My main area of expertise when it comes to archaeology is the Southwest, but I currently live in New Jersey, and while I don’t know a whole lot about the archaeology of this part of the country I feel like I should probably weigh in on those rare occasions when an archaeological issue makes it into the news. We seem to be in the midst of one of those occasions now, with the State Capitol Joint Management Commission having recently approved an order by Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno to rebury the Petty’s Run archaeological site, which is immediately adjacent to the Statehouse in Trenton. This site, which was uncovered in 2008, contains a variety of buildings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that shed considerable light on the early history of Trenton. The site lies right between the Statehouse and the Old Barracks Museum, and the administration of then-governor John Corzine planned to make it a key part of a new state park. The plan for establishing the park called for the site to be enclosed in glass, presumably to protect it while leaving it visible.
When Chris Christie defeated Corzine last year, however, plans for the new park came to a halt and the site has just been sitting there, exposed but visible behind a fence. Indeed, Guadagno’s problem appears to have been that the site is all too visible. She can see it from her office in the Statehouse and she apparently considers it an “eyesore,” which is why she wants it reburied. Many people, including political opponents of the Christie administration and Old Barracks Museum director Richard Patterson, are outraged by this move. (The archaeologist who excavated the site, Richard Hunter, has declined to comment on the issue.) Guadagno’s apparent motivation in having the site reburied does seem rather petty, but a lot of the outrage seems to be directed at the very idea of reburying the site. I think this outrage is misplaced. This may be a silly reason to rebury a site, but reburying (or “backfilling”) sites is a standard and very effective way of preserving them.
One of the major problems with excavation, and one of the reasons it is often avoided when possible, is that once a site is excavated it is no longer protected by the dirt that covered and preserved whatever was in it. If left open a site will rapidly begin to deteriorate, so whatever organization is responsible for the site has a choice. It can leave the site open and let it fall apart (not a popular option), or it can do something to preserve it. In places like Chaco Canyon, where the visual impact of sites is considered a high priority, preservation involves an elaborate and very expensive effort at stabilizing standing walls and preventing further deterioration. Since the main sources of impacts are weather and visitation, and these are ongoing year after year, preservation through stabilization means continual work.
Another option is to build some sort of structure over the site to protect it from impacts while still leaving it visible to visitors. In the Southwest this is rarely done for major sites because it makes them look “inauthentic,” with some exceptions such as Casa Grande and some of the especially well-preserved rooms at Pueblo Bonito. For smaller sites and particularly fragile ones, however, this is a popular option, as it is much cheaper and less labor-intensive than constantly struggling to prop up the walls and generally provides better protection as well. Many of the mesa-top sites at Mesa Verde and other parts of southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah have this kind of protection. It sounds like this is the kind of thing the Corzine administration was planning to do with Petty’s Run, although it’s not totally clear to me exactly how the glass enclosure concept would have worked.
The final option, which is generally both cheaper and more protective than the other two, is backfilling. This takes most or all of the site out of public view, of course, which makes it problematic for sites that are intended to be developed as tourist attractions. For sites that are not publicly accessible, however, this is the standard means of preservation. It can be done in a way that makes it relatively easy to open up the site again later for further excavation, and in many cases archaeologists will refill sites at the end of each excavation season with the intent of returning to them later. This can be done with tarps, for example, as the Arizona State Museum has done in its multi-year research project at the now-closed Homol’ovi Ruins State Park in Winslow. In some cases responsible organizations start out trying to stabilize excavated sites and end up backfilling them when they can no longer afford to. This is what has happened at Casa Malpais, which is owned by the town of Springerville, Arizona. Some rooms that had been left open after excavation were recently backfilled because the town could no longer afford to stabilize them.
Now, this is all based on my experience of preservation techniques at sites in the Southwest, and it’s certainly possible that archaeologists in the Northeast don’t do things the same way. For one thing, Northeastern archaeology seems to be much more focused on the historic than the prehistoric period, presumably because there has been so much historic development overlying whatever prehistoric sites remain. Since historic sites are often built of sturdier materials than those that were available to prehistoric people, it might not be as problematic to leave a typical historic site exposed as it would be to do the same with a typical prehistoric site. On the other hand, preservation conditions are much worse in this humid environment than in the arid Southwest. Water is one of the biggest threats to preservation of exposed sites, and with the amount of precipitation that is typical of this area I’m sure even the best-constructed historic sites are at considerable risk. The fact that the Corzine administration’s park plan called for enclosing the Petty’s Run site in glass makes me think this is indeed a major concern in Northeastern archaeology.
The upshot of all this is that to the extent that the Christie administration is showing a lack of respect for the state’s heritage in its treatment of the Petty’s Run site, that’s being manifested in the decision not to pursue the park plan rather than the decision to backfill the site. Guadagno may be motivated by superficial aesthetic considerations in wanting the site reburied, but whether or not the site is an eyesore leaving it exposed is not the way to preserve it.