Synopsis of the Big Creek High School Archaeological Site Controversy
The Council for West Virginia Archaeology declined an offer of substantial financial support for a national teacher training program in which it is participating. The offer was contingent on accepting the construction of an elementary school on an archaeological site in McDowell County that holds promise of significantly advancing our knowledge of the prehistory of the Big Sandy River valley. The Council urges the project’s sponsors to reconsider their options and either excavate the site or refrain from building the school on it.

The archaeological sites are at the proposed location of a new elementary school in McDowell County. The sponsors of the project are the US Army Corps of Engineers (Corps), the WV School Building Authority (SBA), the McDowell County Board of Education, and the WV Board of Education. The Corps is providing $43,000,000 and the SBA another $20,000,000 to relocate four flood-prone schools.

First identified in the summer of 2004, small scale excavations to evaluate the sites’ significance were done in early 2005. The excavations yielded what was probably a miners home from the late 19th or early 20th century, and a Late Woodland site. Radiocarbon dates were not run on the Woodland component, but recovered artifacts suggest a date of about 1000 AD. The Late Woodland is the period between the decline of the Adena and Hopewell moundbuilders of the Ohio Valley and the corn and squash agriculturalists of the Late Prehistoric period.

The Late Woodland site is the only one ever found in McDowell County that contains pottery fragments. Because of its durability and changing styles over time, pottery is an especially important type of artifact, and archaeologists recognize that the present knowledge of the pottery of this time period in the Ohio Valley is poor. Remnants of structural posts were also found, and further excavation hold promise of revealing a residence from that time. Only one other Late Woodland house has ever been found in West Virginia.

Representatives of the Council met on August 18th with the project sponsors to discuss the impact of school construction on the archaeological sites and their proposal to avoid, limit, or compensate for damage to the site. A spokesman for the Corps maintained that the best option is to bury the site under the school to preserve it for future research. Others speaking for the Corps, the SBA, and McDowell County schools stated that they prefer building on the unexcavated site because of schedule and funding constraints.

A Corps spokesman stated flatly that the site would not be excavated. To compensate for burying the site, the sponsors will consider a cash contribution to the Council to support its Project Archaeology initiative, and another to McDowell County Schools to develop a component to its high school curriculum that covers local prehistory.

According to a Corps spokesman, the State Historic Preservation Office verbally agreed that their mitigation package is the best treatment for the site.

The Council does not believe burying the sites under an elementary school is the proper way to preserve them. Since the site is on a slight slope, they would bury the site under an undetermined amount of compacted fill and build the school on top of it. The school will likely have a life of 80 years.

The Council’s Board of Directors declined the offer with regret, because the funds likely would have assured early completion of the handbook and first round of teacher training for Project Archaeology, a national program for incorporating archaeological knowledge in the nation’s elementary school curriculum. However, accepting the money would come at the sacrifice of a significant archaeological site, and this directly contradicts the purpose of Project Archaeology and the core values on which the Council was formed.

The Board does not believe the purported funding constraints are credible considering the size of the budget ($63,000,000), and that if the sponsors had attempted to determine the archaeological potential of the school site before budgeting the money, as environmental legislation requires, excavation could have been included in the budget.

The Board found the offer particularly objectionable because of the past record of destruction of archaeological sites by school construction. Logan and Man High Schools in Logan County, for example, were built on important Late Prehistoric villages dating to the time of contact with colonists. South Charleston High School was built on a large Adena sacred enclosure in Spring Hill. The extent of the more recent loss at Riverside High School in Kanawha County is not known for certain, and appreciated only by the numerous artifact collectors who walked the site during its construction. The large Adena mound at the old Mound School in Dunbar was bulldozed to enlarge the parking lot.

© 2005
Council for West Virginia Archaeology (CWVA) unless otherwise noted.