Inside Engineering: Untold stories and fascinating people from the world of civil engineering. This is Episode 9, recorded in September 2019. Archaeology, architecture, and Cultural Resources with Karen Hutchins-Keim and Matt Bray. Inside Engineering is brought to you by RK&K. Learn more at rkk.com. Welcome back to another episode of Inside Engineering. We have an exciting show planned for you today and we've got right to my left — we've got Karen Hutchins-Keim.
She's a Archeological Lab Manager here in our Baltimore office. And so thanks for joining us on the show Karen. Thanks for having me. And and to her left we've got Matt Bray. Matt has trekked on up here from Richmond, our Richmond office, and he's a Project Architectural Historian. And so thank you both for joining us today. Thanks for having us. It's awesome. we're glad that you could be here. You both are in our Cultural Resources group, which isn't a super descriptive name. So what can you each go through what you do, I mean Karen you do a lot more — Archeological Lab Manager is not also a super descriptive title.
Can you go through first what you do and then and then Matt take a stab at it? Sure. Well the Cultural Resources group in our Planning section here at RK&K and as I am trained as an archaeologist and so you know I am our archeological lab manager but I also run archaeological projects and you might be asking, 'We do archaeology at RK&K?'. I was going to ask that so thank you! So we do archaeology at our kink. Our primary clients are transportation clients the state county and I guess not really local transportation departments I don't think they really exist but we do have some local clients.
But transportation clients and basically federal law and some state laws require that in advance of transportation projects the Departments of Transportation demonstrate the effects on archeological resources. And Matt can talk a little bit more about the architectural resources. And so basically before a lot of construction projects — those big highway projects — they have gone out and done archaeology to determine whether or not there are very significant Native American remains in the project right of way or historic colonial sites or cemeteries and things like that.
So I both I'm I'm both usually the technical leader of those projects and I'm also our archaeological lab manager. And so once the materials come back in from the field I run the processing — washing, identification, sorting, and storing of those artifacts — and we do have a lab in our Baltimore office and that's where we do that stuff. Nice. That's a little brief little summary. Absolutely. I've got a couple questions to come back to. I want to get Matt in here to talk about what he does and how maybe what the cross section is with what Karen does or your specific focus.
Yeah. So like Karen was saying I'm also an Architectural Historian, also in the Planning group, primarily transportation projects. We work on pretty similar projects. And my focus is architectural history. So where Karen's working on archaeology, I'm primarily working on historic buildings. It could be historic buildings, it could be historic bridges, historic roads. We really encompass anything that that could be considered historic and by historic generally cut off the rule at 50 years. You know so sometimes something that you think
Ok. maybe wouldn't be historic is actually historic for federal guidelines. We work on transportation projects. Yeah I think that's a good summary. Alright. So there is let's say this project that a client wants and you need to go out and evaluate what's historic. Do you take a look at where the project is happening and then go survey what's in that space or do you have a database that you can pull up of the age of things in that area. How do you go about identifying what is historic and what isn't? A little bit of both.
Generally you know if you have a transportation corridor — a project — there are state databases of what's been previously recorded. They're usually kept with the state historic preservation officer and those are available GIS products. So that kind of gives you an idea of what's out there that's been previously previously identified. We also you know we'll do background research, historic maps. You know anything to try to figure out, we use property appraiser data things like that to try to get an idea of what might be historic kind of before we go out in the field.
And then at the end of the day a lot of it is just driving around seeing what might be historic, looking for historic houses. You know more and more I would say we rely on like GIS data and parcel data, that sort of stuff before we got in the field. But you know it's hard to beat driving around and taking photos of buildings. Alright. So Karen, Matt's stuff a lot of it is aboveground. You mentioned archaeology which tends to be below ground.
How do you identify where you need to check? Are you just doing a random sample? How do you know that you've taken into account all the possible archeological sites that might be there? Sure. Well we would also start with my GIS analysis. Archeological sites previously identified archaeological sites are held in a database with each of the state historic preservation offices. So we'll look at that and we'll look at where the locations of where previous surveys have been conducted. So we know we're not to look if someone's already looked there and hasn't found anything, we don't need to go back.
