Many construction projects are proposed in New England every year. Some projects are publicly funded, while others require state or federal permits or environmental reviews. Proponents of construction projects in this category are required to consider possible impacts to important cultural resources, including archaeological sites and historic buildings. Regulations may require a project proponent to sponsor a professional archaeological survey of a proposed impact area, to determine if any cultural resources are present. The initial survey takes place early in the design process. Once identified, significant sites can be avoided by construction, or appropriately investigated before they are lost.
Archaeological resources are important because they provide a unique (and increasingly rare) link between modern society and the past, demonstrating the ingenuity, social complexity, and land use patterns of ancient and historic peoples. A finite resource, archaeological sites constitute the physical dimension of the heritage of a modern community, and shed light on the heritage and values that give a community its sense of identity and civic pride. The heritage of New England includes evidence of American Indian occupations extending back more than 10,000 years. Remnants of gristmills, sawmills, colonial residences, early industries and farms evoke the way of life of the region’s inhabitants dating as far back as the seventeenth century.
Under certain circumstances, federal, state, and municipal laws protect archaeological sites. This usually happens when a development project is licensed, permitted, or funded by a public entity. For, example, the permit process for the construction of sewer systems, highway realignment projects, gas and other in-ground utility lines, require consideration of cultural resources. Laws such as the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) are invoked in these situations. In cases where the proposed development is large and has the potential to cause considerable environmental impact, archaeological sites are also considered. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and its Massachusetts counterpart (the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act, or MEPA) trigger legal review for historic and Native American resources.
Generally, significant archaeological sites consist of relatively undisturbed locations where human activity occurred in the past (at least fifty years before the present), leaving behind physical evidence in the form of artifacts, distinctive subsurface soil deposits, or structural remnants. Ancient Native American sites may include ancient hearths, unmarked human burials, fishing locations, and concentrations of stone chipping debris discarded during the manufacture of stone tools. Historic sites may include stone foundations, cellar holes, structures, wells, boundary markers, stone fences, milldams, and monuments.
Although different approaches are taken to define Native American and historic archaeological sites, in general they all have finite spatial boundaries that can be determined through archaeological testing. These boundaries are both horizontal (How wide an area does the site occupy?) and vertical (How far beneath the ground surface do the artifact-bearing deposits extend?). Once it is determined that a site exists, and its boundaries have been defined, analysis determines whether the site is significant and retains additional intact information that merits further research, protection, or the mitigation of impacts caused by construction.