Chris O’Brien at Northstate Science gave a speedy reply to my questions of this morning.
It seems that any evaluation of whether the US has strong or weak site protection depends upon what standards are actually followed when a site is considered for the National Register of Historic Places. I wonder what sort of sites fall through the safety net in practice. (As for the NAGPRA protection of graves, that doesn’t seem to be of much use to archaeology as it largely keeps my American colleagues from studying burial sites — for reasons of political correctness and belated post-colonial guilt.)
“… are all sites in Sweden automatically registered with the Heritage Board once identified, or is there a similar ‘evaluation’ process to determine if a site is eligible for registration?”
The evaluation process takes place in the field when an archaeologist ponders the question “is this a site?”. If it’s a site, then it becomes registered and protected.
But the site concept is quite fluid in practice. Legally speaking, it’s simple: in Sweden, an archaeological site is a place with remains of people’s activities in the past that is permanently abandoned for these particular activities. This means that if I leave my crappy old car at the side of a forest road after a hike and take the bus home, without any intention of ever collecting the old clunker, then it is nominally an archaeological site. This is of course not how it works in practice.
Basically, anything before AD 1700 is seen as interesting and worth protecting in Sweden (take that, Monticello and Williamsburg!). But after that approximate date, cultural resource management practice becomes more and more patchy and inconsistent as we move toward the present.
More and more categories of site, and ever humbler categories of site, have become recognised by the State Board of National Antiquities through the decades. Currently we’re down to protecting clearance cairns, ancient fields, tar-burning pits, elk-trapping pits and settlement sites indicated by a single piece of knapped quartz. This means that people are forbidden to dig or dynamite the sites. But the decision whether a particular site must be professionally excavated in advance of land development — the developer pays — rests with the County Archaeologist. I’ve seen a 17th century farmstead bulldozed with the County Archaeologist’s permission while a 19th century one nearby was meticulously excavated because it had 17th century ancestry and sat on the remains of an Iron Age cemetery. So there’s a certain amount of leeway in the actual practice of a very simply phrased law. Anything Prehistoric or Medieval (pre-AD 1500) will, however, be excavated if threatened by land development. (Except churchyards where Medieval burials are routinely destroyed to make room for new ones.)
I’ve got to say, though, that most of the rescue-dug sites in Sweden bore me to tears. This is because of the Field-Archaeological Paradox.