And then we basically look at topographic maps and soil maps to determine areas within a project corridor that would be have a high likelihood of having archaeological remains. Prehistoric remains tend to be near water; they tend to be on relatively level ground, so they're not going to be on a 25 or 50 percent slope on the side of a cliff — outside of possibly like rock shelters. And then you know so we identify those areas that would be sensitive.
Historic areas would we look at historic maps and for old roads and or buildings that have been depicted on the maps and then we go out and we dig lots of holes. We dig a lot of holes. Looking for something. Yes. So we can. What we often provide clients is what we call an Archaeological Assessment which is like, 'Here are the areas that we believe to be of high sensitivity and in the future you probably want to do archaeological survey there.' But it is often a cost saving measure that we use with clients to sort of let them know like how much they're going to be in for, how much testing they're going to need to do and then they make arrangements using that information.
So sometimes we don't have to dig. But often we have to dig. So what comes next in the process? This sort of to both of you. You've gone out to a site you've identified some areas that might have archaeological remains. You might have some historic buildings. What does the client do with that information? I mean what if those things are directly where they want to to put a road or make improvements to something how do you know what they how they handle that next? You want to go first Matt.
Yeah yeah I would say you know that's kind of where the second part of our jobs comes into play, especially here at our RK&K, is that you know we do work closely with engineers in Planning. So you know my my first instinct would be well we can hopefully design around it. You know so we do work with the engineers to hopefully design around some of that stuff. But what we want to what we would want to do is evaluate an archaeological site or a historic building for there for listing in the National Register. And that's where you get into some of the federal regulations of what's a significant historic building versus just a just another historic.
Just an old building. Just an old building. Exactly. So that's that's kind of where I would say our expertise comes into play is identifying what is significant and then how will the project itself will affect that or if the project itself will affect those types of resources. And then we get into well you know how can we work around, is there no way to work around it, what can what can be done from there? Is this one of the reasons and not to get a whole bunch of drivers angry at you. But is this one of the reasons why we get road sometime that seem to be going straight and then they just seem to meander around only to come back to going straight again because there's been some kind of finding that needs to be designed around.
I pose it's definitely possible that it's an archeological site or historic building that is the cause of that problem. I think there are also a lot of other causes. There are. Wetlands. I wasn't trying to lay it all at your feet! Like I said it's not just us. There's other other things at play here as well. It could be that and other things: environmental wetlands, things like that that need to be protected. But particularly with archaeological sites and Matt can tell you how much this is done with architectural sites but with archeological sites there's also the option of what we call a Phase 3 Excavation, which is basically the mitigation of the archaeological site but it's not so much mitigating the site as sort of total recovery of all information so that you can get maximum benefit for having then to destroy and go through the archaeological site.
Ok, so you basically get everything out of there that's historical Yeah, it's pretty big. You know it's it's the kind of archaeological investigation that people think about when they think about archaeology like you know you know hundreds of square feet you know are thousands of square feet all open up you know an. Flags everywhere. Like dozens of archaeologists with towels and like you know that's that's the kind of archaeological excavation that people think about often. How often does that happen? Not as often as you would think. Archeological sites actually tend to be pretty small and often you can mitigate them — you can not mitigate them, you can design around them — and a lot of archaeological sites we find do not meet the standards for eligibility or listing on the National Register of Historic
OK. So like just because you've got an Places. archaeological site doesn't mean you have to design around it. Exactly. I mean you know one a couple lithic flakes, stone flakes from stone tools or some historic ceramics, you know is not necessarily you know significant in the definition — the federal definition — of the word. And so a lot of archaeological sites we record goes into the database, we catalogue all the artifacts, we write the report, we generate the information we can, but then the project is allowed to continue as originally scheduled.
Okay. Or as designed. All right. So if you're out on a site Karen and Matt I'm I ask you kind of the same question about about buildings but what — two part question — one: what's the craziest thing you've ever found? And to what is something that you always hope you'll find or that you get especially excited about about it? Well that is a question archaeologists always get asked. Oh shoot, I fell into the stereotype. Well it's one of these questions I actually have a really hard time answering because I think people want me to say like a pot of gold or you know the most exciting thing I don't know if it's exciting is the right word.
But before I came to RK&K many jobs ago I worked for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in Monticello very early in my career and we had found many years before I started working there they had found half of a porcelain plate in a trash pit that was associated with the Jefferson family and probably given the time period probably with Thomas Jefferson. And then we found a similar plate about a half a mile away associated with enslaved men and women who had worked on his plantation and initially just thought it was the same pattern.
