DEADWOOD, S.D. - Anyone turning over little more than a shovelful of dirt in the historic town of Deadwood can expect to have an archaeologist peering over their shoulders in case any artifacts from the city’s past are unearthed.
OK, that’s an exaggeration. But while residents are safe from having their flower and vegetable garden plots scrutinized, any private or public construction project requiring excavation is required to have a state archaeologist monitor it in most of the town, which was named a national historic landmark in 1961.
City zoning laws have an entire chapter on historic preservation, Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker said Thursday.
“Any construction within the historic district requires archaeological investigation. That can be anything from a surface review, test pits to a full-out investigation and mitigation,” he said.
State archaeologists are on site during construction of Deadwood’s new Outlaw Square, which broke ground Monday, Jan. 7, in an area of downtown steeped in city lore.
The square will be built on the current site of the Franklin Motor Inn, a contemporary (by Deadwood standards) motel dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Before that, Kuchenbecker said, the lot was home to Deadwood’s city hall, an opera house/theater, both of which were consumed by Deadwood’s historical nemesis — fire — in 1952.
The site was also home to a log structure that included a Chinese dwelling and laundry, also leveled by an 1879 conflagration, predating the city hall structure, which was built in 1889.
Kuchenbecker said the city has extensive archives of photographs, fire insurance maps, mineral surveys and newspaper clippings to give an idea of what contractors and archaeologists might encounter during a construction project.
He said archaeologists don’t anticipate any major finds during excavation for the Outlaw Square project, which begins with the razing of the Motor Inn.
But you never know, Kuchenbecker said.
“There are always surprises and unknowns and part of the importance of archaeology is documenting information on Deadwood’s past that we may not know and confirmation of what we do know,” he said.
The construction may reveal interior and exterior foundations of the opera house and city hall, along with charred earth from the log dwelling and laundry.
Any finds of artifacts, say, plate glass shards or square nails used in the early buildings, likely won’t delay construction.
Other projects have unearthed major finds. A four-year study of Deadwood’s Chinatown district from 2001-2004 found 250,000 to 300,000 artifacts that are still under examination in the Historic Preservation archives in city hall.
The discovery of human remains on occasion in the original location of Mount Moriah cemetery in the city’s Presidential District meant only a delay of a few days once a coroner determined circumstances of the death, gender, race and age of any remains, Kuchenbecker said.
Most projects in Deadwood build in a certain amount of time for archaeological investigations that may crop up in the course of construction.
Any artifacts found during the square construction will become property of the city. In the case of a private project, any artifacts found become the property of the landowners.
“Most times the owners recognize the importance of the artifacts to Deadwood’s history and donate those,” Kuchenbecker said.