Private Responsibilities and Public Interests in the Lorton Town Center Project

A paper to be presented at the Annual Meeting of the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association, Nov. 2000

John P. McCarthy, RPA, Greenhorne & O’Mara, Inc., 9001 Edmonston Road, Greenbelt, MD 20770



I am going to talk today about the Lorton Town Center Project, an unusual public/private partnership that sought to confront and overcome conflicting public and private interests.  CRM, like most aspects of contemporary society, seeks to provide maximum benefit at minimum cost.  The conservation planning and research interests of public authorities seeking to maximize site preservation and/or data recovery are very often at odds with the cost minimization imperative of development interests, be they in the private or public sectors.  Accordingly, archaeologists and other CRM professionals are often caught in the middle between these conflicting considerations. 

In a project nearing completion, the Fairfax County Park Authority and Greenhorne & O’Mara, Inc. (G&O, the firm where I work) are working with volunteers from the community to complete archaeological evaluation and data recovery investigations at three significant prehistoric sites located along Pohick Creek in Northern Virginia prior to construction of a private development project.  This program is designed to not only achieve local research and compliance archaeology objectives, but to also provide public outreach and involvement in local archaeology. The critical factor in this project has been the Park Authority’s commitment of staff and volunteer resources to leverage the effectiveness of the private developer’s financial commitment, resulting in a true cooperative venture. 

This afternoon I will describe the project and the circumstances under which it arose. I will then offer some observations regarding the lessons learned and the nature of such partnerships.  I believe that partnerships such as the Lorton project present a means of overcoming many of the inherent conflicts in the management of cultural resources. 

The Project

The project arose when the developer sought changes in the zoning to allow residential construction on a 200 some-acre parcel in southern Fairfax County.  The property is adjacent to a commuter rail station and also has direct access to one of the region’s major commuter highways, Interstate 95.  Local governments in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area routinely place a variety of requirements on developers seeking zoning changes and construction permits.  In this case, because Fairfax County’s Heritage Resource Management Plan established preservation of significant heritage resources as a matter of County policy, the County required that the developer evaluate the significance of 12 previously identified archaeological resources at the proposed site of the Lorton Town Center development.  The developer was also required to recover significant archaeological data prior to construction.

Initial investigations, undertaken by G&O for the developer, indicated that three of the 12 sites warranted data recovery excavation to preserve representative site data and artifacts.  Site 2076, a Late Archaic to Early Woodland occupation, is situated on a narrow terrace overlooking the adjacent creek and had never been plowed. Dense concentrations of fire-cracked rock having no charcoal suggest the possibility of sweatlodges at this location.  Site 2079, located on a flat terrace also overlooking the creek that also had never been plowed, is a very functionally and temporally diverse, with evidence of workshop and domestic occupations dating from Paleo-Indian through Woodland periods.  Finally, Site 2082 was a large lithic scatter, also located on a high terrace adjacent to the creek.  Although a large portion of this site had been subjected to plowing, portions of the site closest to the creek evidenced undisturbed buried deposits.  This site appeared to have been occupied repeatedly from the Early Archaic through Woodland periods. As a group, these sites represent a microcosm of Northern Virginia prehistory.  Recovery of representative data would contribute to a greater understanding of the prehistoric residents of the area in accordance with the goals of the County’s Heritage Resource Management Plan.

Oversight of compliance with the County’s requirements is vested in the archaeology program of the County Park Authority. G&O, on behalf of our client, entered into a partnership with the Authority to undertake further evaluation and data recovery excavation over two field seasons.  While we share the leadership of the project, the Park Authority’s archaeologist, Mike Johnson, established the goals and objectives of the data recovery investigations and has lead the field efforts.  The G&O team has supplied, at client expense, experienced field and laboratory supervisors and technical support for data analysis, while the Park Authority has supplied the services of its staff archaeologist, geographic information systems support for data recording and analysis, and, most importantly, the services of a cadre of archaeological volunteers, most of whom have many years of experience.  

The County’s program provides archaeological opportunities in both the field and laboratory for people of all ages, from students to retirees.  The volunteers receive hands-on training in the field and laboratory. They work closely with County staff, and during this project the volunteers also worked closely with experienced archaeological supervisors from G&O’s staff.  The skills involved include shovel and trowel excavation, dry and wet screening of soil, artifact recognition in the field, making and recording field observations, drawing plans and soil profiles, and artifact processing and identification in the laboratory.

Excavations have sought to balance the quality and quantity of data collected.  Fieldwork included close-interval shovel testing of the two unplowed sites and with the addition of intensive controlled surface collection of the plowed portion of the third site.  Extensive manual excavation followed at Sites 2076 and 2079, while at site 2082 select locations were mechanically stripped of plowzone soil and examined for truncated subsurface features. The jointly developed research design allowed for a flexible field strategy responsive to site data as it was recovered and artifacts processed and analyzed concurrently with field investigations.  For example, the project team returned to Site 2076 to conduct additional field investigations last  Summer when analysis of data recovered the previous Spring revealed a concentration of early cultural material in a corner of the site that warranted further investigation.  This work continues this Spring.  Artifact processing, data analysis, and report preparation activities have been conducted at the Park Authority laboratory facility, and will be continuing for some time.  

