Construction projects watch for historical artifacts
The heightened pace of construction in North Dakota in recent years has resulted in signficant earth moving. In some cases, projects have turned up more than dirt.
As more land is disturbed, the potential for encountering historical or cultural artifacts increases.
The North Dakota State Historical Preservation Office reports a 97 percent increase in new and updated form submissions on cultural resource sites, a 126 percent increase in cultural resource manuscripts submissions and a 112 percent increase in acreage surveyed. The demand for Section 106 historical reviews for federal projects is up 233 percent.
The office attributes its larger work load to discoveries being made because of increased oil production and pipeline installation since 2008.
“With the scope and scale of development when you are doing that much more activity it does have the potential to impact resources of various time periods,” said Paul Picha, chief archeologist for the state. “They are nonrenewable in the sense that they once they are gone, they are gone forever. That’s why the information about those locations is important.”
There have been instances when items unearthed during construction projects ended up in museum displays, he said. In the last two decades of pipeline projects, sites have been uncovered producing artifacts dating back as far as 3,000 years.
Jamie Olson, North Dakota Department of Transportation spokeswoman, said the odds of department projects encountering artifacts had been low with the types of road maintenance performed in years past. In recent years, with the need for bypasses and other new construction related to oil activity, that has changed.
Any major projects, whether government or private, typically involve research and assessment of properties before ground is ever broken.
“We do try and plan for those things so there aren’t surprises,” Olson said. “We do so much work ahead of time to get a process in place.”
Cultural and archeological surveys are one of the initial steps in the routing process for Enbridge before building new pipeline, said spokeswoman Lorraine Little, Duluth, Minn.
“They do go out along the right of way of the project route and they will do smaller digs and look for any artifacts or bones or anything like that, that would indicate that’s a site of historical significance,” she said. “As they are out doing actual construction work, if they do run across any find, they immediately stop.”
Along with doing pre-construction surveys, government agencies and many private companies develop discovery plans that spell out how they will handle any unexpected finds.
Historical or cultural finds must be evaluated by an expert, which can temporarily stop construction. Enbridge is among companies with an environmental specialist on staff who can provide an initial assessment of the historical significance of a find.
In most cases, though, the review begins with a contact to the State Preservation Office. The office sends experts to evaluate the location and also may work with tribes to determine whether findings should be simply recorded or if a more detailed investigation or preservation of artifacts is required, Picha said.
It’s not just major road or pipeline projects that can be affected. This fall, a downtown Minot building project paused after discovering horse bones. Once the bones were identified, work proceeded, but Picha noted, “It’s always best, if there’s any question about the significance and what it might probably be, that they stop.”
While horse bones aren’t necessarily significant, bison bones or certain other animal bones can be important. Bones can date back thousands of years, as far back as the Ice Age, if soil and other conditions have been right to encourage preservation, Picha said.
Any find involving human bones requires that law enforcement and the State Historical Society be contacted. Human remains are significant regardless of age. Picha said not all burial sites are recorded, particularly the Native American sites. Depending on the results of a review, a construction project may be re-routed or the human remains may be relocated.
When North Broadway was widened some years ago, the state Department of Transportation was concerned about possible undocumented graves in a cemetery near Minot State University, Olson said. The department redesigned a portion of the project to ensure that any contact with potential graves was avoided, she said.
The state preservation office reports that it has made strides in the past 12 years in developing a Geographic Information System for maintaining site records and cultural resource investigations electronically. The office notes that the electronic capabilities of these records have been instrumental in dealing with the rapid development occurring in the state.
The next phase of that project involves scanning about 70,000 site records not yet in the system and developing a secure method of providing researchers with remote access.