Salvage (or compliance) archaeology is performed in response to local, state, and federal historic preservation mandates. Compliance archaeology ensures that cultural resources that are likely to be impacted by construction are properly managed through documentation and excavation before they are destroyed.
Over half of the archaeologists working in the United States today are employed in salvage archaeology. Compliance projects comprise a growing segment of archaeological research, with millions of dollars allotted to projects annually.
Salvage Archaeology in the United States
In the United States, archaeological salvage projects are completed in response to a variety of state and federal laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). The NHPA is the most important of these laws and establishes a State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) and officer in each state. The State Historic Preservation officer is responsible for overseeing implementation of the NHPA within that particular state. NHPA also establishes guidelines requiring that state and federal agencies take into account the effect of any undertaking on any archaeological site, building, or property that is within or is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
Salvage archaeology has traditionally received involvement from state and federal land managers, highway departments, the Army Corps of Engineers, and SHPOs. Some Native American groups have also become involved in salvage archaeology through the establishment of Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (THPO). Each THPO has a preservation officer who oversees NHPA compliance activities within that tribe’s aboriginal territory. The Tribal Historic Preservation Officer usually oversees salvage projects completed on Native American reservations with limited involvement from the State Historic Preservation Officer.
Types of Salvage Projects
There are three types of salvage projects. Phase I (or reconnaissance) surveys are the initial stage and are designed to locate sites within a particular project area. These types of surveys are often completed in two parts. The first part (or Phase IA) involves gathering background information about the project area. Background information is gathered from a variety of sources, including state site files, historic maps, photographs, topographic and soil maps, and oral histories. The second part (often known as Phase IB) involves the identification of archaeological sites through surface survey and subsurface testing.
Subsurface testing often involves the excavation of small shovel tests across the project area to determine whether cultural deposits are located within the project limits. If a site is located and appears to possess much of its original integrity, a Phase II excavation may be recommended.
Phase II (or site examinations) excavations are designed to determine whether the site meets the criteria for eligibility on the National Register of Historic Places. During Phase II excavations, larger square test units and trenches are typically excavated to determine the horizontal and vertical boundaries of the site and assess its chronology. Analyses at the Phase II level are more detailed than those at the Phase I level and include not only an assessment of what was found but also how the resource fits within the local history of the project area.
At the end of a Phase II excavation, a recommendation is made concerning the site’s eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. To be eligible for the National Register, a site must possess one or more of the following characteristics: (a) association with the events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history, (b) association with the lives of persons significant to our past, (c) embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or (d) have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.
If a site is determined to be eligible for the National Register and cannot be avoided during construction, a Phase III excavation is initiated. Phase III (or data recovery) excavations are designed to mitigate (or salvage) cultural materials and features within the project area before they are destroyed by construction. Phase III excavations are usually initiated through the preparation of a data recovery plan. A data recovery plan outlines the steps that will be taken to excavate the site, what research questions will be addressed during the excavation, and what types of analyses will be undertaken.
Like Phase II excavations, Phase III excavations are usually accomplished through the excavation of large test units and trenches as well as through archaeological monitoring. These excavations often produce large quantities of artifacts and data that are synthesized to form the basis for the site’s interpretation. Unlike Phase I and II excavations, Phase III excavations often have a public outreach component and require that information about the excavation be disseminated to the public through oral presentations, peer review articles, site tours, Web sites, and/or public displays.
Once a salvage project is completed, the artifacts, field records, and reports generated by the project are processed for curation. The curation, or long-term storage of artifacts, is an important step in any salvage project. The curation of artifacts not only ensures that they are cared for indefinitely, but proper curation allows them to be used by future researchers.
Curation facilities occur in both local and regional settings and may include local historical societies, museums, state and county repositories, and university centers. Curation facilities housing federal collections are required to abide by more stringent rules than those with nonfederal collections. Repositories with federal collections are required to maintain long-term cataloging and conservation systems that meet standard museum and archival practices. In addition, facilities housing federal collections need to keep main collections storage areas that meet local building, safety, health, and fire codes. Failure to comply with these regulations can put important collections in jeopardy causing the data contained within them to be lost to future generations.
- King, T. F. (1998). Cultural resource laws and practice: An introductory guide. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.
- King, T. F. (2002). Thinking about cultural resource management: Essays from the edge. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.
- Newman, T. W., & Sanford, R. M. (2001). Practicing archaeology: A training manual for cultural resources archaeology. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.