In addition to hands-on volunteer participation in the field and the laboratory, the project has included several other outreach activities.  While not a formally organized part of the project, a number of elementary, middle school, high school, and college groups of students have visited the sites to see archaeologists at work and to learn about Native American cultures of the region.  These activities seemed to grow naturally out of the County’s volunteer program and its close ties to local educators.  Many of the students also had an opportunity to participate in the fieldwork.  One of these visits was featured as part of the introduction to the PBS video series “Ancient Civilizations for Children.”  Educators taking part in Fairfax County and Virginia Historical Society Teacher’s Field Sschools participated in fieldwork at the sites. 

The Good

The volunteers had the opportunity to gain, or refine, field and/or laboratory skills, they and site visitors alike had the opportunity to personally engage with the professional archaeologists staffing the project, learning about careers in the field.  Additionally, since the program involves volunteers of all ages, there has been opportunity for unusual intergenerational communication and sharing that has helped create a real sense of community among those involved in the project.   

Hands-on participation in the archaeology demystified its processes, and hot, humid summer field conditions removed much of the romantic allure of the discipline.  Yet, volunteers and visitors both had the opportunity to engage with the archaeological record of the sites, and by extension, with the prehistoric residents of the region.  They had the opportunity to see and touch materials last held by human hands thousands of years ago, and through this process feel a closer connection to the past. 

Educator’s participation in field schools as part of the project further increased connections between teacher and the County program.  In addition, the developer has committed to an interpretive display for its sales center and options for ongoing public interpretation are being discussed.

Most important for CRM, however, is the model that this project represents for achieving a balance between conflicting cost and research/preservation interests that most CRM professionals face on a daily basis.  The G&O team has worked over 3,500 hours on the project, including both the initial evaluation effort and subsequent project with the Park Authority.  County staff and volunteers have contributed over 5,000 hours to the project. Clearly, the Park Authority’s commitment of staff and volunteer labor has indeed leveraged the financial commitment of Lorton Town Center’s private developer. 

The Bad

The project was possible in part because the developer addressed the cultural resources issues of the project well in advance of construction.  Volunteer labor is not well-suited to aggressive schedule requirements.  In this case, there was time to be flexible and responsive to site data as it was developed and to work with a volunteer pool of labor whose size differed each day, although a core group could be relied on to work on a regular, predictable schedule.  In addition, volunteer labor is not free labor.  Volunteers require, and deserve, instruction and careful supervision beyond that needed by a professional excavation team.  Further, some volunteers were bored and even felt exploited when working on less “interesting” tasks such as shovel testing and shovel scrapping following backhoe removal of overburden.

No formal training program was included as part of the project.  Most volunteers were veterans of the County’s program.  New community volunteers were given hands-on instruction in the field, a somewhat hap-hazard process that depended on the work that needed to be performed that day.  Some of those who worked at the site did so as part of a field school, and they benefited from formal instruction before coming out to the site. 

The project was not advertised or promoted to the public.  Volunteers learned of it through word of mouth and participation in local archaeological organizations, such as the Northern Virginia Chapter of the Archaeological Society of Virginia.   As mentioned, the site interpretation and public education aspects of the project were not formally organized.  They arose as educators learned on the project informally.     

Students from local schools received no pre-visit or post-visit follow-up instruction as part of the project, although most of the educators were veterans of previous County programs and may have provided suitable preparation and follow-up.  No materials were provided by the project to support these activities.   

It would have been possible to reach a much wider audience had the interpretive and educational aspects of the project been thought-out in advance, promoted, and more completely integrated into project.  The quality of visitor experiences almost certainly could have been enhanced with prepatory and follow-up materials and effort.  There is a lot that we could have done better with these aspects of the project

The Potentially Ugly

The Lorton Town Center project’s principal goal was the recovery of significant archaeological data, and all parties involved in the count it a success in this regard.  Our public/private partnership recovered these data at a considerably reduced cost to the private developer.  

The partnership itself, however, begs the question of the appropriateness of public investment and commitment to what is essentially a private undertaking.  It is clear that the County’s ability to put some “money (i.e., staff and volunteer time) where its mouth is” with respect to development-driven cultural resources issues, results in unusual credibility with developers, and consequently, increased cooperation as projects advance.   This has allowed for more of a “research” orientation than often possible in more conventional CRM approaches: 1) the excavation was responsive to data as it was recovered and it was possible to return to a site to conduct additional work following preliminary data analysis, 2) excavation sample sizes are larger, and 3) the data were collected with greater precision than is generally the practice.   These benefits, alone, not to mention the potential for public education and outreach, would seem to be in the public interest, warranting this kind of involvement in private development projects.  

It is a fact that all private development benefits from public involvement: public investments in infrastructure and tax policies that favor development are the most obvious.  We can discuss the appropriateness of these policies some other time.  Public participation in cultural and heritage resources aspects of private development seem to be at least as appropriate as the various other forms of direct and indirect public support.  While there are many challenges to making partnerships like this fully effective, is seems to be worth the effort.