Reconstruct, stabilize, or ???

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Resource saving investment schematic

Simple schematic representation of basic choices we face in managing archaeological resources. This includes historic buildings as well as in-the-ground remains. All have associated costs in money, labor, and preservation of the resources.

Archaeologists and managers of archaeological resources, especially those on public lands, must make a choice. Basically, those archaeological remains can be ignored, stabilized, or reconstructed—along with perhaps subtle choices on the continuum between each of these.

These are not simple choices, and all have costs, in money, labor, and implications for the future of the resources.

So, what to do?

Many archaeological resources are managed by doing nothing. This may be a choice that is forced because there is no money or labor to do anything else. Sometimes, this is even a best-case scenario.

Stabilizing and leaving in place has been a common choice for many responsible archaeological resource managers. However, exactly what constitutes stabilization? Of course, it depends in part on the resource, and in part on the threats to it. Some resources are very difficult to stabilize, for instance those threatened by the ocean or by rivers carving into their banks as they change their courses due to natural riverine processes.

Still other resources are managed by some degree of reconstruction, in which the resource is restored to a condition it was previously.

Reconstruction is additionally tricky because the resource may have been in use for generations. Consider a historic building, like Georgia’s Capitol building. It had certain colors and architectural details when it was first opened, and certain changes over time. This is a building still in use, so it has some changes to accommodate modern needs—like Internet access. In addition, such buildings may have had to be altered to be better maintained, for example adding lightning rods or better eavestroughs.

Now consider the Etowah archaeological site. The prehistoric community that we call Etowah is not entirely within the Etowah Indian Mounds Historic Site—the lands owned by the state. Farmers maintained fields on the mounds, and on the open land among the mounds. And, even archaeologists altered the mounds by testing some and even excavating entirely one of the mounds.

So the archaeological resources at Etowah within the park have been managed in various ways since the state obtained them. Some have been reconstructed, like Mound C. Some have been stabilized, like the big mound, Mound A (the top measures about an acre), and areas along the banks of the Etowah River. And parts of the area have been, for the most part, merely preserved in place.

Consider the complex issues that owners and managers of archaeological resources face every day. What choices would you recommend? Do they vary depending on the resource and the threat? Do they vary over time? If so, why?