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The Archeological Survey: Methods and Uses






Introduction and Definitions

A Brief History of Archeological Survey

The Variety of Archeological Survey

Basic Archeological Site Survey Methods

Special Types of Survey

Recording and Reporting

Predictive Survey for Comprehensive Planning



Forms Used in Recording Archeological Survey Data

Archeological Predictive Studies

Example of an Archeological Review Procedure Using Predictive Data

Automated Management of Data and Research Results on Archeological Surveys

State Archeological Co-ops: Their Evolution, Dangers, and Value

The Archeological Survey: Methods and Uses
U.S. Dept. of the Interior


Thus far we have discussed a relatively traditional, straightforward type of archeological survey: the search for sites in a fairly large, open area. Some variants on this theme require consideration.

Small Area Surveys

Although the rather elaborate, multi-stage methods appropriate to a large area like Griffin Valley are obviously excessive for the survey of small areas such as small housing tracts, sewage treatment plant sites, and stock pond sites, the general principles upon which they are based still apply. One needs to understand and control one's biases, do enough background research to know what to expect in the survey area, inspect the area systematically, and report carefully on what one does. It is usually not cost or results effective to develop complex research designs for small-area surveys or to engage in extensive background research. Ideally these surveys should be done with reference to a larger region of which the small survey area is part. In such instances the existence of organized archeological groups in a region can be of great importance. If the archeologists in a region can agree on a common set of research problems and procedures, can compile and share background data and establish uniform methods for conducting field survey (assuming that these are consistent with the State historic preservation plan and Federal regulations) the conduct of small area surveys should be relatively simple and orderly. At this point statewide planning can play an important role. If the SHPO has reason to believe that many small-area surveys will be required in a given region, survey and planning funds may be used to sponsor the development of research designs and compilations of background data pertinent to the region and to assist the region's archeologists in the development of procedures.

Surveys in Urban Areas

Surveys in urban areas obviously present problems not encountered in Griffin Valley. Sites are buried not only under the ground but under pavement and buildings as well. While it is impossible to make judgements about subsurface conditions from surface indications, it is difficult, disruptive, costly, and often impossible to undertake subsurface testing.

It is a mistake to assume that the mere fact of urbanization means that no archeological sites can possibly survive. Commonly cities have developed in areas where prehistoric populations were also concentrated (cf. Benchley 1976), and the development of a city itself leaves an archeological record that is of great value to understanding the processes contributing to and affecting its growth (cf. Biddle & Hudson 1973). The survival of archeological sites in an urban environment depends on the construction history of the city itself. If extensive filling has taken place, or if buildings have been constructed on shallow foundations, preservation of subsurface remains may be quite good. But if the history of city development has involved a great deal of deep-basement construction in areas that have not been deeply covered with fill, subsurface deposits may be completely disrupted.

Background research is of crucial importance in an urban survey. If there is some basis for predicting the distribution of prehistoric sites relative to their natural environment, the pre-urban environment of the city area can be reconstructed and one can then make resonably educated guesses about where prehistoric sites will occur. In the plains bordering the south end of San Francisco Bay, for example, prehistoric sites often occur around the margins of old marshes and on fingers of land extending out into marshes. In the city of San Jose, California, built in part over drained marshes, it is possible to identify the old marsh boundaries from the modern distribution of different soil types. Most prehistoric sites thus far discovered in the city have been found along these boundaries (King & Berg 1974). While such a prediction of site distributions cannot be accepted without testing, in most cases it should be possible to test the predictions in rural zones and apply them in the urban areas where testing would be much more expensive and less likely to be successful.

Background research is even more important for urban historical archeology; a detailed study of old city maps, assessor's records, photographs and other illustrations, and written accounts should make it possible to plot the locations of previous buildings, streets, and areas of special activities. In dealing with industrial sites, knowledge of engineering principles and practices of the period under study is vital to the identification and interpretation of sites and features (cf. Rutsch et al, 1975). Information on the social history of the community or neighborhood being surveyed is essential to the evaluation of its buildings and sites. In recognition of this fact, urban archeologists are increasingly cooperating with social anthropologists, ethnohistorians, folklorists, and sociologists in studies that combine archeology with oral history, documentary research, and ethnography. (cf. Schuyler 1974, 1977).