And then we started looking at it and we started looking at it and all of the sudden we realized they mended together and they were the same place. Oh wow. And you know it's a plate it's trash but our theory is that someone found the plate, the broken plate, in the trash and took half of it back with them to their house half a mile away. Because how else is it going to get there? And for me it was just this very interesting Right. moment of like a human being doing a human thing, which is taking something that they found pretty or interesting back with them. And for me that's like what archaeology is all about. It's like you're touching people's stuff.
And some of it's their trash, but some of some of it's the stuff that was valuable to them and we just assumed it was a piece of a plate like it was just trash. But turns out you know I think it's movement across the plantation indicates it may have been more significant. So that's the story I like to use about my favorite artifact. Yeah. Half of a plate. Half of a plate. Half of a plate. Nice. Matt how about you go out.
I'm going to sound very inconsiderate here when I say I don't know if there's anything crazy about old buildings that you would find because there are much more visible, but what is kind of the most exciting thing that you've ever found? And or what do you geek out about finding? Yeah kind of along the same lines you know we so often we we have projects where there's there's a lot of significant buildings and you know it might be something like a train station or something like that that's very obviously significant.
Those are neat you know or you know a you know a 19th century row of Victorian houses or something like that. That's always neat for an architectural historian to see but I usually enjoy some of the smaller houses or something — the unexpected. You know when you're researching a house and you come across a reference to someone locally important or something along those lines. Sort of the unexpected. You know it's it's easy to pick out the architecturally significant houses or buildings or anything like that but I find the resources that have interesting backstories are usually more interesting to me.
Yeah. That's good. I like you know not knowing what you're going to get when you go out to do it I imagine is a pretty exciting part. Yeah I think it's always you know something surprising. Yeah yeah. Well you mentioned earlier that a lot of this stuff is done or so that clients can be in compliance with federal law. So that's obviously a big value that we're bringing to the client it is by helping them accomplish that. How do you measure the success though of what you're doing both from a project standpoint and you know from the people doing that work? You know there's just a lot of lot of staff that has to do these things how do you sort of mentor and see what's going on with those people.
Well I mean I think I've sort of measure my personal success in like two ways. One is you know I've I think that the preservation of archaeological resources is very important and it's one of the reasons I got into archaeology. And so when we can preserve or protect an archaeological resource either through — I mean usually that would be through you know identifying it and then providing the client with that information and then they can redesign to avoid it.
That particularly we've you know we've worked on a number of projects that have cemeteries on them, and so you know we can avoid those. I think that's really successful. And the other thing is I think when we can solve a problem for a client. We had a client recently who you know late in the stages of a project identified that there was a small family cemetery very near the LOD of their projects and we were able to mobilize very quickly to survey and delineate the cemetery and give them the information they need to start working with their engineers and figure out what is physically possible to hopefully avoid the cemetery because they have their own reasons for wanting to avoid it as opposed to having to move people, which is an option that is often employed.
And so we were able to do that really quickly and I think it's it's really nice when you know that you know when they have a problem and they come to you and you can solve it quickly for them or at least help them give them the information to solve their own problems. You're seeing a sort of a direct result of that benefit, what you're doing. Any thoughts on people and how we're bringing them along? I think you know I think a lot of our viewers are early on in their career.
Ya'll have any... Matt, you have anything you wish you'd known earlier on in your career or a great bit of wisdom you were perhaps given? A little bit of both. Something I wish I'd known and that I could pass along would be that I have continued to work in this field. You know so many people coming into it, archaeologists and historic preservation architectural historians, so many people burn out pretty quickly. You know it can be a tough line of work but I would say to stick with it you know.
You know there's kind of always always something new — a new way to reinvent your career. Whether you know for us we work in transportation; we're historians in transportation but there's other fields. You know there's there's a lot of ways to continue working in cultural resources I would say. Don't give up. You mentioned some of the challenges right there and and maybe even potentially burning out Are there signs of that? I mean besides you're exhausted and you feel like it's all ending.
