What you should know about archaeological finds on jobsites

Editor’s note: This guide was contributed by CBRE Valuation & Advisory Services, a firm that provides commercial property valuations, appraisals and advisory services worldwide.

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 their contractors that a review of archaeological records should be part of their due diligence prior to construction.

According to CBRE Valuation & Advisory Services, archeological finds during construction are not uncommon, especially in urban settings, where more than 500 years of American history and Native American relics dating back thousands of years may lie buried a few feet below the surface.

In the United States, builders are obligated to report archaeological finds if the project requires a federal, state or, occasionally, local permit. Such a required license or the funding of the project can trigger compliance with historic preservation laws, according to Cris Kimbrough, an 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/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.

A State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) maintains records on identified archaeological resources in each state. In addition, museums 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 in which a staff member from the SHPO reviews the project plans and files to determine whether there are potential direct or indirect impacts to historic and archaeological resources. If there are, the SHPO may request that archaeological or other studies be completed prior to construction.

Native American tribes also maintain archaeological and other Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP) 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, additional archaeological surveys may be required. The federal process dictates that impacts to historic and archaeological resources should be avoided, minimized or 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,” says Kimbrough.

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