Who to Contact

Ideally, if you live in an old house you should call the state historic-preservation office before you begin work on an addition. But if the backhoe crashes into pottery fragments while breaking ground, it's not too late. In most states, unless you come across human remains, you're not obligated to call in the experts. However, proper identification of artifacts—even a dig of the site—could reveal a lot about the earlier occupants.

First, stop work and don't touch anything, says Nick Bellantoni, PhD, Connecticut's state archeologist. Sites are often dangerous: Bottle dumps might contain rusted metal, broken glass, even chemicals. Outhouse sites can have methane pockets, and wells do cave in. Plus, poking around yourself will destroy historical context. In some states, it's illegal to continue without contacting the state first.

Call your state historic preservation office. They know your state's laws and can help you locate an archeologist. As with any construction project, check references thoroughly.

An archeologist may sample the site, or do a controlled dig—an excavation that keeps the relation of all objects found in context. A project manned by a society or university will most likely cost you nothing. You'll get a written report, and in most cases you can keep whatever artifacts they find. Sometimes, if the government or a nonprofit institution is interested, you can donate the find and get a tax deduction.

If the state historic-preservation office can't find an organization to work with your schedule, ask them for names of archeology consultants—essentially for-profit archeologists. But these will cost you: sampling a privy can cost $5,000, and an excavation can cost twice that. It all depends on what they find. Again, check references. Whoever digs in, make sure they're insured.
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