Virginia State Seal Virginia Department of Historic Resources

Archaeological Site Stewardship

What Are Archaeological Sites?

Archaeological sites are the physical remains of past human activity.

Wherever people have lived and worked, the land and water may contain evidence of their lives. The prehistoric ancestors of Virginia’s Indians lived here 16,000 years before the arrival of the first European colonists. They left behind the remains of camps, villages, quarries, and hunting and fishing sites, all scattered across Virginia beneath the visible landscape.

The traces of structures built since European colonization in present-day Virginia — such as the foundations of 18th-century gristmills, the cellar holes and stone walls of deserted farmsteads, and abandoned cemeteries — all contain valuable information about the lives of the people who lived before we did.

These traces of the past are often invisible at the ground surface. Evidence of earlier occupation by people may lie under parking lots, buildings, or plowed fields and are only discovered through archaeological survey.

Virginia’s scattered archaeological sites represent tangible links to our past. Because most sites in Virginia are privately owned they will be preserved through the generosity of private landowners, or not at all.

All archaeological sites are fragile and irreplaceable; they cannot be rebuilt or remade. In Virginia, archaeological sites are disappearing at an alarming rate, and unless landowners take positive steps to preserve and manage these properties, valuable pieces of history will be lost forever.

It is important that we all actively participate in the preservation and management of Virginia’s archaeological heritage.

Through the Department of Historic Resources (DHR), landowners are encouraged to preserve, protect, and interpret significant archaeological resources on their property. Archaeologists can provide information about the probable location of archaeological sites and can advise and assist landowners in evaluating and developing alternatives to preserve archaeological sites.


Survey and Registration

Archaeological sites discovered through survey that meet certain criteria for significance and integrity can be listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register, the nation’s and state’s lists of significant sites. The process of registering a historic or prehistoric site informs individuals and localities of important resources that they may wish to consider in private and community land use decisions.


Site Stewardship Plan

A stewardship plan provides specific guidance and recommendations to a landowner with archaeological sites on his or her property. The plan assists the landowner in preserving, protecting, and interpreting archaeological sites in his or her care. The success of the plan depends solely on the participation and commitment of landowners.


Archaeological Site and Zone Designation

A landowner may wish to have the Department of Historic Resources designate a site as a state archaeological site or zone. Under the Virginia Antiquities Act, such designation requires prior written consent of the landowner and provides an archaeological site on private property with the same level of protection afforded sites on state land.


Preservation Easement

A landowner who desires to protect a site permanently can donate a preservation easement on it to the department. An easement is a perpetual legal agreement recorded with the deed for the property; it prohibits or restricts development rights that would otherwise harm the site. The landowner continues to own the land, but the holder of the easement has the legal right and responsibility to enforce the easement and protect the site. The donation of a preservation easement is considered a charitable gift, and may result in income tax, estate tax, or property tax savings for the landowner and his or her heirs.


Who Can be a Steward?

The basis for stewardship is a landowner’s willingness and concern for the protection of Virginia’s archaeological heritage. The decisions made by private property owners and local governments will have the greatest effect on Virginia’s archaeological sites in the coming years. Through stewardship, future generations will be able to study the everyday lives of our forbears through the traces and artifacts
they left behind. Good stewardship, therefore, is everyone’s responsibility.


Archaeological Sites: Some DOs and DON’Ts

  • Do keep records of artifacts found lying on the surface of your property.
  • Do report sites discovered on your property to the Department of Historic Resources. Your report will not trigger any land use decisions but will aid in scientific research and preservation planning.
  • Do maintain your site in its natural condition and protect it from inadvertent destruction.
  • Do learn more about your site and other nearby sites. Encourage scholarly research to interpret the prehistoric and historic assets of your property.
  • Don’t allow unqualified persons to “collect” or “dig” at your site. Report any unauthorized activities—”looting”—to the State Archaeologist and local police
  • Don’t conduct any earth moving or construction in the immediate vicinity of your site.

Updated August 16, 2018