Urban Archaeology Brings Indiana Jones to Middle America

Article excerpt

This summer, archaeologist Rebecca Hawkins and her crew unearthed a 10,000-year-old stone axe-head in the Ohio River Valley - possibly the oldest tool of its kind found in North America.

But if not for an act of Congress and a developer with an itch to build an industrial railroad spur, this rare artifact might have gone undiscovered.

Welcome to the new world of the urban Indiana Jones, where the divining rod is a federal construction permit and the results are more often a result of serendipity than scholarly research. Ms. Hawkins, president of Algonquin Archaeological Consultants Inc., is one of a new and growing cadre of "contract" archaeologists who are hired to sift the sands of everything from a sewer dig to a skyscraper site before ground is broken. Museum or university-sponsored digs through Mayan ruins or Egyptian tombs are increasingly rare. Yet, thanks to a federal law requiring a survey before any development, the field of archaeology has vastly expanded. "Well in excess of 80 percent of the archaeology in the United States is now for compliance" with regulations, says Hawkins. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 are the major forces behind this trend. The 1966 act requires federal agencies, or anyone needing federal permits or funding for a development project, to consider the effects development would have on historical properties and to take steps to mitigate those effects. The 1969 act "requires agencies to look before they leap," says Bill Lipe, president of the Society for American Archaeology. In Indiana alone, more than 1,000 new sites requiring investigation were reported to the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology in the past nine months. Hawkins estimates there are hundreds of archaeology firms like hers in the US now. While most sites reveal little or nothing of archaeological significance, occasionally a discovery is made that even an Egyptian scholar would appreciate. The Perry County Economic Development Corp. hired Hawkins's firm to survey its 46-acre Industrial Park Riverview. Greg Wathen, the corporation's executive director, had been through archaeological surveys before and thought this would be another routine examination. …