damage and/or destroy historical artifacts. Louis Macey Jr. (local business man) & Dr. Roger Moore  watching trench surveying For those projects the Texas Antiquities code requires you to acquire the services of someone who is a recognized, experienced archeologist to determine if anything of historical significance may exist where you will excavate. In Texas the THC will only consider opinions or recommendations from such a person who they deem qualified by their education and experience. The THC then recognizes that person as the “Principal Investigator” for your Antiquities Permit. Of course hiring one that is known by THC, knows your area and already has a collection of historic records will reduce your cost and the time required. I have always had the good fortune of working with Dr. Roger Moore of Moore Archeological Consulting, Kelly Schexnayder and other members of his team who are very experienced archeologists in Texas. The THC has supported his recommendations and we moved on promptly.

No matter what state you are in you will need to determine if the Federal regulations apply. If there are Federal funds or permits required for the projects, then the requirements of Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 will apply.  This is true across the country, while the Antiquities Code applies only to Texas.  The archeological steps are very much the same if Section 106 applies, but there are also important additional requirements in the federal regs regarding potentially historic structures, districts, and landscapes that need to be assessed by the appropriate professionals.

Sanborn-map-extract2.jpgThe first step for the archeologist is a thorough records search of how the property was used. The archeologists call this step the “archeological review and assessment”. The historic land usage, or suspected usage, will be the indicators to your archeologist as to what areas, if any, warrant progressing to the next step. They will also note later uses and the level of excavation or other disturbances ( e.g.: foundations, basements) that would have destroyed evidence of early occupations. When all the uses are overlaid the undisturbed areas become the targets for the next stage.

The package they produce to show THC presents how the land was used and supports their recommendation. The recommendation is part of the application for an Antiquities Permit. The exhibits they collect are very interesting if you, like me, enjoy old maps and photos.  The reports included “Sanborn Maps” that provided snap shots of how the City developed and expanded in the 1800’s to the mid 1900’s.

The records are assembled and submitted to THC. Once THC has reviewed the records and, hopefully, agreed with the archeologist’s recommendation, they will issue the Antiquities Permit if the site could contain artifacts. With the permit you can move to the next stage–the field work known as the archeological survey.Scraping 1"-2" layer looking for evidence of artifacts.

The survey stage involves limited test excavations. In my case the excavations were by machine trenching using an excavator. At one site we moved on to mechanical scraping. Trenching is accomplished by having a backhoe or excavator with a smooth edged bucket scrape away 1″ to 2″ thick layers of dirt as the archeologists and/or his staff look into the slowing deepening trench hoping to find something of “significance”. As the excavator’s bucket swings and gently dumps the soil the archeologist watches to see if anything appears that was not seen as the thin layer was removed. This process is repeated to a depth where undisturbed material is found.

The archeologist is hoping to find a filled-in privy or cistern. The century old privy–i.e. one no longer in service–is a great thing for an archeologist.  When someone many years ago dropped something into one, intentionally or unintentionally, the object was very likely left there. Many years later the recovery is not such an unpleasant task. Even in a cistern–used to store rain water–there was a chance that something that fell in was also not recovered as climbing in would have upset mama who used the water.Top of a cistern. Found nothing in it.

At one of our sites the findings during the trenching indicated the need for a more extensive survey at that location.  With the THC’s concurrence we moved into “scraping”. Scraping was the careful removal with the mechanical excavator of a larger area. In my case the trenching uncovered what was believed to be an “undisturbed living surface”. That find brought even bigger smiles that finding a privy.

The report to THC of the results of the trenching included that observation and recommended additional surveying by scraping in an expanded area to determine if exploration is warranted to remove any significant artifacts. The THC approved the recommendation and the archeologist returned with the excavator and carefully scraped away the soil above the yard area of a residence that had been abolished decades before.  Nothing of significance was found so he did not recommend moving to the next stage: i.e. testing.

To summarize, the archeological survey stage in my experience consisted of trenching and scraping in locations selected based on the best estimate of where a privy or cistern may have been located given the house or business location in the historical records. If a privy or cistern was found they dug to the bottom at that time. That excavation to the bottom technically moved the process on to the “testing” stage. The THC allows for this one instance of moving to that stage without their specific approval.Pottery Shards

If the survey found sufficient objects of significance we would have moved on to the development and execution of a plan for testing and then on to data recovery or excavation. That is when your site begins to look like one of the photos from the National Geographic where someone is digging with a teaspoon.

As you schedule the overall project keep in mind that each phase of this process requires a new recommendation by the archeologist to the state for approval of the proposed work. Once that approval arrives–or before anticipating state approval–the owner approves the cost of that now-known scope for the next phase. The THC has thirty days for each approval and uses most if not all of it. That series of approvals, quotes and authorizations adds time to the process. If you fall under the federal regulations then allow time for approvals after the state.

Looks like a fence foundation made with low-fired brick. But, those brick were not still used when this area was occupied. I wonder if ....In my first draft of this article I presented the process as being in phases and you will often hear it discussed that way. Based on comments received I realized that, although us laymen often speak of the process as being in concise phases, that is not how the archeological process is structured and will lead to confusion. In addition the use of phase terminology implies the process is like the phased environmental process that is based on the precise lab results of chemical analysis. The archeologist does not have the luxury of such measurements. It helped me to not think of the process in phases so this article does not use that terminology.

The secret to a successful project is to start with an experienced archeologist that is well known and respected at the regulatory agency. Plus, they must be someone that will not take advantage of the situation and recommend unwarranted work just because they can and you have to pay. Realize if you do not support the recommendation of your archeologist and the state thinks you must be trying to hide something then your project could go “under the microscope”.

If you need someone in the field of old textiles I include a plug here for Mary Spanos, an anthropological textiles researcher. She is currently working with Moore Archeological Consulting to evaluate all that survived of what is assumed to be a Mexican soldier’s uniform–several small fragments of fabric–found at the San Jacinto Battleground. Why the plug? Because she is well regarded in her very unique field … and she is my little sister.

A good resource for the cultural resource management process and links to more info is the Council of Texas Archeologists.


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