A Richer Heritage: Historic Preservation in the Twenty-First Century

By Robert E. Stipe | Go to book overview

CHAPTER EIGHT
Uncertain Destiny
The Changing Role of Archaeology
in Historic Preservation

JOHN H. SPRINKLE JR.

Archaeology is fundamentally different from other professions within historic preservation. The difference is essentially one of orientation. Historic preservation is concerned with the future of old buildings, neighborhoods, and landscapes—managing change—whereas archaeology is primarily interested in recovering and interpreting human behavior of the past. A historic preservationist looks at the main street of small-town America as a prime candidate for architectural rehabilitation and commercial revitalization, easements, architectural review boards, zoning regulations, and design guidelines, but the archaeologist is most interested in the town's backyards where the sheet middens, privies, and trash pits are a veritable gold mine of information about the community's history. Historic preservation exists on the rehabilitation and restoration of past places and landscapes, whereas American archaeology thrives on destruction of the past through excavation, analysis, and interpretation.

Archaeology is perhaps best understood as modern-day alchemy: turning base materials—soil and stone, bone and ceramic—into the gold of archaeological observation and interpretation. This analogy also captures the experimental and destructive nature of archaeology as a method of scientific inquiry about the past. Each excavation is an experiment in recovering past activities, one that, unlike the pure sciences, is not replicable. It is a truism that archaeology is an inherently destructive process, which justifies the profession's concern for record keeping. This fact alone distinguishes the archaeology from the rest of the preservation field. The archaeologist, unlike the historian, architectural historian, or other preservation professional, destroys nonrenewable resources to advance our understanding of the past.

For a true believer, it all begins with a reverence for the practitioner's medium: the archaeological record. Most archaeologists have a firm belief that

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