If you own a building downtown and you want to paint it fuschia, there’s an app for that.
Same if you want to demolish it, add a sign to the front or attach a flagpole: You’d have to file an application for approval through the Metropolitan Planning Commission.
It’s because of the city’s rigorous rules concerning the renovation of its old architecture that Savannah remains one of the largest and most glorious landmark historic districts in the country. But you may be surprised that there are no such stipulations for the archaeological sites buried beneath those historic homes and offices.
There was no obligation to examine the old shipyards layered in the banks of the Savannah River as Hutchinson Island was developed, nor was there any archaeological methodology applied to the massive dugout of the underground parking garage near Ellis Square. Those are only two recent examples—there’s no telling how many other sites have been lost throughout the decades.
Fragile remains of Colonial–era homesteads, indigenous campgrounds, slave housing and other historic sites have “literally been bulldozed over” as Savannah has been developed, but the good news is that there is plenty left to explore.
Ellen Harris, the MPC’s cultural resource and planning manager, wants to investigate the possibility of incorporating archaeology into its own zoning ordinance, if not into the complex Unified Zoning Ordinance the commission has been drafting for years.
“The historic preservation of buildings tells only one part of the story,” explained Harris. “The under–represented people, Native Americans, slaves, soldiers—their stories are buried underneath those buildings.”
Digging in old records, Harris found that the MPC had received unilateral support for a code written in the late 1980s that would have required government projects to perform archaeological research before breaking ground, but the initiative fizzled with personnel changes. She hopes to revive the mandate for city and county projects and provide significant tax incentives for private entities.
Acknowledging that an ordinance applied citywide needs current community input before it can be written, Harris has organized a free introductory educational session open to the public. “Perspectives in Archaeology: Digging for the Truth, A Panel Discussion,” will be held at Trinity Methodist Church on Telfair Square this Saturday, May 12 at 2 p.m. A reception will follow.
While research shows that archaeological preservation has economic benefits for cities such as boosted tourism and reduced blight, it can be a scary topic for developers, for whom the discovery of a historic homestead or cemetery can mean the shutdown of a worksite. Harris encourages them to join the conversation.
“This is about dispelling myths and educating the community,” she said. “We’re just beginning to look at what it would take to include archaeology in the code and find out what other cities have done it.”
The nearby city of Beaufort, S.C. has laws mandating archaeological study before any development, and Florida has a statewide network of local archaeology ordinances. But Harris counts Alexandria, VA as the model for archaeological preservation. The city adopted an ordinance in 1989 that protects sites within the city’s center while acknowledging the needs of developers.
Dr. Pamela Cressey, the archaeology guru who helped author the Alexandria ordinance and continues to head the city’s museum devoted to locally–excavated artifacts, will visit Savannah to sit on the upcoming panel.
While Dr. Cressey promises to provide insight into the process that resulted in Alexandria’s ordinance, she counsels that Savannah must develop its own model.
“Every community has its unique characteristics and individual perspectives that will inform what comes out of it,” mused Dr. Cressey over the phone last week. “My goal is to talk about what’s possible.”
It can be challenging to convince people of the value of archaeology, she admits, “because it’s hidden. But down in the ground can be a wealth of materials that can tell us a lot about who lived there.”
Dr. Cressey will be joined on the panel by local architect Neil Dawson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife archaeologist Richard Kanaski and Georgia Southern anthropology professor Dr. Sue Moore. Local historian and filmmaker Michael Jordan will moderate.
Jordan calls the panel “more than just an opportunity for scholars to lecture about what they do. It’s a chance for Savannahians who care about history to start a conversation about what’s worked in other places and what could work here.”
Jordan was present when Lamar Institute archaeologist Rita Elliot excavated the Spring Hill Redoubt, the site of the bloody 1779 Revolutionary War battle now commemorated as Coastal Heritage Society’s Battlefield Park. There Elliot found gun parts and markings for the original fortification wall—factors that add layers to the history of the soldiers who died there. She has also found ditches, flints and other Revolutionary War debris in Madison Square, “steps away from where hundreds of people walk every day.”
Elliot, who will be in attendance at Saturday’s panel, looks forward to a time when Savannah’s buried sites will be as valued as its buildings.
“Archaeology goes in tandem with the preservation of standing structures,” she posits. “That’s how we find the whole story. There is tremendous potential here to expand the horizons of what we know about Savannah’s history.”
Adds Jordan, “Obviously, it will never be feasible to leave every archaeological discovery in Savannah completely undisturbed. That’s not realistic.”
However, even minor construction projects and home renovations “could peel back priceless pages of Savannah’s historic fabric” if policies are in place to preserve archaeological finds.
“That’s why it’s so important for us, as a community, to address the issues of how we preserve the past that’s buried just beneath the surface.”
Perspectives in Archaeology: Digging for the Truth
When: Saturday, May 12, 2 p.m.
Where: Trinity Methodist Church, 127 Barnard St.
Cost: Free and open to the public