Contractors are taking extra precaution when they dig up streets in Gettysburg this summer, as part of several multi-million dollar roadway upgrades.
After all, this is historic Gettysburg, and you never know what crews may unearth.
“Everybody is just a little bit more careful when they do road work or projects around here, because it’s Gettysburg,” says Borough Manager Florence Ford, previously of nearby Cumberland Township.
“Any time we put shovel to the dirt, we take our time,” says Ford.
Procedures are in place so that when contractors excavate an unexpected Civil War relic — or even bones — work stops immediately, pending further inspection.
In fact, the state’s Department of Transportation has conducted archaeology studies the last few years in Gettysburg, associated with its various bridge replacements, as well as the US 30 and Route 15 interchange.
“We are aware of the high potential to find artifacts in the Gettysburg area and keep the footprint of our projects as small as possible,” says PennDOT spokesman Michael Crochunis, noting that crews follow standard protocol.
“We have found artifacts at different locations, but none of the archaeology sites were determined to be significant,” says Crochunis, adding that those excavation records are stored with the Pa. Historical & Museum Commission.
PennDOT has contracted out the work on its state-owned roads in Gettysburg: the streetscape improvements on the first block of Steinwehr Avenue and the West Middle Street project. The Steinwehr bid was awarded to Clearwater Construction of Mercer, for $2.046 million, and Valley Quarries for the $1.8 million West Middle Street reconstruction. Currently, Pioneer Construction, of Honesdale, is replacing six blocks worth of outdated pipeline along West Middle Street as part of a $1.056 million Gettysburg Municipal Authority project, before PennDOT moves in and shuts down the entire street for its 56-day project.
According to Ford, an “on-site” inspector is in place for each project, in case relics or artifacts are excavated. The most common-type of 1863 memorabilia uncovered during road work or property renovations include plates, pottery and jewelry, although on rare occasions, human bones have been found. Police are called to the scene, work is put on hold, and crews wait, until a final determination is rendered.
Nothing has been found with the local projects, which are just under way, but Ford points out, “you never know.”
State law prevents contractors from continuing projects, once artifacts are excavated. There are also penalties in place if those relics are not reported, or even taken home.
The same rules apply to work out at Gettysburg National Military Park, for any of its road work or historic house renovations.
“We stop the work, we leave the artifact where it is, we call in the park archaeologist, and evaluate it,” explains park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon.
“Depending what it is, it may or may not be added to the park’s archaeology collection,” says Lawhon, noting that the archaeology collection contains “artifacts that came from the ground” throughout the 6,000-acre park.
Lawhon cites buttons, pieces of glass jars, pottery and ceramics as “common things we might find as a result of a contractor” performing ground work at the park. Over the last year, contractors repaved park roads, in preparation of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 2013.
But the household renovations often produce relics. For example, over the last two weeks, park contractors discovered a button. “When it comes to things like broken pieces of ceramic and glass, it’s not that rare,” says Lawhon. “These were homes during the Civil War,” she adds.
Arguably, the most famous discoveries that have occurred during construction or road work in the Gettysburg area were a set of human remains along the railroad track in the 1990s; and the original tracks of the Gettysburg Railroad Station during renovations in 2005.
There have also been close calls, remembers Ford, when a large set of bones was excavated during construction of the new $103 million Visitor Center in Cumberland Township, south of Gettysburg. Work was immediately halted, police were notified, and an investigation commenced.
The bone was a deer femur. “You have to take everything seriously,” says Ford.
Still, the roadway and renovation work is taken very seriously, with penalties for not following the rules. According to officials, contractors face suspension or termination for not reporting a discovery, no matter its significance.