Professional Development Workshop

Thinking About Significance


Thinking about Significance Workshop - pdf file

Held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the Florida Anthropological Society

9 AM – 3 PM

Radisson Ponce de Leon
4000 U.S. Highway 1 North, St. Augustine, Florida, 32095
(904) 824-2821

The FAC held its professional development workshop, “Thinking About Significance” in St. Augustine on May 11, 2001. It was a resounding success. The goal of this workshop was to reevaluate the significance concept as used by archaeologists, agency personnel, and cultural resource managers in Florida and begin the task of developing new approaches to the evaluation of archaeological sites. The format was a roundtable discussion of the issues guided by a moderator/facilitator.

The 100+ people who attended the day-long event heard an interesting and educational program of speakers and discussions that focused on what should be considered significant and how we should go about the business of evaluating archaeological resources.

A major theme of many of the discussions revolved around the use of historic contexts in significance evaluation. As representatives of both state and federal agencies stressed, it is the contexts that provide the framework and justification for significance evaluations. However, as many other speakers noted, the contexts are not static entities; they need to be constantly revised and updated to reflect new data, knowledge, methods, and theories. One agency staff person later commented that he rarely sees Florida’s historic contexts referenced in CRM reports submitted to his office. Clearly, this is an area where FAC members can contribute both as individuals (evaluating sites and writing reports) and as an organization (assisting in the revision and updating of the existing contexts). Native American concerns were well represented also and everyone who attended came away with a better understanding of the views of native peoples regarding archaeological sites, particularly those that are held to be sacred.

The success of the workshop bodes well for similar events in the future. In addition to pursuing significance issues, the Workshop Committee has discussed other possible topics such as creative mitigation measures and Native American coordination issues.


Funded in part by a grant from the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources.

Workshop Abstracts

Archaeological Significance: A Deconstruction of the Florida Approach

Kenneth W. Hardin, Janus Research

Policy and practice developed at the agency level in the 1970s and 1980s continue to influence the determination of archaeological site significance in Florida CRM. Integral to shaping this unique approach were evolving interpretations of new state and federal legislation concerns over agency funding, private versus public sector competition, and the cast of highly competent but forceful personalities. Current methods used in determining site significance that are colored by historical facts will be identified.

The National Register and Archaeological Significance in the 21st Century

Erika Martin Seibert, National Register of Historic Places, National Park Service

Since the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in 1966, many professional archaeologists, particularly those working within what has come to be known as “cultural resource management,” or “CRM”, cannot think about the significance concept and preservation planning generally without considering the National Register of Historic Places and the evaluation criteria for eligibility. The criteria are applied to almost every endangered site on Federal land, and on state and private lands as well. They are applied far beyond the actual listing of sites in the Register. Because the National Register criteria are somewhat flexible, interpretations of significance and eligibility may change with the passage of time, changing archaeological method and theory, and technological advances in the field. Flexibility in interpretation is needed, particularly because of the changing meanings of significance and considerable regional variability in resources. This flexibility in interpretation also generates some tough topics that we must grapple with in considering significance. For example, using Criteria other than D, addressing issues of how non-native peoples and Native Americans view the value of Native American resources, in particular archeological sites and traditional cultural properties, examining how the National Register has treated historical archeological sites from the recent past, and examining the significance of redundant resources, are all complex issues that have been dealt with in various ways. In the following essay, I will examine the steps the National Register currently suggests for evaluation, and how the Register defines significance. In addition, I will assess some of the tough issues concerning evaluating significance and applying the criteria using examples from across the country. Hopefully, these examples will shed light on evaluating archaeological properties in Florida.

Miccosukee Tribal Beliefs Concerning Archaeological Significance

Fred E. Dayhoff and W. Stephen Terry, Miccosukee Tribe of Florida

The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida reside in the Florida Everglades having been forced there from North Florida and South Georgia through a series of land grabs and wars with the non-Indian settlers of Florida. In their ever constant move south, they either made peace with or conquered the indigenous tribes in their path, eventually absorbing these people as part of the Tribe. It is their firm belief that anthropologists/archaeologists have harvested enough evidence through digs, interviews, etc. from Florida and the United States to conduct their studies. No more archaeological digs are necessary. Leave everything in the ground that is there, after it has been determined that it is there through shovel tests or other means. All sites, from kitchen middens to village sites to burial sites, are significant and should remain undisturbed.

A Personal Archaeological Survey: Identifying Common Ground

George R. Ballo, Florida Department of Transportation

Archaeological assessments of precolumbian sites now include consideration of the effects of these investigations on Native American populations and their quality of life. Archaeologists and Native Americans are currently engaged in a critical dialogue concerning the necessity and value of archaeological investigations. Contentious points within this debate include the value of scientific knowledge, the definition of “significance” in regard to archaeological sites, and the understanding of the concept of the “sacred.” Each group holds that its perspective on these issues is essential for the preservation and enhancement of the world they live in – their human environment. In Florida, this debate occurs at a time when the population of the state is expected to increase 40% over the next 20 years with most new development projected to occur in coastal regions. This paper presents the results of a personal survey to find the common ground on which these issues might be resolved to the satisfaction of both parties before the only available meeting place is a construction site.

