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20th Century Archeological Sites and Redundant Resources

Why Should We Identify and Record 20th Century Archeological Sites?

  • Identified sites can be considered in planning, stewardship, and current historical and archeological research (particularly cross-cultural, geographical, functional, or comparative studies).
  • Archeological information can be used in the interpretation of the site(s) and the lives of the inhabitants ultimately making the available information, research potential and interpretation more rich.
  • Archeology can supplement the historical record.
  • On the other hand, archeology often challenges the information in written records, maps, and historical accounts and points out inherent biases in written information. It is important to remember that written records are sometimes a biased line of evidence for understanding the past, so we should remember not to privilege written documentation above other evidence such as oral history and material remains.
  • Archeological data can help us understand the development of modernization, globalization, and industrialization (like the spread of ideas, technology, material things, consumer behavior, communication, and the development of a capitalist economy).

Frequently, Arecent@ or 20th-century archeological resources are thought of as unimportant or modern and as such may not be considered for evaluation under the National Register Criteria or as part of the Section 106 process. It is often assumed that because we have the written record, these resource are not needed, or that urban sites of the recent past have likely been disturbed and thus, cannot yield further information.

However, scholarship within historical archeology has shown that historical archeological sites of the recent past (see Rathje and Murphy 1992 for example) are worthy of study and recognition and that material evidence recovered from excavations at such sites can tell us much more than the written record alone. It is the combination of the documentary and archeological record that makes historical archeology unique. As Kathleen Deagan argues, multiple lines of evidence makes late 19th and 20th century sites well suited for examining the development of Amodern@ American society, particularly economic organization and the social processes that relate to it (Deagan 1988:7,8). Sue Henry Renaud also argues that, Aif we ever think that an archeological site won=t tell us anything we couldn=t learn from the documents, either we=re asking the wrong questions of the site, or we=re foolishly asking the same questions of the site that we would of the documents (Henry 1995:11).

In addition, urban areas should not be automatically thought to have disturbed deposits or inadequate integrity for answering important research questions. Archeologists have developed special methods for working in an urban environment. Sampling strategies, fieldwork, expenses, and public outreach are noticeably different for urban areas. The cities of Alexandria, Virginia and St. Augustine, Florida have active municipal urban archeology programs and their research provides good examples of what types of important information can be learned about urban landscapes, people, and culture through archeology (for instance, urban archeologists have contributed to our understanding of the origins of urbanization, modern urban problems in the areas of sanitation, transportation, housing, and social and material inequality).

Archeologist Sue Henry Renaud (Henry 1995:11) has argued that the archeology of 20th-century sites can shed light on very specific information that has to do with major, dramatic changes in all aspects of everyday life during the 20th century. For instance:

  • Technological innovations such as electricity, indoor plumbing, central heating, sewer service, telephones, refrigerators, washing machines, electric irons, vacuum cleaners, moving pictures, all changed the way we viewed the world. Archeological evidence can shed light on the spread/rise of such developments and how they may have been adapted to specific situations.
  • Emily Post=s Etiquette book is published and changed the rules of proper social behavior. The archeological record can examine the extent to which people (individuals, groups, communities) followed these Arules,@ and suggest reasons they may have been adapted or resisted.
  • Consumerism is on a rapid rise as advertisers redefined and reinforced new ideals of social behavior. Material remains can examine the extent to which and rate at which new ideals were appropriated by families, groups, communities and regions.


Significance and integrity of these resources vary according to state, regional and national contexts, research design and resource variability. Hardesty and Little (2000:76) examine specific types of historical archeological resources from the recent past showing this variability. The types of sites they focus on include

  • linear sites (for example, sites associated with transportation, communication);
  • industrial sites, domestic sites and farmsteads, and,
  • large-scale sites (for example, mining districts and plantations)

Many linear sites, industrial sites, and large scales sites are listed as districts or multiple property submissions. For instance, The Industrial Resources of Huntingdon County Pennsylvania, Between 1780 and 1939 multiple property documentation addresses some of the major industries of this county related to the processing of natural resources. Property types include iron related resources such as furnace stacks, and iron plantations, resources related to the refractory products manufacturing, resources associated with transportation such as roadways, canals, railroads and bridges; resources associated with coal and coal mining such as coal extraction sites, coal company towns, and coke production sites; and properties associated with hydro powered resources such as mills.

Three useful concepts that have been used in determining the significance of archeological sites from the recent past include visibility, survivability and uniqueness (see Hardesty and Little 2000:71; Little et al. 2000:22; Smith 1994).

