Buried Treasure 

Should the city hire its own archeologist?

Amid the tilling, several hundred pounds — and possibly tons — of artifacts were discovered in the center of the property. That wasn't surprising: The site once was part of a 19th-century warehouse complex. And before that it was home to the Benjamin Duvall Pottery, which dates back to the 1790s.

The fragments were left unprotected, and at some point, scroungers helped themselves to some of them. The next day a representative with the Portsmouth office of the Virginia Division of Historic Resources caught word of the situation. A two-day recovery ensued, saving 300 pounds of antique stoneware wasters (flawed pieces of pottery that the makers had discarded), and the remnants of the pottery's kiln. Still, much of the material, previously unnoticed and unclaimed, may have been lost.

Today the ground is bare, depleted.

That this happened is precisely why some say the city needs an archeologist.

Richmond is, after all, the capital of a state rooted in history. To be sure, the city takes its heritage seriously. There are offices in Richmond for the Division of Historic Landmarks, the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities and the Virginia Preservation Alliance. And the city keeps a historian on-staff to handle preservation issues that may arise with architectural projects.

But even with all that, it seems it didn't occur to anyone that the impending development of the grocery-store site might reveal valuable archeological resources. And that has upset some of the state's experts in historical research.

"It is sad to hear about the destruction of such an important site," the renowned historical archeologist George Miller says in an e-mail posting to local archeologists and historians.

"I find it hard to understand how that could happen," he continues, "… where they have an extensive tourist industry and many historical restorations … why can't Richmond get its act together? There are a couple of state agencies close to that site with staff archeologists. Are the political boundaries so restricted as to let such an important archeological resource get trashed without any archeological planning? I would hope that the [Council of Virginia Archaeologists] and other groups in Virginia raise some questions about what is happening."

Carole Nash, president of the Council of Virginia Archaeologists, and a professor of archaeology at James Madison University, also notes on the e-mail: "For the princely sum of $5,000 a year, the city of Annapolis retains an archaeologist on call. The principal duties of this person are to review permit applications for work in the historic district and make recommendations to the Historic Preservation Commission."

So how about an archaeologist in Richmond?

"The city doesn't have one on-staff, and doesn't see the need to have one on-staff," says Colleen Decoster, a spokeswoman for the city. The reason, she says, is that the city "wouldn't utilize that person nearly enough to justify their salary."

Commercial developers or private citizens developing their own property aren't required by law to consult an archaeologist anyway, unless their project is paid for in part by federal dollars, or is within certain historically designated areas.

In the case of the Church Hill supermarket site, there were no requirements that the developers, Forest City Enterprises, consult an archaeologist, Decoster says. In private developments — as in your back yard — "it's your land, and whatever you dig up becomes your property, and you get to decide to do with it whatever you want to do with it."

Even so, some cities, especially those with colleges or universities nearby, retain archaeologists for various reasons, says archaeologist Len Winter, who manages the local office for the environmental planning and consulting firm GAI Consultants.

"The upside would be that cultural resources would be acknowledged, [though] not necessarily protected," Winter says. For developers whose projects require them to consider the history underfoot, he says, a city archaeologist could work as a liaison to help "guide them through the regulatory requirements."

In some cities, an archaeologist is available for consultation by private citizens — retained by the city as a service.

There's plenty to save below our feet. One can't help but recall when the ground was raked before construction of the James Center began. Beneath the ground were buried ancient bateaux that once traveled the Kanawha Canal. An archaeologist with the contractor — working with the city —helped with the project and saved many of the artifacts, Decoster says.

Nash thinks an on-call archaeologist would be worthwhile. The $5,000 price that Annapolis pays sounds like chump change. It's no wonder Nash concludes: "It is hard to imagine a U. S. city that can't provide for such services at or near that level."


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