Why Doesn't the State Do Something? Thoughts of a State Archaeologist on Significance

James J. Miler, Bureau of Archaeological Research

The day-to-day responsibilities of the state archaeologist in Florida involve frequent judgments of significance in informal as well as formal contexts. In contrast to the formal process of Section 106 review, where significance is a necessary and sometimes sufficient condition to preservation, the duties of the state archaeologist afford many opportunities to be more vague. From this perspective it can be argued that significance is not necessarily an objective property inherent in a resource; rather it is a subjective judgment that implies a level of preservation action. In the federal as well as the state legal preservation framework, there are few absolutes. No superior authority to prevent loss of historic values is afforded to parties involved in the 106 process, and Chapter 267 grants the Division of Historical Resources merely a reasonable opportunity to comment. In both cases, preservation takes the form of a well-informed discussion among interested parties to arrive at an agreeable outcome that achieves a maximum feasible level of protection for historic properties commensurate with their significance. My discussion will explore significance as it applies to the authorities and responsibilities of the state archaeologist, especially in contexts where an objective concept of significance does not clearly apply or is not effective in achieving preservation.

Rethinking Significance as the Guiding Principle in Highway Archaeology

Brent R. Weisman, University of South Florida

Given that archaeological sites in highway rights-of-way are uniquely endangered public resources, conventional significance evaluation procedures might not be adequately addressing the research potential of these resources, thereby shortchanging the public benefit of archaeological knowledge. Evaluation criteria set at levels higher than local settlement patterns encourage redundancy. Historic contexts defined in the state historic preservation plan are rarely specific enough to guide evaluation of problematic sites, and existing levels of survey knowledge are often inadequate to be used to evaluate the research potential of newly discovered sites. Proactive, problem-oriented research-based archaeological survey and testing in rights-of-way is one possible means to advance knowledge about archaeological resources in the public interest. This paper will address: (1) sampling strategies using an Evaluation Matrix, (2) rights-of-way as a research universe, and (3) development of settlement pattern models as a basis for testing.

Post-Colonial Archaeological Sites

Kathleen S. Hoffman, Janus Research

Post-colonial archaeological sites pose challenges in both their identification and evaluation. An impression exists that such sites are under-represented, overlooked or, when encountered, frequently deemed to be not significant. Sites associated with our recent past, as represented in the Florida Site File and the National Register of Historic Places, are explored and the various approaches to their identification and evaluation are discussed.

Beyond Technology and Function: Evaluating the Significance of Lithic Scatter Sites in Florida

Robert J. Austin, Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc.

Lithic scatter sites often are dismissed as sources of redundant data, possessing limited potential for contributing any new and meaningful information on precolumbian cultural development in Florida. Their large size, deep deposits, absence of easily observable stratigraphy, lack of associated features, and seemingly monotonous distribution through time and space fascinate those who study them and intimidate those who evaluate their significance. As frustrations with the explanatory potential of these sites have increased, it seems that attempts to preserve and study these sites have decreased. In this paper, I trace the growth of this negative attitude to several causes: 1) a historical emphasis on the excavation and study of middens and burial mounds, with an attendant analytical focus on the analysis of ceramic artifacts; 2) a prevailing concept of significance that emphasizes site size and quantity of artifacts over information potential; 3) a theoretical vacuum regarding the potential problem domains that can been advantageously studied using lithic data; and 4) a reluctance to utilize appropriate methods for site detection, testing, excavation, and analysis that would maximize the information potential of these sites while also helping to understand the site formation processes that are critical to their understanding. The significance of lithic scatter sites is examined in light of these problems and suggestions are offered regarding potentially fruitful areas of research using lithic data.

"In the Eye of the Beholder": Considerations of Archaeological Significance

Daniel Penton, Post Buckley Schuh & Jernigan

Contract archaeologists are often called upon to broker myriad competing issues as they assess the potential effects of proposed activities on cultural resources. Many clients, both public and private, emphasize that "time is of the essence" and that construction schedules are paramount, even though these schedules are often established without any cultural resource considerations. On the other end of the spectrum are those individuals and groups that maintain that all archaeological remains are significant and should be avoided and protected at all costs, largely ignoring competing social and economic factors. Cultural resource professionals must be more than well-trained technicians. They must play a definitive role in bringing all of the relevant, and sometimes conflicting, issues to the table, while ensuring that a fair and accurate presentation of these pertinent issues is offered. My paper will explore what I consider to be the broader, and somewhat subjective role, of these professionals as pivotal players in the significance determination process.

Determinants of Significance: A Perspective from the Florida Division of Historical Resources

Brian Yates, Bureau of Historic Preservation, Florida Division of Historical Resources

One of the many roles of the Florida Division of Historical Resources is to provide leadership in the preservation of Florida's historic resources and to foster conditions that promote historic preservation programs. One such program is the National Register of Historic Places. Although a federal initiative, the Florida Division of Historical Resources is responsible for determining if resources meet the federally set criteria for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. These criteria, commonly known as Criteria A through D, have very explicit standards for determining if significance is established. However, for the Division of Historical Resources to determine if a historic property meets these criteria, many resources are accessed and reviewed. This paper provides a list of many of these resources and a thorough discussion of how the Division and the State Historic Preservation Office applies these standards to determine the significance of archaeological sites.