Combs (copy)

Combs, button, and hair rollers unearthed during an archaeological dig in Charleston.

With much of Charleston’s City Market about to be dug up, City Council needs to pass an archaeology ordinance to prevent the remains of the city’s past from being unceremoniously scraped away.

Developers working on historic sites downtown have been pretty good about having archaeological surveys done in recent years, but Charleston has no ordinance requiring them.

City planners, however, have been calling for an archaeology ordinance for years.

And now a new phase of the Market-area drainage project is about to begin and a hotel is set to rise on the site of a parking lot between Anson and Church streets. Without careful examination, artifacts that might be buried beneath the pavement in the heart of Charleston could be lost forever.

The same goes for Gadsden Wharf, where an estimated 100,000 slaves arrived here and where the International African American Museum will be built, and for the old State Ports Authority site where a hotel and an extension of Waterfront Park are planned.

As the center of activity for hundreds of years, the City Market sites deserve at least a survey in which trenches are dug. Plus, archaeologists now have all sorts of tools such as ground-penetrating radar to help identify targets. Earlier this year, members of the Walled City Task Force uncovered part of the circa-1700 wall that protected the city when work began on a hotel at East Bay and Cumberland streets.

The city can mandate archaeological surveys for its own projects like the drainage project, but unlike many other historic cities, Charleston has no ordinance to require private-sector developers to sift through the soil for clues about a site’s past. Developers who do so should be commended.

Time and money are no doubt concerns. Archaeological work can slow construction and be expensive. But that’s part of the cost of doing business in one of the nation’s most historic cities, or it should be.

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Charleston’s past is well understood, and an archaeology ordinance could be tailored to apply only to known sites of historical significance. Much of the groundwork has already been done by historic groups.

The Historic Charleston Foundation, arguing that the longer you wait, the more you lose, has bemoaned the fact that the city has debated such an ordinance for nearly 40 years. More than 15,000 people have signed a change.org petition to get the city to act. Even Southern Living magazine took up the banner last summer.

Plenty of government agencies and local institutions such as the Charleston Museum, which has a historic archaeology program, have offered to help the city craft an ordinance.

City spokesman Jack O’Toole says the city has been working with the Historic Charleston Foundation to “create an enforceable ordinance,” and he expects one to be proposed by the mayor as part of the budgeting process by the end of the year. Funding for at least one city position is being considered, he said.

The sooner that happens, the better. Charleston has a rich history, and we must preserve as much of it as possible.

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