Of and Around Standing Structures: Archaeology and Restoration

John W. Clauser, Jr.
Office of State Archaeology
North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office

Reprinted by permission from The Ligature©, NC Division of Archives and History (1985) 

If the knowledge of America's past that lies buried in the ground is to be retrieved, we need all the help we can get...(Ivor Noel Hume, Historical Archaeology, p. 4, Alfred A. Knopf, 1969).

The problem with archaeological resources is that they can not be seen or interpreted without considerable effort. Most are below the surface of the ground--that is their nature. Because they are not seen they are rarely understood. Many people go through life walking across important sites everyday without ever realizing the potential evidence which lies beneath their feet. The fact remains that they do exist, and with a little education one may appreciate the real contributions such resources can make to understanding our past, and can take positive steps to protect these resources.

What are these things--these "archaeological resources" which are supposed to tell us so much about our past. To the uninitiated they are rather unimpressive. The whole Grecian urns and Egyptian Sarcophogi of classical archaeology are not present in North Carolina archaeology. Gold, silver and precious gems are not existent for all practical purposes. In fact, whole items of any sort are rare. We are dealing with the bits and pieces of the past--the garbage of our antecedents on the land. While not, perhaps, as dramatic as the previously mentioned remains, and certainly less likely to make ideal museum displays, these bits and pieces can aid in the more complete understanding of our past. Careful recovery and interpretation of this material can provide information about past life that is rarely recorded in the written record.

Foundations of structures long torn down yield information concerning size, location and use--items which are often thought to have been lost with the above ground portions of the structure. Traces in the soil may indicate fence lines, gardens and planting beds, and specialized use areas in the yard. In the days prior to civic trash removal each household had to deal with its own refuse. In most cases it was deposited in the backyard, sometimes carefully buried, or sometimes simply cast on the surface. The difference in treatment often depended on the time period and the prevailing culture in an area. These cast off remains often indicate information concerning food resources, changing attitudes concerning style, and changing economic status which are rarely recorded in written documents. A culture often inadvertently says more about itself with what it throws away than it says purposely with its documents.

Archaeological resources are extremely fragile; once disturbed, they can never be repaired. Once destroyed, they can never be replaced. They are gone forever! The type of information they provide is unique--it can not be found in any other kind of historic evidence.

In this age of endless paperwork, it is often assumed that everything we do is fully documented and that we shall be remembered until Armageddon. It comes as something of a shock to discover that even if that day should come in our lifetime, much of what we did and wrote in our youth will already have been forgotten. As we look back into the nineteenth century, visibility becomes increasingly poor. We see only the shadows of countless people who lived and died without their names surviving so much as a hundred years. Homes were built and destroyed, and so were the documents that identified the owners and their property. Fires, floods, the Civil War, neglect, and the unthinking and deliberate destruction of records have consigned thousands, even millions to oblivion... Although the written record may not have endured, the material remains of the past often have survived. They are there, waiting to fill in the missing pages of history--provided that we can get to them in time (Noel Hume 1969: 9-10).

Archaeological resources are nothing more than a group of artifacts (broken pottery, food remains, building remains, etc.) and the pattern which they form in the ground. The value of the resources is in the information they can provide concerning our predecessors. The vast majority of this information is provided by the context of the site, the relationship of one element to another, one artifact to others, artifacts to structural remains, and structural remains to each other. Carefully saved piles of artifacts, be they whole plates and bottles or small fragments, may be interesting to see, but they are of little informational value by themselves. Without information concerning the context of the artifacts it is impossible to interpret the human behavior, and it is the understanding of human behavior which should be the goal of any archaeological investigation.

It is an unfortunate fact that we can not always deduce past behavior through the logical application of our own experience.

What historical archaeology teaches us is that common sense is culturally relative, that in the past people have done things and behaved in ways that to us might seem almost irrational but that to them may not have been, and that the phenomenon of culture change is far more complex and imponderable than we might suspect... (James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archeology of Early American Life, p. 23, Anchor Press, 1977).

