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common ground

Ruins and Renewal
Summer/Fall 1998, vol. 3(2/3)

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(photo) Lloyd Masayumptewa, member of the ruins stabilization crew at Wupatki National Monument.

"Ethnic identity is accompanied by ethnic stigmatization, and the [ruins of the] Basque hotels, set within the larger building community that is the West, are reminders of the both the region's cultural diversity and cultural divisions. "

Thomas Carter

by Steven R. Pendery

A cultural landscape, says archeologist James Deetz, is "that part of the terrain which is modified according to a set of cultural plans."1 This definition certainly identifies the common ground shared by archeologists and historic landscape preservationists in the National Park Service. Both focus on places that combine the work of human beings with the work of nature. Both are concerned with preserving cultural landscapes and interpreting them to the public. And both have been research partners since the first days of the preservation movement.

Archeology is our main source of information on the landscapes of the nation's earliest historic sites, such as Virginia's Jamestown.2 Archeologists have also investigated formally designed landscapes at Thomas Jefferson's Monticello. More recently, Park Service archeologists have examined the evolution of the Smith School courtyard at the Boston African American National Historic Site. Vernacular landscapes, such as rural historic districts, are ideal candidates for archeology because they often lack historical documentation. This is exemplified by the archeological research at Minute Man National Historical Park in Massachusetts, which is looking at the landscape from prehistory to the present.

Clearly, the disciplines of archeology and historic landscape preservation benefit from each other's vantage points. Given today's challenges, however, achieving consensus can be less than straightforward, such as when an historic landscape encompasses an archeological site from a different time period. Problems can and do result from the different training, skills, and orientation of the two disciplines. Let's look at how these issues can play out when deciding how to preserve and interpret these places.3

Conveniently for archeologists, preserving a cultural landscape generally means preserving its archeological components. However, rehabilitating a landscape—which may involve replacing historic features that are damaged or missing—is more complicated. Historic landscape preservationists often rely on archeological surveys to help identify these features, but may disagree on how much excavation and recording is needed. To help defuse potential conflicts, both professionals must clearly articulate their methods and goals.

Archeology has been invaluable in restoring properties to how they appeared at a particular point in the past. Archeologists have been able to locate the foundations of period buildings as well as their associated gardens and yards. However, when it comes to reconstructions—replicating non-surviving properties—consensus can be elusive. Two early reconstructions at national parks in the Northeast—Saugus Ironworks in Massachusetts and Fort Stanwix in New York—left few areas for future archeologists to re-examine. Such reconstructions may impact archeological sites not essential to the reconstruction but significant in their own contexts, as happened with the 19th century overlay of the fort. Fortunately, in recent years, reconstruction has been a less desirable preservation and interpretive option in the Park Service and elsewhere.

Archeologists and historic landscape professionals generally agree that significant cultural landscapes should be maintained and interpreted for the public. The key to the best research and treatment is the active involvement of both professions. For example, vegetative cover, which is often essential to combat erosion and other forms of site attrition, addresses the goals of both groups, and non-historic trees or plantings can be removed while keeping root systems in place, thus preserving archeological features. When it comes to interpretation, decades of public archeology have demonstrated that it is important to show the method and theory of our disciplines as well as the results of our research.4

With enough cooperation, we may soon find a united approach to our common ground, the cultural landscape.

For more information, contact Steven R. Pendery, Senior Archeologist, Archeology Branch, Northeast Cultural Resources Center, National Park Service, 400 Foot of John St., Lowell, MA 01852, (978) 970-5150, fax (978) 970-5121, e-mail steven_pendery@nps.gov.


1. Deetz, James, "Prologue: Landscapes as Cultural Statements," in Earth Patterns: Essays in Landscape Archeology, Kelso, William M. and Rachael Most, eds. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1990), pp 1-4.

2. Cotter, John L., Archeological Excavations at Jamestown, Archeological Society of Virginia Special Publication No. 32 (1994).v

3. Cultural landscape treatments are described in The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Guidelines for the Treatment of Cultural Landscapes, Birnbaum, Charles A. and Christine Capella Peters, eds. (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior, 1996).

4. For some effective strategies for interpreting archeological sites as cultural landscapes, see Presenting Archeology to the Public, Jameson, John H., Jr., ed. (Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press, 1997).