BRANDON — While finding Native American artifacts on construction sites isn’t common, when they are found the state takes steps to protect them by keeping them secret.
One case in point is the proposed Babcock Solar project.
Babcock Solar Farm LLC, backed by Conti Solar based in Edison, New Jersey, has filed for a certificate of public good with the Public Utility Commission to build a 2.2 megawatt solar facility at the intersection of Park Street Extension and 21 Country Club Road. Among the items its permit application includes is an archaeological survey conducted in June which found three concentrations of “pre-contact” Native American artifacts.
These artifacts, said Dr. Charles Knight, assistant director of the University of Vermont Consulting Archaeology Program, which conducted the survey, were mostly “lithic debitage,” the sharp flakes of stone left over from the making of stone tools. Knight said in an interview Thursday that such deposits show stone tools were once made in the area and indicate the site may have had other uses as well.
The results of the survey, along with the bulk of of permit filings made with the Public Utility Commission, are open to the public. Knight said the exact locations of the deposits, however, are typically redacted to prevent people from disturbing them.
Eric Millard, vice president of development for Conti Solar, said Thursday that when the results of the archaeological surveys were filed with the state, the locations of the deposits weren’t redacted by mistake. On Monday, Babcock Solar and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, filed a joint motion asking the PUC to redact those documents. On Thursday, the PUC issued an order granting the request.
“Vermont law requires that all information regarding the location of archaeological sites and underwater historic properties shall be confidential, with certain limited exceptions … .” reads the joint motion. “Without this statutory protection, archaeological sites would be at risk of looting, desecration and other potential damage.”
Scott Dillon, survey archaeologist for the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, said in a Thursday interview there are people who take items of historic or archaeological importance from sites to keep or sell.
“It’s a big issue and somewhat hidden,” he said. “It’s a problem, you only have to go on eBay or somewhere.”
Dillon said knowing exactly where an object is found is extremely important to archaeologists trying to understand more about the people who left the object there. When looters or collectors of these items take them they make no record of where they found them. He said it’s usually clear when a site has been disturbed by non-archaeologists, but the true scope of the problem is difficult to pin down.
“It ebbs and flows,” Dillon said. In Vermont, a lot of the problem is with regard to metal objects from colonial times. People with metal detectors can easily find these objects and take them. Artifacts left by Native Americans prior to the arrival of Europeans can be somewhat harder to spot, he said. Other places have it worse than Vermont, but it’s still an issue here. Dillon said making the sites hard to find helps keep them safe.
No one opposed Babcock and the Division of Historic Preservation’s request, according to the PUC order. Millard said the project’s site plan has been adjusted so it will completely avoid the spots where artifacts were found.
According to Dillon, the vast majority of projects that require an Act 250 permit or a certificate of public good don’t warrant an archaeological survey. He said only about 2 percent require archaeologists to look them over. The state has methods of determining what sites are likely to host such items, he said, and when a survey is warranted the project applicant is given a list of qualified agencies that can do the work.
Among them is the University of Vermont Consulting Archaeology Program. Knight said finding Native American artifacts on proposed solar sites is fairly common. He said about half the ones his group has surveyed have turned up something. Many solar arrays are built on agricultural land that is often open and level, near a source of water. The same qualities that attract solar developers and farmers also appealed to Native Americans thousands of years ago, he said.
Knight said during a Phase I survey, several archaeologists will walk the site in a way that lets them observe the entire area. They mark what they find and where they found it, and if they think there might be something more they’ll recommend a Phase II survey and digging a few test holes. Knight said below the layer of soil roughed up by farmer plows can sometimes be found evidence of fire pits and ancient dwellings. Phase III surveys are rarely done, he said. These are what most people commonly think of when they think of an archaeological dig, a big hole with a team of people working inside it.
Knight said that more often than not artifacts are left where they are, especially in solar project developments where the impacts of construction are minimal compared to other types of buildings.