Some of the most common requests we receive at the Council for West Virginia Archaeology come from members of the public who have found what may or not be an archaeological site.
Invariably there’s a lot of excitement as the mystery of the site begins to take hold. How old might it be? What artifacts might it contain? Will the government be willing to excavate the site?
As exciting as the process is, archaeological work can be slow and painstaking, and it can be difficult to find assistance in a state such as West Virginia where research is under-funded and professionally qualified archaeologists are too few.
But the Council for West Virginia Archaeology is here to help. I’ve provided our contact information at the end of the article, and in the meantime here are three steps we recommend you take in your approach to preserving or interpreting a site.
Step One: Don’t excavate or remove artifacts.
Archaeological excavation involves a specific skill set and a level of experience that takes years to develop. Many well-meaning people have unintentionally damaged or destroyed sites by digging for artifacts or trying to interpret the site themselves. Archaeologists employ specialized tools, record information about the soils and the exact locations of artifacts, and make detailed notes and maps using tried-and-true principles. If the site is important or is on state or federal land, it may be illegal for you to disturb it.
Once artifacts are removed from their archaeological context (meaning their exact location relative to other artifacts, soils, and features), they lose information potential. For instance, an arrowhead on its own can tell us only that someone made an arrowhead, but an arrowhead in context might tell us the age of the site, whether it was accidentally lost or stored for later, or how far a group was traveling to find raw materials for arrowheads.
The same principle applies to historic archaeological sites. An old medicine bottle in context might tell us about the socio-economic status of the owner or how easy it was for them to access a general store.
Step Two: Document the site, and do your research.
There is a lot of information you can collect without disturbing the site. Take detailed pictures and measurements, make a sketch-map of the area, and talk to local people who might know more and who aren’t going to loot the site. If you get in touch with a professional archaeologist, they may be able to tell you if the site was already recorded for the state, although this is uncommon.
If you find a historic archaeological site, such as an old homestead, you can do background research by looking at old topographic maps and aerial imagery, by finding tax records and census data, or possibly by visiting your local library or historical society. Be prepared to go through a lot of data before you find something useful, and make sure you’re writing down your sources. Much information is available online, so an online search for the name of the original landowner or the history of a nearby town could be helpful.
If you have a prehistoric archaeological site, read about West Virginia’s Native Americans in a reputable book or article, but be sure to check the author’s credentials. A good place to start is the West Virginia Archeological Society store or the West Virginia Encyclopedia.
Step Three: Report the site to a professional archaeologist
If you think your site may have significance, as defined here by the National Park Service, contact the Council for West Virginia Archaeology or the W.Va. State Historic Preservation Office.
Providing your research and documentation will go a long way toward helping the archaeologists understand what you have and whether it is historically or culturally significant.
If the site may have significance, Lora Lamarre-DeMott of the preservation office recommends that you complete an archaeology site form for the state’s records and avoid disturbing the site. This will ensure that information about the site is preserved for future researchers. It may also help to avoid accidental destruction of the site during future development. The council may even have a volunteer who is willing to help you complete the paperwork and check your findings.
Unfortunately, few archaeologists have the time to visit sites or the funding to excavate. In West Virginia, government-funded excavations are extremely rare and limited to the most significant sites. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get answers quickly or if no one is able to assist you: Most archaeologists enjoy working with the public but simply do not have the time or funding to perform volunteer archaeology.
Remember also that because a site is not deemed significant enough to warrant state attention that doesn’t mean it is not an important part of your local history or your family’s.