Frequently Asked Questions about Cultural Resources
The Anthropological Survey's extensive applied research program assists State agencies with their State and Federal historic preservation mandates. This program area is the largest outside-funded Museum program and employs about three-quarters of the Survey staff. Today, the vast majority of archaeologists in the United States work in cultural resource management (CRM) programs, and most U.S. archaeology is done in CRM contexts.
The following are just a few of the basic questions people tend to have about cultural resources. For more thorough information about cultural resources and cultural resources management as the pertain to archaeology, please see the New York Archaeological Council's (NYAC) standards for cultural resource investigations or associated guidance booklet:
What are Cultural Resources?
Cultural resources are defined as the collective evidence of the past activities and accomplishments of people. Buildings, objects, features, locations, and structures with scientific, historic, and cultural value are all examples of cultural resources. Cultural resources are finite and non-renewable resources that once destroyed cannot be returned to their original state.
Cultural resources include prehistoric and historic archaeological sites, historic standing structures, bridges, cemeteries, and monuments, among others. Impacts to resources eligible for the National Register of Historic Places must be mitigated through excavation, avoidance, or preservation. All Federal and most State agencies are required to identify and protect cultural resources on the lands they manage. Industries, whose projects are licensed by federal and/or state agencies, must identify and mitigate impacts to cultural resources in project areas before construction activities.
What is Cultural Resource Management (or CRM)?
Cultural resource management (CRM) refers to the processes and procedures used to manage, preserve, protect, and conserve cultural resources in compliance with state and federal regulations. Each year a wealth of archaeological data are generated through CRM in efforts to prevent the loss of information from an untold number of archaeological sites, architecture, landscapes, and other cultural resources. A number of state and federal laws mandate CRM projects. These laws require identification and recording of cultural resources that are potentially eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, before impact by construction projects funded or licensed by federal and/or state agencies.
Why should cultural resources be studied?
Understanding the activities and accomplishments of past groups is important since the decisions that we make in the present are often influenced by the past. Put simply, in order to understand the future, we must first understand the common past heritage that we all share. Archaeology also provides a means of verifying and elaborating the past. Written accounts of the past often are biased by ideological, socio-economic, and political factors of their time and very often lack descriptions of the mundane details of day-to-day life that contemporary observers would simply take for granted. Providing insights into past ways of life and independent verification of past events is often empowering for local communities and allows individuals to understand their common heritage.
How are cultural resources identified?
Cultural resources are identified in many different ways depending upon the nature of the project, state and federal laws, and the resources being located. Most archaeological cultural resources are identified through a combination of walkover surveys, excavations, and/or historic documents. Ground penetrating radar and aerial surveys can also be used in some settings to locate archaeological sites. Small shovel test pits, large excavation units, and trenches are used to define the horizontal and vertical boundaries of archaeological resources, locate foundations and larger structural elements, and look for deeply stratified sites.
What are the State and Federal Laws that mandate historic preservation?
There are many and varied laws at both state and federal levels that address historic preservation and cultural resources under various circumstances. The following are merely the most broadly or commonly applicable:
U.S. Federal Laws
- National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, amended in 1980 and 1992.
- Department of Transportation Act of 1966
- National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA)
- Archaeology and Historic Preservation Act of 1974
- Archaeological Resource Protection Act of 1979
- Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987
- Native American Grave and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA)
New York State Laws
- State Historic Preservation Act – Article 14 of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Law
- New York Codes, Rules, And Regulations (NYCRR) Part 426 Authority and Purpose
- NYCRR Part 427 State Register of Historic Places
- 9 NYCRR Part 428 State Agency Activities Affecting Historic and Cultural Properties
- State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQR)
- Article 8 of Environmental Conservation Law
- NYCRR Part 617 State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR)
- The SEQR Handbook (1992 edition)