What Is Cultural Resource Management?
What Is Cultural Resource Management?
What Is Cultural Resource Management?
4 minute read

Archaeological sites are the most common cultural resources encountered on a project site, but can also include sculptures, landscapes and more, all protected by federal law and requiring permits and planning.

Because cultural resources are protected by law, it’s important to follow certain procedures when these resources are encountered and to plan and site projects to avoid disruption to cultural resources whenever possible. Cultural resource management services help achieve these goals.

Archaeological sites, both prehistoric and historic, and historic buildings are the most common types of cultural resources encountered on projects, but cultural resources can take many other forms as well. Cultural resources can be objects such as sculptures, landscapes, traditional cultural properties or even traditional practices.

Legislative Background; Governing Authorities

The first federal law concerning cultural resources was the Antiquities Act of 1906.  However, current cultural resources management activities are conducted under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, as amended.  Section 106 of this act mandates that:

“… The head of any federal agency having direct or indirect jurisdiction over a proposed federal or federally assisted undertaking in any State … shall, prior to the approval of any federal funds on the undertaking or prior to the issuance of any license … take into account the effect of the undertaking on any district, site, building, structure, or object that is included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register.”

This is why cultural resources management is often called Section 106 compliance. The NHPA also created the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) in every state, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP).

The NRHP is the official list of historically significant cultural properties in the country.  The list is maintained by the National Park Service and currently lists more than 80,000 properties. The purpose of all cultural resources management work is to determine if any cultural resources are present in a project area and, if so, to determine if any of the properties present are eligible for the NRHP.

The SHPO in each state coordinates all historic preservation work, nominates properties to the NRHP and reviews all federal Section 106 projects within that state. On tribal lands, a Tribal Historic Preservation Office (THPO) fills this role.

The ACHP is an independent federal agency with a mission to promote the preservation, enhancement and productive use of historic resources and to advise the president and Congress in national historic preservation policy. The ACHP acts as a mediator when there is a conflict between the federal agency and the SHPO, and also makes the final determination of eligibility for properties nominated to the NRHP.

When Section 106 Applies

The requirement to comply with Section 106 is based on federal involvement. Projects are required to follow the Section 106 process when two conditions are met. First, there must be federal involvement. Second, the project must be of a nature that can have an affect on cultural resources.

Federal involvement can take two forms. First is the use of federal funding. If any federal funding is used in the project, it is a candidate for Section 106 compliance. Likewise, if the project requires federal permits to proceed, then the project is a candidate for Section 106 compliance.

The other requirement is more subjective. To trigger Section 106 compliance, a project must have the potential to affect cultural resources. Many projects may use federal funding, but not have the potential to affect cultural resources, such as after-school programs. Other federally funded projects, such as highway construction, obviously do have the potential to affect cultural resources and therefore will trigger Section 106 compliance.

What Do Cultural Resources Specialists Do?

There are many different types of cultural resources work, depending on the resource in question. Archaeological sites and historic buildings have very different requirements for cultural resources management and require different specialists.

Architectural historians specialize in historic buildings and are trained to analyze and interpret these resources. This often begins with a simple visual inspection of the property, often combined with extensive photography. Architectural historians are also highly trained researchers, and research into the building, including construction details and chain-of-title research, is almost always part of any architectural history project. In cases where mitigation is required, programs known as HABS/HAER have been established. HABS/HAER stands for Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record and consists of research, archival photography, measured drawings and written reports.

Archaeological properties have a completely different set of requirements. Archaeological work for projects is typically divided into three phases.

Phase I Services

Phase I consists of background research and archaeological survey. Background research includes checking existing site records, generally housed at the SHPO, to determine if any archaeological sites or NRHP properties exist within the project area. Historic documents such as census records and maps may also be consulted.

After sufficient background research has been conducted, the archaeological survey can proceed. This consists of systematically traversing the project area looking for archaeological sites or historic buildings. Archaeological sites are typically found by examining the surface of the ground for the presence of artifacts and digging small test holes, called shovel tests, at a set interval, in the attempt to locate artifacts. These artifacts may be projectile points or pottery in the case of prehistoric sites, or glass, porcelain, or structure foundations in the case of historic sites. The exact methods used vary from state to state, based on requirements set by each SHPO.

Phase II and Phase III Services

Phase II consists of significance testing of sites to determine if they are eligible for inclusion on the NRHP. This testing generally consists of the excavation of some number of one meter square excavation units. Additional background research may also be conducted at this time.

If a property is determined eligible for the NRHP and is going to be impacted by the project, then Phase III mitigation is called for. The purpose of Phase III is to mitigate the adverse affects to the property. This can be as simple as altering the location of the project to avoid archaeological sites or changes in the project structures to minimize the visual impact to historic structures. If the project is not of a nature allowing alteration of location, mitigation can mean widespread excavations in the case of archaeological sites, although this is not the only option. These excavations are done according to a specific research design, which details the research questions the excavations are designed to answer. (See Figure 2, page 7.)

Early Action Can Avoid Delays

Cultural resources can affect your projects in numerous ways. First, the presence of cultural resources can result in minor modifications to project alignments. In cases where the project location can be modified with minimal difficulty and cost, such as electric transmission lines or pipelines, altering the project so that it does not impact the historic property is often cheaper than conducting excavations. In cases where modification of project location is not possible, minor changes in the project design can sometimes minimize the impact of the project on historic properties.

This highlights why it is important to get a cultural resource specialist involved in your project as early as possible. His or her input early in the planning stages of a project can reduce the chance that cultural resources will be impacted, and can also reduce the possibility that unexpected cultural resources will be encountered during later stages of a project, a situation that can lead to project delays and significant additional costs.

About the Author

Eric Gilliland, RPA, is a manager of the cultural resources department in the Burns & McDonnell Environmental Studies & Permitting Group. He received his bachelor's degree in anthropology at the University of Alabama, and his master's degree in anthropology from the University of Missouri-Columbia.


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