Loss of Georgia’s archaeological heritage detailed

eg_2005_site_loss_cuSite Loss in Georgia is a special issue of Early Georgia, published in Spring 2005.

The first article, “When the Past is Destroyed: Loss of Archaeological Sites Due to Urbanization,” by Stephen Kowalewski, evaluates the state of preservation
of Georgia’s archaeological sites. Here, for the first time, objective lines of evidence useful in assessing the condition and processes affecting archaeological sites in Georgia are gathered together. Kowalewski’s conclusions are sobering. He notes:

An inadvertent consequence of Georgia’s rapid urbanization and economic development has been an equally fast destruction and degradation of its archaeological sites, their artifacts, and their information legacy. Georgia has an outstandingly rich archaeological record that extends back 12,000 years. During that long time, people left more than just a few material remains of their ways of life in places we call archaeological sites. Many archaeological sites also contain human remains—burials. The artifacts and all their relationships and contexts form a legacy that should be better understood and utilized, especially for local community heritage, tourism, recreation, and education.

The land use conversion attendant upon urbanization destroys more archaeological sites in Georgia than any other factor. Archaeological sites are destroyed inadvertently, without anyone knowing that they were present, or in many cases, “accidentally on purpose,” or, knowing a site was there but undervaluing its importance. Normal construction procedures (grading, leveling, digging, bulldozing, and scraping with heavy equipment) are the direct, immediate cause of site destruction. However, heavy equipment operators are just doing their jobs and in most cases cannot see the artifacts and soil features that make an archaeological site. The problem of site loss is not one of proximate causes or smoking guns. It is a broader issue of how to protect archaeological heritage places prior to construction, and if archaeological sites must go, then there have to be ways to salvage their information legacy.

The loss of archaeological sites is staggering. New homes, subdivisions, developments, golf courses, schools, warehouses, roads, reservoirs, waste water treatment facilities, parking lots, restaurants, doctors offices, university dorms—all the things we see around us—obliterate archaeological sites, at a rate of one site every 15 acres in some places, to one site in every 30 or 50 ac in other environments. In most cases the land is graded and construction takes place without any attempt to see if archaeological sites were present or at least to save their information. In the first half of this paper we cite the most reliable estimates, which suggest that over 50,000 archaeological sites have been destroyed by urbanization and development. Since perhaps only a hundred sites have had extensive scientific excavations, this means that the people of Georgia have destroyed 500 times as much information about the past as they have salvaged.

In “Land-Use Change and Impact on Archaeological Sites in Georgia,” Malcolm Jared Wood and Gregory Lucas seek to get a quantitative handle on land development issues in Georgia, and their impact on our hidden heritage. Their estimation is based on the distribution of known sites derived from date held at the Georgia Archaeological Site File (GASF); in 2003 the GASF had already catalogued over 40,000 sites. They close by observing that:

The number of sites destroyed or disturbed due to land development will rise, and most certainly has from 1998 to the present. Major and minor urban centers across the state continue to grow, attracting new suburban development and altering their landscapes in the process. Most of these sites, many of which have multiple occupations spanning hundreds or thousands of years, are lost forever. Undoubtedly, destruction of this magnitude is occurring across the Southeast, and comparable studies should help to quantify development and its effects on archaeological sites in other states. While these statistics may be interesting and possibly surprising to the archaeological community, it is our hope to bring these estimations, and the greater issue of the importance of our past human heritage, to public attention as well, where legislation may provide for better management of development and the conservation of our collective cultural resources.

The third and final article in this volume is by Terry Jackson and Jack Tylor, and lays out a strategy for successful preservation of archaeological resources in Georgia. In “A Strategy for Conservation Archaeology in Georgia,” they argue that preservation efforts be aimed at natural areas already targeted for conservation because of their biodiversity and ecological value. They recommend: 1) that planners be educated about biological reserve networks, which by extension means preservation of archaeological resources; 2) that National Register quality sites be targeted for preservation, since they are in better condition; 3) community planners be provided better maps showing the location of significant archaeological resources; 4) that planning legislation and policy be strengthened, including extension to cover any project receiving state funds that will impact a National Register listed property; and 5) stronger promotion of the federal Wetlands Reserve Program.

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