Archaeology’s Role in Protecting Cultural Artifacts
While working on the Sterling Highway in 2021, contractors unearthed evidence of Dena’ina homes. The find included cache pits, animal remains, cutting tools, and a ground slate point arrowhead.
On the Chiniak Highway in Kodiak, an ancestral Alutiiq settlement approximately 350 years old was discovered. And in advance of an expansion project at Fort Wainwright, archaeologists documented campsites at McDonald Creek that range from 6,000 to 14,000 years old, including stone tools and the remains of extinct mammoths.
Because of finds like these, companies involved in excavation are encouraged, and sometimes required, to work with archaeological experts to preserve cultural resources.
“We’re not here to use bullwhips, steal artifacts, or punch Nazis,” says Gilbert Browning with a laugh. “We’re here to do right by tribes and Native groups and to keep the ball rolling with regards to development and progress and new technologies.”
As senior associate archaeologist for Stantec, Browning is the company’s cultural resources lead in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. The global design and engineering firm began employing archaeologists in the early ‘80s to make sure its projects were environmentally compliant.
“As we progress as a nation, environmental compliance and stewardship of the natural environment is becoming an increased focus,” Browning says. “One of the boxes we check in environmental compliance is archaeology. We are part of the trend of cultural resource management and environmental compliance in the United States as a whole.”
Cultural resource management (CRM) differs slightly from archaeology in that it is more business- and client-focused. Starting in the late ‘70s, CRM became a growing trend nationwide. That gave archaeologists a new field in which to apply their training.
“Archaeology with the big ‘A’ is typically what people think about when they see Indiana Jones, but today that idea is more reserved for academia,” Browning explains. “CRM is compliance-related and has to do with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act.”
If artifacts or remains are found on federal land or at projects using federal funding or requiring a federal permit, the National Historic Preservation Act applies. If they are found on state land, the Alaska Historic Preservation Act applies. These laws not only protect individual buildings and structures but also districts, objects, and archaeological sites that are important due to their connection with the past, says Molly Odell, director of archaeology and special projects at the Alutiiq Museum and chair of the City of Kodiak’s Historic Preservation Commission.
“As part of these acts, there is an emphasis on consultation; there is a process in place where all stakeholders—including tribes, local historical societies, museums, and anyone with a vested interest—is consulted about the best course of action,” Odell explains.
Stantec archaeologists in the field in Alaska.
According to Odell, even before ground is broken, areas should be surveyed to determine if there is the possibility of archaeological or historical finds. If these types of resources are discovered before the project gets underway, they can be excavated or otherwise mitigated; if they are found during construction, the site will temporarily be shut down until stakeholders are consulted and a decision is made about what to do with the cultural resources.
“There is always a short-term shutdown when something is found, and work stops in the vicinity while all parties are notified,” she explains, adding that work can usually continue in another part of the construction zone if it is far enough removed.
“If it’s a development project such as a building or road that can be moved or adjusted in order to avoid that archaeological or historical site, that is one option,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important to do this survey early in the process before construction starts. If it happens during construction, they may still need to alter the project, which can be much more difficult at that point, or all of the parties will have to agree that the site should be mitigated.”
Archaeologists aren’t always required to be part of a development project; they are typically required in areas where artifacts have previously been found or found adjacent to that site, or if the site is deemed unique in a certain way with traditional cultural property of a Native group.
“It is far more cost-prohibitive to stop midway through… Typically the assessment of a damaged resource is far more costly than the initial assessment of a resource left intact and undisturbed.”
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“In some states, including Alaska, we have predictive models based on a number of things like geology, elevation, and proximity to water that give credence to whether archaeology will be present,” says Browning. “Across time, people like to live where they like to live, such as near the water to take advantage of natural resources and on elevated plateaus above the floodplain.”
However, Browning notes that places where people live now are not necessarily where they lived in the past. “For example, a mining concern building out in the wilderness, away from development, might believe that the area is barren or devoid of previous settlements or life,” he says. “But an archaeologist can provide insight into landscapes that were used tens of thousands of years ago that, while not visible to the untrained eye, show the presence of people even in remote areas.”
