Demystifying historical and archaeological clearances – Part II

This is the second of two articles about understanding Pennsylvania’s process for projects located in areas that may have significant historical and archaeological resources…

You may have heard of Phase I, Phase II and Phase III historical and archaeological studies before, but sometimes it’s hard to remember just exactly what happens during each of those phases. Well, hopefull this article will help…

Back to the past

Remember back to the previous article where I said there are three possible responses to our initial request to PA’s Bureau for Historic Preservation (BHP)? No??? Well neither did I…so it probably bears repeating. Those three possible responses were:

  1. there are no recorded historical/archaeological sites nearby and none are expected (hurray!)
  2. recorded sites ARE located nearby and some are expected at your location (oh well…)
  3. no sites are nearby but still, we think there’s a high probability that sites exist (oh well again…)

Well if we get response #1, then guess what? We’re finished with the process! No further investigation is needed. But we still need to keep a look out for “late finds” during construction. Just because we received clearance before the project starts, doesn’t give us the ability to plow through an Indian burial ground if one turns up. Now, if we get response #2 or #3, then we’ll be asked to do some further investigation to make sure we’re not going to adversely affect an important resource. This is where the phases come in.

The phase maze

In order to go about these investigations (also called “surveys”) in an orderly and cost effective manner, BPH recommends a phased approach.

  • Phase I is for identifying and inventorying any potential resources
  • Phase II is for evaluating the significance of what’s been found and what effect we’re having on them
  • Phase III is where we mitigate any effects

So a Phase I survey helps identify historical or archaeological sites through site visits, background research and field testing (in the case of underground resources).  If nothing is found during Phase I, then BHP will recommeArchaeology_Trowelnd no further investigations. But if something of interest IS found, the Phase I work is usually not rigorous enough to help us determine the significance of any artifacts that are found. (A Phase I is sometimes called a “windshield survey”.) It just says “hey! we found something here!” (Oh and technically, the “phase” designations are reserved for archaeology, but historical investigations generally follow the same approach.)

Telling the story

In order to evaluate where that something is important or not, BHP will recommend a Phase II study . A Phase II involves more extensive investigations such as further research, fieldwork (excavation, photographs, etc.) and mapping. I like to think of a Phase II investigation as trying to tell the story of the artifacts or historical structures that are found in a Phase I.  If this story involves significant resources, a Phase II survey also determines if there will be an adverse affect (and whether it can be avoided or minimized).

Preserving the story

If our project causes no adverse affects, then we’re good to go. But if adverse affects cannot be avoided or adequately minimized, then we move into the final phase of historical/archaeological clearances…the Phase III. In this phase we propose actions that will mitigate (or lessen the severity) of the adverse effects. Sometimes the resources is preserved in place which often requires a change in the design plans. SometiZimmerman centermes artifacts can be recovered and displayed in a museum. A final report documenting the resource and its significance is completed. Each project is different; each resource is unique. Therefore close consultation with the BHP is necessary to make sure that the mitigation efforts are adequate for that particular situation.


Significance can make your project significant

So that, in a nutshell, is the process for projects that have significant archaeological or historical resources. Obviously, I’ve boiled it way down to give us all a general understanding, but I hope this outline is helpful enough. By the way, the BHP defines a significant archaeological resource as one that contributes “information to our understanding of past cultural behavior”. Similarly a historic resource “has something important to tell about our past and retains enough historic qualities to tell the story well.” So again, if we encounter something historically significant in our project, let’s take it as an opportunity to better understand and preserve an important part of our past and not just another hoop to jump through. I truly believe that your end users and your community will thank you.

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