The only way we are going to better understand our past is through the scientific recovery and analysis of available archaeological evidence, and it is only through the careful management of these resources that we will have them to study at all.

Archaeological resources can exist anywhere, but do not exist everywhere. While they can contribute to the understanding of history, they do not, in every case contribute significantly.

There are sites which are too disturbed, or are of a nature that preservation is not warranted. There are sites which are not worthy of excavation, even under salvage condition. The "trick" is in determining what is important and what is not. Therefore, primary steps in dealing successfully with this type of resource should include identification and evaluation. Once a knowledge of the location of such resources and their relative worth to the understanding of the history is gained, a responsible approach can be developed to preserve and protect those worthy of such consideration.

Historic research provides an obvious key to identification. A search of available documentation, especially historic maps, can provide a great deal of information relating to the location of possible archaeological resources. It not only pinpoints areas of concern within an area but also can eliminate areas, and highlight questions--items which are not adequately covered in the documentation. Historic research will not answer every question, but it will help to limit areas to be considered for further work. Knowing where not to look is just as important as knowing where to look. Archaeological investigation is expensive and time consuming; the more information that is available prior to any investigation, the better the overall product.

Once historic research has been completed, the next step is a survey and testing program. This involves actually going out into the field and checking for remains. Several techniques, both surface and subsurface, will be necessary for a complete study. Surface techniques include a visual inspection of the ground looking for patterns of artifacts, and patterns of growth in the vegetation which may indicate subsurface remains. Subsurface techniques include probing for foundations and shovel tests, small excavations to check for physical remains. There are many other more technical methods for checking for subsurface remains, but they require rather expensive equipment, and do not work in all instances. While latter techniques do have their place, they are best used under specific conditions.

After areas of probable remains are located, and again other areas have been eliminated, more extensive testing is suggested. Testing a site involves slightly larger excavations to determine the condition of any remains located during the survey and to determine whether these remains have the potential to add significantly to the understanding of the history of an area. (After such a testing program, realistic decisions may be made concerning: Can the site be avoided and preserved? It is possible to recover the available evidence before it is destroyed by development? Is there nothing left that will yield valuable evidence, and can development proceed without further action?) It is a matter of understanding what is being spent for a project. The loss of archaeological resources are just as much an expense of a project as are labor and materials, and should be managed in a manner similar to money. Saved against the future, and spent only when there is a real need.

One of the more interesting aspects of the preservation of archaeological resources is that the best action is often no action at all. Archaeological resources tend to be stable, and will remain as long as no ground disturbing activity takes place. Unlike standing structures which require an active program of maintenance, archaeological resources may be preserved simply through proper planning. The cost may be one of avoidance of areas rather than one of labor and materials.

Archaeological resources should not be saved simply because they fill the needs of a group of esoteric scholars. They are of real value to the general public also. Nearly every preservation group has bewailed the "loss" of an important historic structure at one time or another. Serious as such a loss may be, it is not necessarily total. Archaeological evidence often long outlasts the above grade evidence. One needs only to consider the massive reconstruction efforts, all based on archaeological research, of Williamsburg and Tryon Palace to see the possibilities. Obviously a reconstruction is not the same as the original, but the loss of the above ground evidence does not justify total loss of interest in the site. The archaeological evidence which remains is just as important, if not more so, as when the structure was standing.

It should be understood that there are also archaeological resources connected with standing structures. Houses do not exist in a vacuum, but are directly related to their surroundings. For example, attributes such as distance from the street and barriers to entrance can be clear indicators of the use of a building, or of the socio-economic status of the owners. Public buildings such as stores tend to be immediately adjacent to the street, inviting entrance, while private residencies tend to be set back from the street. This set back can even be accomplished in the inner city, where all buildings are immediately on the sidewalk by insetting the main entrance. Physical barriers to entrance such as fences and plantings often add to the isolation of the private residence in the neighborhood. Above ground evidence for such barriers is often ephemeral, changing with current fashion and differing social status of the inhabitants. However, the archaeological evidence for such phenomena often remains.

