What to Do About Archaeological Finds on Construction Sites

Dec. 31, 2015
Archeological finds during construction are not uncommon, especially in urban settings.

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 developers and contractors that a review of archaeological records is an important part of their due diligence prior to beginning construction, CBRE’s Valuation & Advisory Services group says.

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

In the United States, builders are obligated to report archaeological finds if a project requires a permit, a license, or funding triggering compliance with historic-preservation laws, Cris Kimbrough, PhD, PMP, archaeologist and managing director for CBRE Telecom Advisory Services, said. If archaeological resources are identified during construction/development for a project that has gone through the federal/state/local historic-preservation process, all work must stop until further preservation measures can be determined and completed.

There are few rules governing artifacts encountered on private land because U.S. law is very much 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 local authorities and treated appropriately.

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

State Historic Preservation Officers (SHPO) maintain records on identified archaeological resources. Additionally, museums and colleges/universities may have records. These files are not accessible to the public and can be viewed only by qualified individuals—usually a qualified archaeologist or other historic-preservation specialist.

Most states have a project-review process whereby the SHPO reviews project plans to determine if there are any potential direct or indirect impacts to historic and archaeological resources. If there are, the SHPO may request archaeological or other studies be completed prior to construction. Native American 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, additional archaeological surveys may be required. The federal process dictates impacts to historic and archaeological resources be avoided, minimized, and/or mitigated—in that order.

With telecom projects, carriers usually are asked to move the tower site if artifacts are found. If this is not possible, an additional survey usually is completed to better understand the archaeological resource in question, and suggestions for moving forward with the project as is or minimizing the effects of the project on the resource are made. If significant impacts to the archaeological resource cannot be avoided, the impact on the resource must be mitigated. This mitigation often is in the form of extensive excavation, data analysis, and public outreach.

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

Archaeological due diligence usually is not part of normal Phase I or Phase II environmental site assessments. Builders should be aware of federal/state/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.

For additional information, contact Kimbrough at [email protected].