  • Visibility refers not only to what can be seen physically but also to how easily certain sites can be identified.
  • Survivability refers to the likelihood of particular site types to maintain archeological integrity.
  • Uniqueness refers to how rare a particular site type may be.

All three concepts are dependent on developing regional contexts which identify site types that represent the range and variety of human interaction with the landscape. For instance, at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Smith (1994:96) has developed a model for evaluation and management of this settler community using different types of settler sites such as subsistence and cash cropping sites and their visibility, signature, and sensitivity. For instance, some sites, such as tenant sites have high visibility and low sensitivity, thus, it would be important to identify and examine some of these sites, but not all. On the other hand, early squatter sites have low visibility and are rare. In these cases, even a site with poor integrity may have research value (Little et al 2000:22). The uniqueness of a site often determines its significance and research potential. However, sites that are seemingly redundant are often unfairly considered because of their abundance.


What Do We Do About Redundant Sites?

There are literally thousands of recent 20th-century sites such as tenant farms. How can we make the evaluation and listing of these Arecent@ and/or redundant sites more manageable?

  • Promote National Register nominations for archeological districts and multiple property submissions and emphasizes the importance of developing historic contexts at statewide and regional levels.

These formats have helped many states cope with these large-scale archeological resources. For instance, a multiple property document may serve as a research design that specifies significance, important information, documenting protocols and identification strategies for particular types of resources. Registration requirements within the multiple property format specify eligibility requirements (Little et al. 2000:32).

In addition, the emphasis on such studies recognizes that the study of individual sites creates the building blocks for regional models and ultimately for more general and broadly applicable archeological and anthropological method and theory. If we don=t study 20th-century sites and develop local, statewide and/or regional contexts for understanding their significance, how can we make judgments about redundancy, or distinguish significant sites?


References Cited

Deagan, K.
1988 Neither History Nor Prehistory: the Questions that Count in Historical Archaeology. Historical Archaeology 22 (1): 7-12.

Hardesty, D.L. and B.J. Little
2000 Assessing Site Significance, A Guide for Archaeologists and Historians. Alta Mira Press, New York.

Henry, Susan
1995 The National Register and the 20th Century, Is There Room for Archeology? CRM Volume 18(6) pp 9-13.

Little, Barbara, Erika Martin Seibert, Jan Townsend, John H. Sprinkle, Jr. and John Knoerl
2000 National Register Bulletin: Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Archeological Properties. U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register, History and Education.

Rathje, W.L. and c. Murphy
1992 Rubbish! The Archaeology of Garbage: What Our Garbage Tells Us About Ourselves. HarperPerennial, New York.

Smith, S.D.
1994 Context and Archaeology of Settler Communities: An Example from Fort Leonard Wood Missouri. Pp 95--105 in Settler Communities in the West; Historic Contexts for Cultural Resource Managers of Department of Defense Lands, edited by Robert Lyon. National Park Service. Rocky Mountain Region.


Further Reading

Ferguson, L.
1977 Historical Archaeology and the Importance of Material Things. Special Publication Series, Number 2. Society for Historical Archaeology.

Hardesty, D.
1995 Research Questions and Important Information. CRM 18(6):4--8.

Little, B.
1999 Nominating Archeological Sites to the National Register of Historic Places: What=s the Point? SAA Bulletin (17) 4,19.

McManamon, F.P.
1990 A Regional Perspective on Assessing the Significance of Historic Period Sites. Historical Archaeology 24:14--22.

McGimsey, C.R.
1972 Public Archaeology. Seminar Press, New York.

Peacock. E. and A.J. Patrick
1997 Site Survey and Land Records Research: A Comparison of Two Methods for Locating and Characterizing Historic Period Sites on the Tombigbee National Forest, Mississippi. Mississippi Archaeology 32(1):1--26.

Purser, Margaret
1992 Consumption as Communication in Nineteenth Century Paradise Valley, Nevada. Historical Archaeology 23(3):105--116. Edited by Barbara Little and Paul Shackel.

Schaafsma, C.F.
1989 Significant until Proven Otherwise: Problems versus Representative Samples. In Archaeological Heritage Management in the Modern World, edited by H. Cleere, pp. 38--51. Unwin Hyman, London.

Tainter, J. and G.J. Lucas
1983 Epistemology of the Significance Concept. American Antiquity 48:707--19.

Wilson, J.S.
1990 We=ve Got Thousands of These! What Makes an Historic Farmstead Significant? Historical Archaeology 24:23--33.


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