Saving Money through Mitigation
Alutiiq Museum archaeologist Molly Odell examines a soil profile at a construction site on Kodiak Island.
Developers whose projects do not require an archaeologist may think that it’s easier and more cost-effective to skip this step, but dealing with damages after the fact or having to change a project on the fly can be far more problematic.
“Whether they know about them beforehand or not, developers are required by law to protect cultural resources,” says Browning. “Having us there early on helps the backflow of the project; it keeps it from experiencing delays, as well as any unforeseen consequences that come from hitting archaeological deposits or having to find the funding to mitigate archaeologic finds after the fact. We can identify issues early on and provide mitigation measures to keep them out of trouble with state and federal authorities.”
Mitigation methods depend on the site. Buffer zones of 50 to 100 feet can prevent developers from coming near the resources. Sites can also be capped by bringing in sterile dirt or cement to cover them. In some cases, excavation is required if the resource will be destroyed; it can either be relocated or put into a curation agreement with a museum, such as the Museum of the North at UAF or the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, where it can be stored in a safe, secure, climate-controlled facility.
Browning cites a recent project north of Nome where an archaeologist was able to identify areas of concern before the project started. “With the archaeologist’s help, the client and developer were able to create a buffer around the resource so that it was not impacted,” he says. “This accomplished two important things: first, it kept the local stakeholders, including the tribe and community, happy because their cultural history and heritage was not being disturbed. Second, it gave the client a sense of relief that, as long as they stayed out of that area, their project would not hit any hiccups.”
He adds that Stantec also produces an inadvertent discovery plan (IDP) for each project which outlines the steps to take if something is found. “If we walk the site and dig the holes and don’t find anything, but then the construction company finds a resource while excavating 10 feet down, they can refer to the IDP for guidance on who to call and how to treat the resource,” he says.
Most projects follow the regulations outlined in the historic preservation acts, and owners or contractors who choose to ignore them might end up paying more than anticipated. For instance, Stantec is currently helping at a project that was shut down by the State of Alaska due to noncompliance and is working to help mitigate the damage.
“The State Office of History and Archeology sent [the project] a cease-and-desist order for development of that property and is keeping the project on hold until the archaeological due diligence is done,” says Browning. “This can be very costly and detrimental to the development of the project because it is far more cost-prohibitive to stop midway through. Now you’ve got equipment idle, construction workers idle, and typically the assessment of a damaged resource is far more costly than the initial assessment of a resource left intact and undisturbed.”
One Foot in the Past
By working with both developers and cultural resources stakeholders, archaeologists can help protect the state’s history while still helping it progress.
“As archaeologists, we tend to have one foot in the past and in the present; we’re bridging that gap,” says Browning. “Having us on-site gives developers a glimpse into the past and helps them see another point of view. Typically, Native Americans have a deeper understanding of the landscape than most Westerners, who don’t understand the value of the cultural landscape.”
He adds that being able to present that information to developers tends to give them a better understanding of why there is so much concern by Native Americans about development in “random areas.”
“Most can’t see the connection forged over thousands of years on the landscape, and we can help them grasp that connection, as well as understand why there may be associated costs and extra time required on a project,” Browning says. “It gives them a deeper respect for what they’re doing when they realize that they are altering someone’s heritage in an area that has been used for 10,000 years. It humbles them and gives them a more holistic view of the connection between the landscape, people, development, and time.”
Attention to archaeology shows that developers are conscious of their actions when they acknowledge the cultural value in the landscape. Browning says, “We all understand that progress will take place, but when developers do their due diligence and are respectful of the former and current landscape, they can still do right by those who have cultural ties to the land while getting the development done.”
Cultural resource management goes beyond regulatory compliance. “People understand that there is value in history,” Browning says. “By doing archaeology, we are able to present snippets of the past that provide people with a link to their local and national histories, and an overall understanding of the past.”