EVANSVILLE, IND. — This summer, archaeologist Rebecca Hawkins and her crew unearthed a 10,000-year-old stone axe-head in the Ohio River Valley - possibly the oldest tool of its kind found in North America.
But if not for an act of Congress and a developer with an itch to build an industrial railroad spur, this rare artifact might have gone undiscovered.
Welcome to the new world of the urban Indiana Jones, where the divining rod is a federal construction permit and the results are more often a result of serendipity than scholarly research.
Ms. Hawkins, president of Algonquin Archaeological Consultants Inc., is one of a new and growing cadre of "contract" archaeologists who are hired to sift the sands of everything from a sewer dig to a skyscraper site before ground is broken.
Museum or university-sponsored digs through Mayan ruins or Egyptian tombs are increasingly rare. Yet, thanks to a federal law requiring a survey before any development, the field of archaeology has vastly expanded.
"Well in excess of 80 percent of the archaeology in the United States is now for compliance" with regulations, says Hawkins.
The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 are the major forces behind this trend.
The 1966 act requires federal agencies, or anyone needing federal permits or funding for a development project, to consider the effects development would have on historical properties and to take steps to mitigate those effects. The 1969 act "requires agencies to look before they leap," says Bill Lipe, president of the Society for American Archaeology.
In Indiana alone, more than 1,000 new sites requiring investigation were reported to the Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology in the past nine months. Hawkins estimates there are hundreds of archaeology firms like hers in the US now.
While most sites reveal little or nothing of archaeological significance, occasionally a discovery is made that even an Egyptian scholar would appreciate.
The Perry County Economic Development Corp. hired Hawkins's firm to survey its 46-acre Industrial Park Riverview. Greg Wathen, the corporation's executive director, had been through archaeological surveys before and thought this would be another routine examination.
Hawkins, knowing that a river valley "is a dandy place to live," thought something might turn up. But the nine-month-long investigation produced some amazing finds that no one expected.
Among the artifacts uncovered was a stone ax head grooved so it could easily be tied to a handle. Hawkins suspects the ax head could be 10,000 years old - far earlier than native Americans were previously believed to be making such advanced tools. If carbon-dating tests now being done confirm Hawkins's theory, the Perry County ax head will be the oldest grooved ax head ever found in North America.
Another finding may prove to be even more broadly significant. Archaeologists have long thought Native Americans inhabiting the Ohio River valley circa 8,000 BC were nomads. Yet material found at the site provides abundant evidence that permanent communities existed there. Again, testing will confirm dates.
The finds meant the rail spur had to be redesigned and relocated within the industrial park, but caused no delay to the $85 million Waupaca Foundry.
Mr. Wathen and the small economic development corporation did face an unexpected $200,000 bill for the archaeological work, including the two-month excavation that covered only 14/100ths of an acre. Fortunately, it was paid through a local bond issue.
Despite the cost and delays, "it was worth it," says Wathen, since the site could turn out to be "one of the rarest finds in North America."
Despite the possibly spectacular nature of some of the discoveries, the Perry County project uncovered what most contract digs bring to light, if they reveal anything at all: simple evidence of everyday life.
"People have lived in the United States for 15,000 years, and there are no written records of most of that time," says Hawkins. Knowing how people lived can be "significant today in terms of feeding people or not destroying the environment."
Contract archaeology helps, she says, since "people are now looking in places they wouldn't choose to look otherwise."