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What You Should Know About Archaeological Finds on Construction Sites

The recent discovery of long buried crypts during a routine water main replacement project in New York City’s Washington Square Park should serve as a reminder to maintenance and engineering managers that a review of archaeological records should be an important part of their due diligence prior to beginning construction, says CBRE Valuation & Advisory Services group.

Archeological finds during construction are not uncommon, especially in urban settings where more than 500 years of American history and thousands of years of Native American relics may lie buried a few feet below the surface.

In the U.S., builders are obligated to report archaeological finds if the project requires a federal, state, or occasionally local permit, license or funding that triggered compliance with historic preservation laws, says Cris Kimbrough, archaeologist and Managing Director at CBRE Telecom Advisory Services. If archaeological resources are identified during construction/development for a project that has gone through the federal, state, and local historic preservation process, all work must stop until further preservation measures can be determined and completed.

There are few rules governing artifacts that are encountered on private land because U.S. law is focused on the protection of private property. As a consequence, artifacts located in areas where no historic preservation rules are in place are at risk. This does not apply to human remains, however. Human remains always have to be reported to the local authorities and treated appropriately.

In the case of the Washington Square project, the crypts were covered up and the water main project will be re-routed around them.

The State Historic Preservation Offices (SHPO) will maintain records on identified archaeological resources in each state. In addition, museums and colleges and universities may also have records, but these are most often registered with the SHPO or held in lieu of SHPO archaeological files. These files are not accessible to the public and can only be viewed by qualified individuals — usually a qualified archaeologist or other historic preservation specialist.

Most states have a project review process wherein staff at the SHPO reviews the project plans and their files to determine if there are any potential direct or indirect impacts to historic and archaeological resources. If there are, SHPO may request archaeological or other studies be completed prior to construction. Native American tribes also maintain archaeological and other traditional cultural properties records, but access to these files is almost always restricted. Tribes are consulted regarding their cultural resources as part of the federal historic preservation process, and most state preservation processes.

If artifacts are discovered as part of the pre-development review process, then additional archaeological surveys may be required. The federal process dictates that impacts to historic and archaeological resources should be avoided, minimized, and mitigated in that order.

“Developers often talk about losing a project to SHPO, but often it is just a matter of working through the process and being creative,” said Kimbrough.

Archaeological due diligence is usually not a part normal Phase I or Phase II Environmental Site Assessments. Builders should be aware of federal, state, and local historic preservation laws and comply. An initial project review with the SHPO, when required, involves hiring qualified environmental and cultural resource management consultants who understand at a high level what the applicable historic preservation processes are.


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