But what sort of for you was a sign that that was happening and and how would you tell somebody to sort of stick with it? Well you know for a lot of people coming out you know that you have to go through a lot of education to get to where we're at or what we do. And it may not feel like you're valued as highly as you should be but you stick with it and a it will come. Things get better.
Yeah so that's not too disheartening. I don't know I thought it's very realistic. I mean I think a lot of the advice that we've had from from our guests has been. Look at the big picture kind of thing. Like don't get too focused on where you are right now because there's a long way to go. You know and so I think that's really good. I think it's appropriate. Yeah. Well one of the things that I would add in archaeology we often we use a lot of what we call archeological field technicians and they tend to be people with bachelors degrees new in the field but they don't have advanced degrees, and so we primarily use them to dig holes and so they do a lot of hard labor.
But I get an opportunity to meet a lot of them. And the advice I always give is specialize. I did not take this at my own advice but I wish I had specialized. I mean you can become a specialist in GIS. You can become a specialist in soils. You can become a specialist in human or animal bones and do those things because you are an archaeologist but then you have this additional set of skills.
And often we have to go and hire specialists and we need specialist analysis and we have a you know a set few people we like to use but often they're busy and can't get to our project for a month or two. And so I think there's probably business out there but also it just gives you not only are you an archaeologist can do all the archaeology things that you can do this specialized skill and then just knowing GIS should be a must for just about everyone I think in archaeology and probably even an architectural history at this point.
Stay up to speed with the technology. Yeah and you know a lot of people go into archaeology and they want to be professors and they want to go to Peru or you know Iraq or China and dig up you know very ancient remains, which I completely understand. Most of the jobs in archaeology in this country are in CRM and so I would also get experience shovel bumming, digging those test pits everywhere because you never know who will hire you to do more the next time. So yeah.
I think we just learned a a cool inside term. Oh shovel bumming. There's a whole basically... You know you can basically go from project to project around the country. So if you enjoy a nomadic lifestyle, and some people do, and you like to be outdoors and you know you like working hard. It's a great way to make a meager living. I think would be a fair assessment early on but. You just travel around it and and help out. Some people do it professionally some people really like it. You know you have a wandering heart or spirit. I don't, I'm a homebody and so it does not work for me but I think some people really enjoy it.
I know in a former life I shovel bummed for about seven or eight years when I finished my bachelors degree as an archaeologist before I went back to grad school and became an architectural historian so I can speak to it a little bit. It's a rough life. I wish I'd known! I'd have started the episode with that. Oh man. You know what it comes down to is that a lot of what we do is it's hard work. You know even fieldwork for architects historians I mean we're out there in the sun and the heat taking photos it's long days. We literally cleared brush for two days. We did. We did.
At a cemetery recently. At a cemetery recently. Chainsaw skills are important. Yes we did. This is the most educated brush clearing crew you've ever seen. The most overqualified brush clearers. Yeah we had planners from the Newport News office. Wow. And another archaeologist my Fairfax office. Yeah But yeah any of this — not so the chainsaw is a soft skill — but any of the soft skills that can make you more marketable are always good. Like Karen was saying you know GIS some of those things. I mean a lot of what we do if you can't if you can't operate Microsoft Word then you could be the best archaeologist out there, but if you know we're not going you're not going to be successful if you can't open up a Word document and operate a printer.
You know some of those things that you don't think about when you're kind of getting into the field when you're younger you It's getting a lot more technological. know. Yeah yeah yeah. If you have to deal with all you pretty much knew GIS for archaeology and more and more as an architectural historian we rely on GIS. So yeah. Alright. So you all are the experts in your field. What — compared to me for sure. That's probably safe. Yeah say what. What else is there anything else we should talk about. We've got a couple more minutes.
What. Is there anything pressing anything that I've missed that that our listeners would be keen to hear before we get to our picks of the week. I always liked remind people that archaeologists do not dig up dinosaurs. But I think we've covered that already. Yeah we did. I always like to. I would should have led with that. Honestly in case someone was confused. Well we can make that the show title. "We don't dig up dinosaurs." It's good. That's good. Matt, you got anything while these lights are blinking. I gotta fix these lights.
