UPDATE: Archaeology unearths new group of RVA advocates

Indiana Jones would approve.

Update #1 — June 5, 2014; 10:55 AM

A member of Dutton + Associates, the firm tapped to lead archeological efforts in Shockoe Bottom should City Council adopt Mayor Jones’s Shockoe Redevelopment Plan, has addressed concerns expressed by RVA Archaeology, a new group of archaeological advocates (see below).

Ellen Chapman, one of RVA Archaeology’s founders, expressed concern that current archaeological plans called for no preliminary testing of deposits before Shockoe’s excavation. That testing, she said, helps archaeologists better know what they might find once digging started.

David Dutton said that shovel-testing a site, while helpful in more rural environments, isn’t as reliable in urban ones.

“Urban sites are complex,” Dutton said, and that shovel testing would prove “ineffective and inconclusive.”

So how do archaeologists better understand what’s below city terrain? “More reliance is put on background research,” he said. That research will help excavators survey the site’s history, as well as the possible subterranean remnants of that history.

“Once we have a good understanding of what’s there and where it is…what our plan calls for is for developing excavation plans that are going to identify the areas we propose to look at,” he said.

Excavators will identify the “field methods” best appropriate for specific sites. “The methods are going to be geared towards what we expect to find.” He said the group will also do “exploratory sampling, most likely with a machine” before the excavation process begins.

However, Dutton affirmed that archaeologists often find things they weren’t expecting to. Should excavators find something unexpected, such as Native American deposits, “we would stop and re-evaluate how we approach that particular resource,” Dutton said.

Dutton sympathized with the concerns that Chapman and RVA Archaeology have about the site. But he said the specific methods for handling the site have yet to be outlined and made public. “The details with the method with how we’ll approach each site…will be laid out in the excavation plans.”

But unless City Council approves the Mayor’s Shockoe plan, those excavation plans may never see the light of day.

— ∮∮∮ —

Original — June 04, 2014

You’d think a history-rich city like Richmond must have a website or database bursting with catalogued findings and discoveries archaeologists have unearthed over the years, right?

“Does that exist? No,” said Terry Brock, Research Archaeologist at The Montpelier Foundation, and new resident to Richmond. “Could it exist? Absolutely.”

To be fair, there are some archaeological resources available to the public. “You can download the Lumpkin’s Jail report off the city’s website,” Brock said. “If you dig for it (PDF).”

The dearth of artifacts and analysis even applies to relatively recent archaeological excavations, like those at the flood wall. “A lot of the excavations that were done for the flood wall project aren’t even written up,” Brock said. “Which means the archaeologist who did the archaeology, I believe, hasn’t written them up.” Workers finished flood wall construction in 1995.

The lack of Richmond’s archaeological documentation, as well as consideration by City Hall and City Council, was one the reasons Brock, Dr. Kim Allen, and Ellen Chapman created a group advocating on archaeology’s behalf.

But it was discussion about the Mayor’s Shockoe Bottom Redevelopment plan that got RVA Archaeology going. The group’s three principals, along with other educators and concerned citizens, attended a symposium two months ago to discuss archaeology as it applied to the Mayor’s plan for Shockoe.

Issues with the Shockoe plan

One of the concerns that group co-founder Ellen Chapman has about the Mayor’s plan is the seemingly little attention placed on what excavators might not intend to find.

“That’s the first rule of archaeology. You always find something that surprises you,” Chapman said, a doctoral candidate at the College of William and Mary. She said that it’s standard practice in Virginia to use shovel-based surveys to investigate the ground for archaeological deposits. “And if you hit archaeological artifacts, you’ll know something’s down there.”

Chapman hasn’t seen proposals indicating that the Shockoe site will be surveyed ahead of excavation. “There’s not really an indication of how the archaeological company1 [overseeing the proposed Shockoe excavation] would find what they’re not expecting to find,” she said. That may mean artifacts may remain undiscovered or, worse, destroyed.