A number of years ago Duke Homestead, Durham, North Carolina, was a cluster of structures in the middle of an empty field. The structures had been restored, but there was a feeling of bareness, a lack of sense of place. Archaeological investigation uncovered evidence of original fence lines as well as indications of types of fences used at the Homestead. The reconstruction of the fence lines, based on the archaeological work, and subsequent photo documentation has greatly improved the appearance of the site, eliminating the rather sterile feeling.

Structures themselves are not static, but change through time; new sections are added, porches are removed and carriage sheds become garages. The changes leave evidence in the archaeological record which, when properly excavated, provide evidence concerning the varying lifestyles of the inhabitant and answer questions concerning the accurate restoration of the structure. This type of evidence can put actual people in a house rather than a broad generalization of what is thought to be appropriate for the time. Perhaps most importantly, this type of evidence does not have to be recovered immediately, but through adequate planning, can be saved for future study without impinging upon current use of the structure.

Exterior restoration of the Potter's House in Bethabara, North Carolina, had been completed, and interior restoration was well underway before a decision was made to investigate areas where there had been two additions to the extant structure. Since, through conscious planning, these areas had been untouched during the initial restoration, it was possible to uncover intact foundations yielding valuable information concerning changes in structure usage and construction techniques. In addition, the only Moravian pottery kiln ever to be excavated in the United States was discovered and investigated. Had it not been for the careful planning during the restoration of the structure, this extremely valuable information would have been lost forever. However, the initial planning had been done--not originally with the thought of developing the site as a museum, but simply as an effort to preserve and protect the evidence.

Evidence of activity around the structure, but not physically connected with it is also important. The demarcation of personal space is a major concern in western society. Placement of plantings and fences is not the result of accident, but is as carefully considered as is the exterior color of the main structure. Specific areas of the property are set aside for specific uses. The front yard tends to be rather formal--a statement of how the inhabitants wish to present themselves to the outside world. There is a strong tendency to keep this area clean and devoid of functional items such as machinery. The front yard is used as a display of status--its ostentation depending on the rank and social status of the inhabitants.

The backyard of a dwelling, or the rear of a public building tends to be more utilitarian. These areas are used for activities which are essential to, but not appropriate for the interior of the structure. Support structures such as smokehouses, stables and privies are usually located in this area--located in a pattern which conforms with prevailing social practices, and complementing the main structure. Above ground evidence for such support structures rarely survives. This is why some restorations look so sterile; the main structure lacks the support which made it a functioning property. Although the above ground evidence rarely remains, archaeological resources appear to be particularly well preserved in the back yard. Removed from the development pressures of additions and subtractions from the main structure, they are protected from all but the most tenacious attempts to adapt the land.

Dealing with archaeological resources at first appears a bit cumbersome and time consuming. After all, how can one express any real concern for things which can not be seen? It is difficult enough to get any action concerning a standing structure which everyone can see and appreciate to some degree. The simple realization that such resources exist is a start--that what you see may not be all that you have. Next is the implementation of a program in identification and evaluation--discover what you have, where it is and how valuable it is. Identification of areas of concern, and the elimination of other areas will made the process much simpler.

While it is best to complete the entire process, it is not necessary to have all in place to begin positive actions to preserve archaeological resources. As small a step as designating a structure and its lot as an historic property, rather than simply designating the structure, is a good start. Archaeological resources are fragile and non-renewable. Once they are damaged or destroyed, they are gone forever.

The mainstream of historical research tends to focus on "great men and great events". It is a rare town that has more than one man who is considered, even locally, as one of the "greats". However, each town has its own history which is just as important to it as are any of the great movements recorded in the normal histories. Local history gives a town a sense of place and purpose, a base to fit into the rest of the world. Since it is the history of ordinary people, it is rarely written down. The majority of the evidence is in the material remains of their lives--the archaeological resources.