I'm going to do something about it eventually. They blink about 25 minutes in every time. I don't know. They're just kicking us out. That's a warning. Maybe that's the signal there. That's good. Time's up. It's built in. Anything anything you want to.. Last words Matt? Nope. I would say you know that what we do in Cultural Resources I believe is an important part of sort of the larger scheme of things. You know we work closely with natural resources. We work closely with the planners. We work closely with engineers and I think working together as a team is is beneficial to everyone you know.
If you can involve us early in the process we can usually help out and make make everything go smoother. Yeah I actually did think of one other thing. Can I add it? Absolutely. Sort of in in line with that. Often I think engineers you know either don't know where we work here or do this work or you know really don't think of it as very important in the scheme of like building a massive highway project. And one thing I would say is like often the public really does.
And so they have a historic district that's very important to them. Or they know that there's an archeological site here. And particularly if you have communities that have been in a in a place for a very long time. And so it is often a great place to look for clients to extend a lot of goodwill to the public but also a place where sometimes things can go very wrong if the resources aren't taken seriously early on. So I think you know get us in early because you know we can often identify potential problem spots that might not even be a problem from federal law but from perception — public perception.
And it's good to get out in front of that sometime right? Well and that's a real benefit to the client right there isn't is that goodwill with the public. Exactly yeah yeah. Very much so. Alright. So it's time now for our picks of the week Karen and Matt both have something for us that they're gonna recommend. I don't know what they are which makes me more excited for them. So Karen you want to take yours? Sure. I'm in the process of finishing up a short podcast. It's called 'Bear Brook' by New Hampshire Public Radio and it is the story of a series of human remains that were found in barrels in a state park north of Manchester New Hampshire and about sort of the search for figure out who the victims were and who killed them.
And they use a lot of the major technique they start using to try to identify people and figure out what happened is genetic genealogy. So you know when you put your you know DNA on Ancestry.com or 23 and Me and then they can sort of connect it through and see who's related to who and sort of try to find the crimes. And this is actually the case that sort of began the use of that. And so subsequently I think in the news you've probably heard about them identifying the serial killers and things like that.
Found one guy through his cousin or something. Exactly. And so I have not put my data my DNA on the Internet because that makes me uncomfortable but all it requires is like one cousin to have done at one time. And so but anyway it's very interesting 'Bear Brook'. And there's like seven or eight episodes there's 30 minutes long. So it's not like a huge like lift to get through it but. And it's it's available now? Yep. Alright. I'm going subscribe to it right after the show. It's very good. Bear Brook, we'll put a link to it in the show notes. Yeah yeah.
It's very cool. Awesome. Alright Matt. I'm going to go with the Richmond Folk Festival folk music from all over the world coming up in two weeks. Fall festival season huh fall beers. OK. Yeah. My pick. Everything fall. All related. OK fall. It's good. It is officially Fall. So yes. It does not feel like it. Alright Richmond Fall Festival. Bear Brook podcat. Well thank you both for coming up.
I appreciate you taking the time to come in and talk with us about what you do. I love talking about you. These quote unquote niche services but you guys do some cool stuff. And thank you for sharing. Thank you Thank you for for having us. You can check out Inside Engineering every Tuesday where we will be talking with lots of different experts in their field. Thanks for joining us. You can also check out our website at rkk.com/podcast where you can stream every episode on demand, as well as leave some feedback for us. We've got a short anonymous survey that we'd love for you to tell us how we're doing and so we can make the show even better for you. We're available in all your favorite podcasting channels. We're trying to be in as many places as possible.
So thank you for joining us. Thank you Karen. Thank you Matt. And we'll see you all next week on another episode of Inside Engineering.
Karen measures success by how she and her teams are able to protect cultural resources through their work.
Karen says it’s important to specialize and there’s high-demand for specialists. Both she and Matt agree that knowing GIS is a must.
Matt says that not giving up and continuing to pursue your goals, even when feeling disheartened, is key. He also emphasized the importance of soft skills. “You could be the best archaeologist out there, but you’re not going to be successful if you can’t open up a Word document and operate a printer.”
Pick of the Week
Karen’s pick is the Bear Brook podcast, which covers the topics of archaeology, DNA, and genealogy to uncover a murderer.
Matt’s pick is the Richmond Folk Festival. Tim would like to apologize for forgetting to tell Matt that this episode wouldn’t air until after the festival. That being said, Matt stands by his pick and the 2020 Richmond Folk Festival is the place to be.