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Editorial: Dig up Charleston's past before it's lost forever

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Porcelain artifacts found in during the archaeology dig of the 19th century laundry room behind the Aiken-Rhett House are on display Feb. 21, 2018 in Charleston. Grace Beahm Alford/ Staff

For all Charleston does to preserve its history above ground, it does surprisingly little to probe its history below ground. Unlike other historic cities, such as St. Augustine, Florida, or Alexandria, Virginia, Charleston has no ordinance that requires an archaeological survey to be done before earthmoving begins.

And with the city in a building boom, some historically significant sites are being scooped away — forever — as pointed out by reporter Robert Behre in his recent story about the hotel development going up on the site of the former Pinckney mansion on East Bay Street.

When the Hotel Bennett went up adjacent Marion Square, minimal archaeology was done, though it is believed to have been a key site in the 1783 Siege of Charleston during the Revolutionary War. Other examples abound.

Without a local archaeology ordinance, the city can do little to require a site be investigated before redevelopment. Federal and state laws requiring archaeological surveys apply only when federal or state permits are required.

The Historic Charleston Foundation, however, has already drafted an archaeology ordinance for the city, but little has been done to advance it over the past few years, even though Mayor John Tecklenburg said he was open to the idea as early as 2016.

City Planning Director Jacob Lindsey said a steering committee has been working on proposals and hoped to have a citywide ordinance ready for consideration by the end of this year.

The main goal would be preventing significant sites from being destroyed. The Historic Charleston Foundation has suggested establishing archaeological zones in which surveys would be required for large-scale developments, while placing as little burden as possible on homeowners and other smaller property owners, and setting fees and timetables to give developers certainty about the process.

A petition the Historic Charleston Foundation started two years ago on aimed at getting the city to enact an ordinance now has more than 13,200 supporters.

Urban archaeological digs can be a great draw, especially in a walking city like Charleston. A dig that unearthed part of a Revolutionary War trench behind the Aiken-Rhett House last summer drew so much interest, it was opened to the public once a week.

So what’s the holdup? Most likely, it’s the details and the added cost of doing business. The city would probably need to hire an archaeologist to manage digs and guide developers. And developers would have to cover the costs of the archaeology.

Those costs, however, are unlikely to be deal-breakers and could be offset by creative developers. A successful dig could even be a public relations coup for the developer, and perhaps some of the artifacts turned up could be permanently displayed in a lobby.

In 1931, Charleston was the first U.S. city to pass a preservation ordinance. But for years the city has put off enacting an archaeology ordinance.

While it’s hard to calculate how much history has been lost, it’s clear the longer we wait, the more we lose. And it’s not just historical artifacts that are lost, but also American Indian relics and fossils dating back millions of years. Get something on the books.

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