Jolee Edmondson is a Savannah-based writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Smithsonian, among other publications.
For 30 years, requests to enact an archaeological ordinance that would protect subterranean artifacts have failed. A new effort has emerged amid the latest wave of construction.
Some big holes in historic downtown Savannah, Georgia, are causing a lot of grief. To make way for new hotels and an arts center, excavators are digging deep below the Spanish-moss-shaded streets, reviving serious concerns about the buried past of Georgia’s coastal belle.
For 30 years, archaeologists have been urging the city to enact an archaeological ordinance that would protect subterranean artifacts, but their effort ran up against public apathy, reluctant legislators, and developers fearful of extra restrictions and costs. With 13 million visitors annually and hotel occupancy at 80 percent, Savannah's flourishing tourism has generated a construction boom. While developers are delighted, archaeologists are worried. The massive earth moving has sparked a decisive call to action.
“There’s a story beneath Savannah that’s being lost to development,” asserts Phillip Ashlock, director of the Southern Expeditionary Archaeological Research & Cultural Heritage Institute. He has posted a petition on Change.org enjoining community support for an ordinance. “Any construction site in the historic district is going to sit on top of the history of Savannah. We want to know what that history is.”
The proposed ordinance would require that a city-appointed archaeologist supervise the unearthing and documentation of underground artifacts at construction sites, with developers footing the bill. So far, the only building projects in Savannah involving archaeology have been those that received federal or state funding—the National Historic Preservation Act mandates that public projects in locations listed on the National Register of Historic Places undergo an archaeological evaluation.
From early 19th century stoneware to Revolutionary War musket balls, antiquities are frequently uncovered at Savannah's multiplying building sites. According to Ashlock and associates, such remains are often discarded, destroyed, paved over or carried off by workers or looters.
Preservation is a big deal in Savannah. The 300-year-old port city is renowned for restoring the architectural treasures in its historic district. But preservation of artifacts under the ground is a different matter. “People don’t care about what they can’t see,” says Rita Elliott, education coordinator and research associate with the Lamar Institute, an archaeological nonprofit. “Half the battle is education. Savannahians don’t realize the significance of what lies beneath their city.”
The drawn-out struggle of Savannah’s archaeologists exemplifies the preservation versus progress debate that divides many historic cities. The past is precious, but the future promises profit. While some developers aren’t outright opposed to an archaeological code, they’re wary of the fine print.
“The devil is in the details,” says Kevin Klinkenberg, executive director of Savannah Development and Renewal Authority. He says an ordinance would be problematic if it imposed broad regulations instead of tailoring them to individual projects. “One size doesn’t fit all,” says Klinkenberg. “In theory, I’m for it. History is the city’s core. But it’s important that nothing hinders the ability of the city to keep improving.”
Savannah’s archaeologists argue that archaeology wouldn’t halt construction. The ordinance they’re advocating would be built into the permitting process, much like electrical and plumbing codes, becoming an integral part of building plans. Only large projects would come under review, and even they might not warrant a full-scale archaeological survey. Research conducted before groundbreaking would determine if a site has potential.
“I can understand the developers' side,” concedes Angus Sawyer, owner of Archaeological Consulting of Savannah, LLC. “They see this as another hurdle in an already difficult process. It might be uncomfortable for them in the beginning, but there’s a huge quantity of buried artifacts in Savannah that are at risk of being lost to future generations. It’s amazing that such a historic city doesn’t have archaeological protections in place.”
Compromise might be an option. Ellen Harris, director of urban planning and historic preservation at Savannah’s Metropolitan Planning Commission and a longtime champion of the proposed archaeological code, is working on incentives that might get developers to voluntarily accommodate archaeological procedures. Possible enticements include permission to build an additional story above the area’s height limits. To qualify, developers would agree to dedicate a minimum of four percent of their construction budget to archaeology, with a cap of $500,000.
“The incentives approach is much better than telling developers what they can and can’t do,” says Alderman Bill Durrence, who represents the historic district. “Some ordinances just aren’t enforceable,” he says, noting that Georgia has strong property rights laws. “Telling a property owner that he has to add so many dollars for an archaeological survey of his construction site might run afoul of those laws. I’d want to be sure that we could legally enforce this ordinance before seriously considering it.”
Ashlock, whose petition has been submitted to the mayor after garnering some 1,250 signatures, maintains along with his compatriots that incentives are no substitute for an ordinance. He admits that archaeology can be costly, but contends it’s the price to be paid for the privilege of building in Savannah.
“This city is a gem,” he says. “If someone wants to come and own a part of Savannah, they should be willing and responsible enough to safeguard the historic resources under their property. Citizens and legislators should expect nothing less of developers.”
Besides, supporters of the ordinance say, builders and tourism might benefit from archaeological finds, displays of which could enhance venues and draw visitors. “People who come to Savannah crave authentic history, not just guidebook stuff,” says Elliott. “It’s not the artifacts alone but the story behind them. That’s what archaeology provides—the actual story. It would be a valuable economic tool for the city.”
A number of historic cities have adopted archaeological ordinances, including Albuquerque, New Mexico; Annapolis, Maryland; St. Augustine, Florida; and Alexandria, Virginia. Savannah’s archaeologists aspire to the example set by Alexandria, whose ordinance was passed in 1989 after residents, alarmed by the thousands of artifacts being bulldozed during a heavy construction phase, lobbied the city council to form the Alexandria Archaeological Commission, the first such group in America. Today, the commission works closely with developers, many of whom have received awards for their conscientious cooperation. The commission’s centerpiece is the Alexandria Archaeology Museum, which showcases the city’s unearthed relics while serving as a headquarters for volunteer and educational programs.
As for the financial outlay required of developers to include archaeology in their projects, Alexandria City Archaeologist Francine Bromberg says, “It’s simply the cost of doing business in Alexandria.”
So will Savannah catch up with the archaeological strides of other historic cities? Perhaps the answer lies in a comment made by Durrence: “Savannah never does anything in a hurry.”