U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
III. HOW ARE ARCHEOLOGICAL PROPERTIES IDENTIFIED?
Proper identification of a historic property serves as the foundation for evaluation, a sound National Register nomination, and for subsequent planning protection, and management of the resource. When considering a property for listing in the National Register, the nomination preparer needs to be able to answer questions about the history of the property and its physical setting, the characteristics of the site's archeological record, and the boundaries of the property.
The identification of archeological properties generally involves background research, field survey, archeological testing and analysis, and evaluation of the results. Archeologists use a variety of information sources to reconstruct the history of a property including written documents, oral testimony, the presence and condition of surviving buildings, structures, landscapes, and objects, and the archeological record. Where the archeological record is well-known, the locations and types of sites may serve as the basis for predictive models for further site identification. Written documentary resources, oral history, and traditional knowledge may provide information about the people and activities that occurred at a site, and can enumerate aspects of the archeological property's use, abandonment and subsequent alteration. Extant buildings, structures, landscape features, and objects can provide important temporal and functional information upon which to base additional research.
Generally background research should be completed prior to the field studies. This research may involve: examining primary sources of historical information (e.g., deeds and wills), secondary sources (e.g., local histories and genealogies), and historic cartographic sources; reviewing previous archeological research in similar areas, models that predict site distribution, and archeological, architectural, and historical site inventory files; and conducting informant interviews.
Information obtained only through archeological survey or test excavations may be needed for many archeological properties before a nomination can be prepared. The identification of archeological properties is discussed more thoroughly in the National Register bulletin Guidelines for Local Surveys: A Basis for Preservation Planning, especially Chapter 11, "Conducting the Survey," and Appendix 1, "Archeological Surveys." Also see The Secretary of Interior's Standards and Guidelines for Identification. Individual states or localities may have specific guidelines or permit requirements for archeological investigations. Contact your SHPO, THPO, or the FPO prior to beginning any archeological research project.
In order to identify the presence and location of a site, an archeologist generally begins by inspecting the ground surface or probing below the surface using soil cores or shovel tests. Artifacts and features are the most common indicators of archeological properties. Artifacts in the plow-disturbed soils of active and former agricultural fields can also demonstrate the location of archeological properties. Non-native plant species or spatial patterning of plants (such as clusters of daffodils, lilac bushes, or groupings of cedar trees) may signal the presence of an archeological property.
Archeologists usually identify the presence and extent of a site through excavation of randomly, systematically, or judgmentally placed test units. Test units are used to show the presence or absence of artifacts and features below the present ground surface. The fieldwork to determine the National Register eligibility of an archeological property should follow logically from the historic context used. For example, the context should provide important research questions and the data needed for an eligibility determination. Such data may include the horizontal and vertical extent of a site, chronology or periods of occupation/use, site type, site function, and internal configuration.
Increasingly, archeologists are using scientific instruments to identify subsurface archeological features. Remote sensing techniques, that include ground-penetrating radar (GPR), soil resistivity, and soil chemistry surveys, are often applied in conjunction with test excavations that confirm the presence of subsurface cultural remains (Thomas 1987). Such prospecting techniques are non-destructive and can provide rapid three-dimensional reconnaissance of a site, but the results are often ambiguous unless they are checked in the field. For further information see, for example, Heimmer and Devore (1995) and Bevan (1998).
After the field studies are complete, the archeologist identifies and documents the artifacts, features, and ecofacts that make up the property. For the purpose of comparison with other properties, these data are quantified. Special attention is given to describing and analyzing temporally, functionally, and culturally diagnostic artifacts, features, or ecofacts. Generally, one must complete the laboratory analysis phase of a project before determining the potential significance of an archeological property.
Among American archeologists, specific test strategies-that is, the number, shape, placement, and method of test excavations-are as diverse as the characteristics of the archeological record. Because of the impact on the quality of information recovered, the archeological field methods used are an important part of the description of any archeological research project.
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