How do we begin to address these threats to archaeological sites? It is difficult to identify one standard method because each site is unique. The severity of effects will depend on site location and condition, environment, and existing weather patterns. There are, however, common practices that can be part of a larger plan for each situation.
The first step is identifying site location, which happens in many ways. Community reporting is a great way to ensure site preservation. Community members can report known sites in the area or on their property to the Office of State Archaeology. These sites become part of the archaeological record and their locations remain private. Sites are also located through historical research. Historical documents provide clues to site locations and what information they may provide. This research is only useful for uncovering sites from the late 1500s onward because it relies on preserved written documents.
Field surveys are the most common method for identifying sites. Surveys will occur when work in an area could disrupt archaeological sites. They may also happen when discovered artifacts reveal site locations. Survey method will depend on the conditions of the survey area. Pedestrian surveys involve walking in straight lines and recording visible artifacts and features. Shovel test surveys allow archaeologists to identify artifacts and features below the surface. This surveying involves digging holes at intervals and recording the artifacts and soils. Remote sensing surveys are non-destructive methods that are beneficial on land and underwater. Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) allows archaeologists to see evidence of structures beneath the survey by detecting changes in ground density. Underwater, a variety of remote sensing technology aids in mapping the seafloor. For example, a side scan sonar uses sound waves to map a survey area. The resulting map will show any shipwreck parts that may be unburied.
Once we know where the sites are, there are several options for assessing them. In all cases, data recovery is essential. Data recovery involves retrieving information about the site, including size, historical context, significance, and potential threats. Methods employed range from more surface surveys to full excavation and site recovery. The data recovered helps archaeologists devise methods for preserving sites.
A common method of site preservation is monitoring. Archaeologists vising a site at risk on a periodic schedule allows them to document change over time. Consider a site on a river bank that experiences daily erosion from water movement. Annual visits allow archaeologists to track how much of the site is disappearing. Inspection following extreme weather events, like hurricanes, is important to record damage. Monitoring allows archaeologists to document change and recover new data. Changes such as exposed artifacts or structures help them make future preservation decisions.
Some archaeological sites are significant enough for preservation in place. These sites represent important moments in our collective history or a local identity. Preservation of these sites often requires physical barriers to reduce climate change effects. For example, seawalls protect coastal sites by taking the brunt of wave and water energy. Similarly, retaining walls support sites on steep slopes threatened by land movement. Although they alter the landscape, these measures ensure sites survive for future generations.
The Office of State Archaeology supports several projects to identify, assess, and preserve sites. Choose a project below to learn more!
Site Preservation Projects
Main image: Ground penetrating radar survey of a potential archaeological site near Town Creek Indian Mound State Historic Site. This type of survey is a nondestructive terrestrial technique that identifies materials buried beneath the surface before breaking ground. (Image by NC Office of State Archaeology, 2021)
This material was produced with assistance from the Emergency Supplemental Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.