Commercial archeology helps preserve cultural resources

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Published: October 25,2004

Most people probably don’t think of archeology as a commercial enterprise. But perhaps more than half of the people who get degrees in archeology find employment in commercial applications such as doing surveys of cultural resources required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).

NEPA requires projects using federal funds or receiving federal permitting be evaluated for their impact on water, air, endangered species and other environmental resources. The law also requires an assessment of the project’s impact on cultural resources.

Dr. Jill-Karen Yakubik, director and owner of Earth Search, one of the largest privately-owned archaeology firms in the Mississippi/Louisiana area, recently presented a program at Millsaps College on archeological data recovery and investigation. Earth Search has a staff of more than 20 full-time historians and archeologists studying a wide range of sites and time periods.

“Our company goes out, identities cultural resources and determines their significance in terms of the National Register criteria,” Yakubik said. “If those resources have significance under the National Register, we provide management recommendations on how to mitigate or avoid the impacts of the project on the particular property.”

Earth Search’s work involved evaluating the effect of an undertaking on any cultural resources that may be in the project area. That includes archeology, historic buildings, objects, landscapes and lands with sacred significance to Native America or other groups.

Lately Earth Search has been doing an increasing amount of work in Mississippi, both for pipelines and the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT).

“Generally, we are subcontracted by environmental and engineering firms to do the compliance work during the planning process for roads or other projects,” said Yakubik, whose company has been in business for 18 years. “We also have contracts with the Vicksburg District Corps of Engineers, as well as the New Orleans District Corps of Engineers.”

Yakubik said agencies such as MDOT and the Corps do an excellent job with overseeing the compliance work necessary to meet the federal guidelines. While government agencies are well accustomed to the regulations, sometimes private developers aren’t aware of the problems they might encounter. For example, someone building a shopping mall who needs to fill wetlands will be required to apply for a Section 404 permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that requires consideration of cultural resources.

“If something is found, they get blindsided,” Yakubik said. “They don’t always realize that they are necessarily going to have to do archeology. First, they are very, very sad about this cost they had not expected to undertake. But usually they generally become interested. People want to do the right thing. I have had a few clients — none in the State of Mississippi — who have wanted to skirt the process. But I would say they are generally in the minority.”

Much of her talk at Millsaps centered around work on Ashland’s Plantation in Louisiana done for Shell Chemical. Shell purchased the land to expand its operations. The property included a sugar house and slave quarters for the plantation.

“They had to go through this process because the plant they were putting up required air quality permits,” Yakubik said. “They didn’t expect it would end up costing as much as it did. There was very extensive data recovery that had to be done.”

While appreciating the fragile nature of archaeological resources, Yakubik said her company also recognizes that often clients face financial limitations and scheduling constraints when complying with laws regarding cultural resources. Her company works closely with contracting and review agencies to arrive at decisions regarding the protection and treatment of the sites so that the requirements of diverse parties are recognized while the value of the irreplaceable cultural resources is not forgotten.

“Through our considerable experience, we have learned to successfully balance the needs of preservation and development to everyone’s benefit,” she said. “Earth Search understands the frustrations of crisis management, and we make every effort to anticipate potential situations before they become expensive and disruptive problems. Earth Search, as a small business, merges its years of experience in conducting all phases of cultural resource management with an awareness of sound cost control and completion of projects on schedule.”

While this is commercial archeology, Yakubik said her company believes that cultural resources management should be practiced in accordance with the same high standards usually observed in an academic setting.

“Although Earth Search is a firm in the private sector, we maintain close ties with faculty and advanced degree candidates at Tulane University,” she said. “Our academic ties help us to maintain an awareness of technical and theoretical advances. We recognize that our first responsibility is to provide reports of the highest quality and sound recommendations to our clients. But, we are also committed to presenting the results of work both to professional audiences and to the public. This latter commitment was a primary stimulus to the formation of Earth Search.”

Dr. George Bey, dean of the division of science at Millsaps, said in the past 25 years since the government has required assessment of cultural resources in environmental impact statements, an increasing number of private companies have been formed that do contract archeology.

“There may be more archeologists now employed in contract archeology than academia,” Bey said.

And, in some cases, universities have gotten involved in contract archeology. For example, the University of Kentucky and University of New Mexico have firms that bid on projects.

“Mississippi State University (MSU) does contract work as well,” Bey said. “It is not uncommon for universities to be involved in public archeology. The primary focus is to make sure that we have a record of valuable cultural heritage in danger of being impacted or destroyed. That may be nothing more than establishing there was a site. Or, you may need to actually stop construction and do major excavation, which creates some tensions in commercial work. For example, it can be very expensive if you decide to build a hotel on top of an archeological site.”

Bey said public archeology also blends with heritage preservation. That may not be what the public considers straight archeology, but it is involved in historic preservation of important buildings and monuments.

“They are not just digging up things for the past, but assisting in projects for maintaining endangered historical buildings,” Bey said.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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