When asked if Dutton + Associates would survey the Shockoe site ahead of excavation, Dave Dutton said: “We’ve been put on hold with the project,” adding that any questions regarding the Mayor’s plan must be sent directly to the City. As of publishing, the City had not commented specifically about preliminary surveying. We’ll update the article if/when they respond.

While Chapman’s concerns are site-focused, Brock’s concerns take a wider view. “One of my initial concerns has always been the details about whether there is federal involvement in this project…and whether or not that will trigger Section 106, which is a national preservation act.”

Section 106 provides federal regulations and oversight (PDF) of historic properties, even those not federally owned, to ensure they’re properly handled during development. “And one of is my concerns is that the City has actually made efforts to avoid going through Section 1062…the standard of how development projects are mitigated for archaeological and cultural resources.”

“So I get a little nervous when the City makes a commitment to do archaeology with an archaeology plan, but actively does things to avoid federally required archaeological and cultural resource management.”

Despite its location, the site of the Mayor’s proposed plan for Shockoe Bottom doesn’t fall within the city’s own definition of an “Old and Historic” district. Therefore, the City isn’t legally required to conduct any archaeological review of the site, Brock said. Despite this, the Mayor outlined an archaeological plan for the site in March, which Brock believes “was a response to the fact that the community was starting to get educated and be concerned about archaeological resources.”

There is also the concern about timeline. Should City Council approved the Shockoe stadium plan, the time constraints for completing the development may push against the work of archaeologists.

“At some point every project is going to hit a wall, hit a meeting point [wherein] the time it takes to do the archaeological mitigation is going to butt up against the time that it takes to get the development project done in time,” Brock said. “I’m unsure, when that moment happens, who wins.”

But Brock underscored that he is not against Shockoe Bottom development. “We’ve been pretty explicit about not being against what’s happening in Shockoe, or for it,” he said. “We all have our own personal opinions about it, but we just want to make sure that the archaeology, if it’s done, is done in a way that meets some standards and takes advantage of this wonderful resource that we have.” Archaeology and development needn’t be at odds, says Brock. “I think these things can co-exist. But it’s a balancing act…”

Going forward

It’s precisely that balancing act that inspired RVA Archaeology, which Brock described as an advocate “for the city to take better care of their archaeological resources and also to promote the archaeological resources that do exist and to incorporate them in telling the history and story of the city,” he said.

Ellen Chapman–who’s participated in archaeological projects in California, Wales, England, and Virginia–said much of Richmond’s past remains subterranean. “In a general scheme of things, there’s not a whole lot of academic research archaeology going on in Richmond right now,” she said. “The situation in Richmond is pretty dramatic in terms of a city of this size with this type of pre-historic and historical significance, with the amount of intact archaeological deposits and the significant sites that it has,” she said. Yet so much archaeological work remains “incomplete or is unknown.”

One of the long-term goals of the group is to integrate archaeology with how the City does business. Brock said he’d like City Council to adopt more stringent archaeological mitigation before development on any old and historic land. “Then make sure that archaeological excavations are required by law and are done in a public way,” he said. “But then you can also take that data and incorporate university students and graduate students to do the analysis to take it from stuff that came out of the earth to stuff that tells us things about the past…”

RVA Archaeology will hold its next meeting on June 21st at The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia at 10:00 AM. On June 28th, the group will lead a trip with members of the public and city officials to Alexandria, VA to learn how that city has incorporated archaeological preservation with its development. Brock said the trip will “demonstrate what a city that’s been doing this for 20 – 30 years is like and how their process works, and learn from them so we can hopefully apply the things that they’re doing right in our city,” Brock said.

“I think that archaeological research and mitigation…should be looked upon as an opportunity for the city to do something great and unique, and to do it in a way that will enhance everybody’s experience in the city,” he said.


  1. Dutton + Associates
  2. More on that here from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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