Background research should also make it possible to sort out the developmental history of the city, distinguishing those areas that have been filled and/or built over only by light construction from those whose early subsurfaces have been subjected to extreme impacts (cf. Biddle and Hudson 1973).

With such information in hand, it should be possible to design a careful subsurface testing program that is concentrated on those locations where historic or prehistoric sites are most likely to have been and to have survived. At such a location there is almost always someplace to conduct subsurface testing. Because a mass of rubble is commonly encountered in such testing operations, and time is often short, backhoes and other mechanized tools are often used. Rutsch (in Rutsch et al, 1975) provides a good description of the problems often encountered, and the techniques employed, in urban subsurface archeology.

Even with substantial background research and adequate subsurface testing, it remains a fact that the definition of archeological sites in an urban survey is almost always less precise than is the case in rural areas. This element of chance is a part of any urban archeological research and must be expected in surveys done for planning purposes. Interagency Archeological Services will provide more specific data on urban surveys in the near future.

Surveys of Buildings and Structures

So far we have treated archeological surveys as though they were exclusively concerned with sites lacking substantial structural remains. Obviously many areas surveyed do contain prominent structures, such as pueblos in the Southwest, and many recent standing structures can yield data that are important to archeologists. For example, a building in essence is a complex artifact, created and modified by people for economic, social, and cultural purposes. It is shaped by these purposes and is reflective of them. The original organization of a building reflects the builder's or architect's perceptions of how space should be organized for specific purposes that were important at the time of construction. Changes in its organization through time may reveal how purposes and perceptions have changed. Material left in a building, like the material left by the occupants of any archeological site, can reflect the activities and concerns of the building's occupants or users. All can be fruitful subjects for archeological study (see OAHP 1977, Appendix I).

It is possible to get carried away with the archeological value of buildings. Reduced to absurdity, one could argue that every building is an archeological property, and that a survey should be conducted every time anyone contemplated adding or stripping wallpaper. Such an argument would serve no useful purpose. Professional judgment must be exercised in deciding whether a given building contains sufficient information of sufficient value, to make it worthy of detailed study. In Griffin Valley, for example, the Ford house is one of the finest examples of Victorian residential architecture in the State. As such it undoubtedly qualifies for inclusion in the National Register on its architectural merits. But it has been kept very tidy over the years; all trash has been removed from the premises, no graffiti decorate the walls, paint and wallpaper have regularly been stripped and replaced. As a result, the house can yield little archeological data because little is left to record changing styles, uses of space, size and organization of the residential unit, and so on. Thus, study of the house can add little to the history of the area and can be considered to have no archeological value. Because its yard and outbuildings have been maintained in a similar fashion, they are also of little archeological value. There are only two potentially valuable features of the farmstead from an archeological standpoint. One is an abandoned well behind the barn. Household trash was discarded on and near the well between 1895 and 1927, at which time a municipal dump was established and the Fords began hauling their trash to it. The well contains a discretely stratified sequence of material representing the family's economic ties, its food, drink, and medicine consumption, and preferences in disposable merchandise during the first 32 years of the ranch's existence. Excavation of the well could provide valuable insights into how people lived and into the dynamics of the ranch's growth during the period. If it is likely that useful research questions could be asked about such topics, the well is a legitimate archeological site and worthy of recording. A second feature, or series of features, is represented today by shallow depressions marked in early spring by lush growths of native grass of a uniform rectangular shape and size. These phenomena indicate the precise locations of simple one or two-hole outdoor privies erected for the families who successively occupied the old Ford House. Owing to the private nature of the prives and the daily function they served, objects such as medicine and liquor bottles, tobacco smoking paraphernalia, watches and other artifacts can be expected to be found among their contents where they have long remained undisturbed. Wilson's report on privy excavations at Fort Union, New Mexico (1965) exemplifies the archeological value of such indepth studies.

For detailed examples of archeological studies concerned with the research value of historic buildings and structures see Hickman 1977a and 1977b and Levine & Mobley, 1976.

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