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blogbrainsmallSeacoast History Blog #58
July 30, 2009

From what I hear, the controversy over the possible destruction of archeological treasures in the North End isn’t over yet. Memos from state officials indicate that some preservationists strongly believe that the Portwalk construction project should take another look at what it is digging up. While many are already suggesting that the city should lay back and learn from its mistakes on this project, I beg to differ. Unless we dig a little deeper, no one is going to learn anything, and Portsmouth will continue to rip up its history with each new construction project. If city’s like Annapolis can enact their own preservation oversight, we of all cities, should step up and lead the way too. (Continued below)




READ UPDATE: Released Report Reveals Historic Sensitivity

Developers say they got the green light from their archeological consulting firm in New Durham. But that may not be exactly the case. So far, no one other than the developer and the archeologist have seen that critical report. Certainly we, the public, should know what the consultant said about the historic sensitivity of a region founded in the 1600s. Other archeologists should tell us what it means. Making that report "transparent" here, and in every construction project in the city, certainly makes sense. And perhaps, if we dig deeper into the EPA guidelines, it may be required.

The problem is that there are so many pieces to the oversight process that everyone seems to think someone else is taking care of historic preservation underground. But without seeing the report, how can we know? As Rick Fabrizio pointed out In his Portsmouth Herald editorial last week, it seems unlikely that the developer is expert enough on archeology to make the final determination on what the report says.

For example, a Portwalk spokesperson told Fosters Daily Democrat that they worked with the EPA and their project did not "trigger an historic review". But from the memos I’m reading behind the scenes, it appears that the EPA isn’t exactly sure what does and doesn’t deserve that review. What goes in the Bush administration may not fly with Obama.

According to one memo I saw from a key state preservationist, the Portwalk project has EPA officials "in a tail spin". It seems that the EPA isn’t exactly sure what it is supposed to enforce or how.

Portwalk construction 2009 by Phil Cohen

Photo (c) Phil Cohen courtesy of The Daily Portsmouth

Last week on July 20, Charlene Vaughan of the ACHP (Advisory Council of Historic Preservation) asked Roger Janson of the EPA in Boston to look into NHR permit #100000 for the renovation of the Parade Mall in Portsmouth. According to her, the North End construction area has a "high potential for the presence of archeological sites dating to the 17th century" and that she could find no record of the project was filed with the proper preservation authorities. Officials at the preservation office in Concord (NHDHR) suggested construction be halted until the paperwork is sorted out. A spokesperson for Portwalk says the developers did file their paperwork.

But, so far, we have only seen a very few words cherrypicked from the archeological report, and those are not convincing. Portwalk told Fosters on July 24 that consultant Victoria Bunker said it was "highly unlikely" that there would be Native American artifacts on the site. That makes sense. Few native artifacts have been found in this city. But what about 17th and 18th and 19th century artifacts from this part of the city? There is a lot more to archeology than arrowheads.

A huge cache of ceramics were discovered right nearby on Deer Street during five years of off-and-on archeological work in the early 1980s conducted by Strawbery Banke’s Martha Pinello and others. You can see those artifacts in half a dozen display cases at the Sheraton Harborside. Some are upstairs and others are on the ground floor outside the pool. I’ll post a picture soon of a piece of a flintlock similar to those carried by the pilgrims at Plymouth. It too was found right in this area within a stone’s throw of the current construction.

The Portwalk spokesperson said that Bunker said that the site was largely "urban fill". That could be a confusing term. I’m no archeologist, but a 1995 article about this region published in The NH Archeologist magazine sure sounds like the professionals believed there was more to discover. According to that article, the houses were bulldozed and their foundations "filled in". That does not mean they are destroyed. In fact, according to my discussions with half a dozen archeologists, this could be a good thing. The foundations below ground may still be largely intact. And if the large area was quickly tarred over for a parking lot, then all of the artifacts below ground are actually protected.

Most people I’ve talked to seem not to understand this simple fact. What archeologists want is undisturbed ground, which much of this may be. They love to dig around in ancient cellar holes, backyards and privies. This is where the bulk of colonial artifacts are found.

From my conversations with archeologists who were on the spot in the 1980s, there may be a wealth of treasures left to find. Yes, the area dug out for the Parade Mall is lost, but there may be artifacts even deeper, below where that building stood. And every place that was under the tarmac Is fair game. The "urban fill" may be inside the old cellar holes and spread around on the surface, but that does not mean the archeological value of the site Is lost. I’m not sure the developers know this. Maybe the EPA people don’t it either. But any archeologist can explain it. And the ones I’ve talked to all say there is a high probability that this area has important stuff left to find. And it need not even interrupt the construction process or cost an arm and a leg.

It’s too bad we all blinked when Portwalk was going through the planning process. And it is possible, even now, that no one did anything incorrectly. It may just be that the EPA guidelines are not clear, or that the oversight process has some critical gaps. All of that can be fixed in the future.

But for now, the right thing to do, is for Portwalk to let people who know archeology look at Victoria Bunker’s report. Then a few people who know archeology (not PR agents or reporters or developers or city officials) should walk the construction site and see where we stand. If Portwalk really cares about the heritage of Portsmouth, as they say, then this simple process will set all our minds at ease. Sticking to the technicalities of the oversight process, a process that may turn out to be flawed, is an option.

But keeping the report private is going to keep questions in the public mind for years and years to come. We will always wonder what was lost and why.

© 2009 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved.


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