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David Morgan Diving at Biscayne National Park

David Morgan Diving at Biscayne National Park

Ammons:    Welcome to the Preservation Technology Podcast; the show that brings you the people and projects that are advancing the future of America’s heritage. I’m Kevin Ammons with the National Park Service’s National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. In this podcast we join NCPTT’s Jason Church as he speaks with Dr. David Morgan, Director of the National Park Service’s Southeast Archeological Center. Today we are listening to David discuss SEAC’s mission.

Church:    Thanks for talking to us today David. Many of our listeners will remember you from past NCPTT podcasts. But today we are here to talk to you about your position at SEAC and what SEAC is and what projects you’re doing.

Morgan:    Sure, I’d be happy to Jason. It’s good to be back. SEAC is the Southeast Archeological Center. We were established in 1966 as one of but two centers of archeological expertise that the National Park Service currently maintains. We were at the time, located at Ocmulgee National Monument and we moved to Tallahassee, Florida in 1995, where we could have a research partnership with a tier 1 research university, that being Florida State University.
What we are is really a support center for the Parks in the southeast region of the United States, so our territory spans from Louisiana up through Kentucky over to North Carolina, back down through the Caribbean and over, and so we’re located again where we are really, to be central to that larger sphere of the southeast and the Caribbean. As I say we provide support to all of the Parks within that region. So there are Parks that have archeologists there and so one of my duties is to also act as the regional archeologist, so I help coordinate the efforts of all the individual archeologists out in the Parks. But a lot of Parks don’t have on board necessarily, the cultural resource expertise to deal with archeological issues. So a lot of what we do for the Parks is really sort of multifold. On one hand we provide assistance with planning for projects because you don’t want to be, for instance if you’re Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home, you don’t want to be the park that accidentally destroys the archeological remnants of Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home.

And so Parks of course, as part of their compliance with the National Historic Preservation Act have to make sure that any sort of ground disturbing activity that they’re doing, they’ve really thought through. So the other component of that of course is that there’s a huge research component because often the archeological resources at these Parks are something that the Parks wish to highlight and to better understand and to interpret to the public. So we also do the sort of frontline primary research for the Parks as well.
A lot of times Parks try to figure out what resources they actually have. As many people might know, the Park Service has really surveyed in the southeast only about 4% of their terrestrial resources and about 3% of their submerged resources. So one of the things we do is to assist the Parks, and this is also part of planning, in making sure that they’re aware of the resources that may be on their lands as they go to develop them or interpret them or just simply manage them. So we provide a lot of management expertise for the Parks along the way.

We also serve as a repository for archeological materials for the southeast region. So at SEAC we hold under curation about 9.4 million objects and about three quarters of a million archival documents that support those.

SEAC Surveying the Petit Bois Wreck

SEAC Surveying the Petit Bois Wreck

So we are a centralized repository for the southeast and that again is a place where we interact with a lot of the public, so we get a lot of professional archeologists who are coming to do primary research working with the documents from say, WPA, to documents that people are working on most recently. So for example, Daniel Bigman has come from the University of Georgia as part of his doctoral research and has used a lot of collection from Ocmulgee National Monument in tandem with primary research of his own, a lot of geophysics to develop some really good cutting edge understanding of the Macon Plateau. So we do a lot of interaction with the public there.

Of course this is also a great cost savings for the Park Service because we can maintain one big collection environment with one set of pest management protocols, with one curator, with one set of trained professional museum staff members to take care of it as opposed to having to try and replicate that at every park or series of clusters of Parks, so it’s really an economy of scale and it’s also an economy of expertise. That’s one of the things that makes centers like the Midwest Archeological Center and the Southeast Archeological Center really special, is that you have a collection of experts and by having this economy of expertise there, it makes the kind of service that we provide the Parks really much, much more valuable and stronger than it would be if you have just your one archeologist in the park to really kind of work with.

Now one of the other things I should say too is that that’s really the behind the scenes support that we provide for the Parks but the other half of our mission is very strongly oriented to external activities. This is really a holdover from early days in the Park Service when the interagency archeological services units were created throughout the regions. There was legislation passed in the seventies that gave the Secretary of the Interior responsibility for assisting other federal agencies with their cultural resource needs. The Secretary of the Interior tasked that responsibility to the National Park Service and the National Park Service delegated it down to the regional directorates as this IAS, the Interagency Archeological Services, so SEAC still maintains that mission. Naturally a lot of agencies have their own cultural resource staff now. It’s nearly three decades since this legislation was passed. Many federal agencies have developed their own capacity for this but the National Park Service is still recognized as a flagship for cultural resource expertise, and so a lot of agencies still turn to the Park Service for assistance. In a lot of cases it’s more cost effective to the taxpayer and to that agency to have us come and do the work than for them to try and hire up the staff necessary to do it themselves. So we end up providing a lot of assistance, technical assistance, policy assistance, field assistance to numerous different agencies. This occurs at the federal level but also by their state and tribal partners. It also occurs on more local and community levels as well.
At present we’re assisting the US Forest Service and doing inventories of some of their properties in Florida to help them identify where their archeological sites are. We’ve been assisting the Department of Defense both with climate change studies, looking at coastal erosion and monitoring the effects of coastal erosion, as well as helping partner with a field school at Louisiana State University to help them understand some of the resources that they have on their property. We also work across the board with the Parks as well, for a lot of interpretation and public outreach.

We try to integrate volunteers into a lot of our projects. We make sure that the information gets out to the public, a lot of outreach. So those are some of the things that we do as kind of baseline work at SEAC. We’ve been with the Park Service now for forty years plus and so we have a huge amount of experience in dealing with our Park Service units. so we are truly well versed in what the Parks need. We also are a frequent “go to” partner for our Parks because they know that we understand the parameters of the organic act that they work with so that we understand that were not shooting for just mere compliance as kind of the baseline for which we’re going for. Instead we understand that we’re working to make sure that part of the organic act that we’re helping to safeguard these resources and keep them unimpaired for future generations. So we help the Parks in a great deal act as stewards for these resources along the way. So those are some of the things that we do for the Park Service and for our partners outside the Park Service as well.

Church:    Sounds great. What are you working on now? Is there anything in particular, any large projects, or just really exciting ones that you’re working on currently?

Morgan:    We are constantly working on projects. There’s always something exciting going on. There’s always something really interesting going on and that’s one of the wonderful perks really of getting to work with all of my colleagues at SEAC is there’s no shortage of really great minds looking at really great projects. Helping out the Parks and being able to work in the Parks is just amazing because these are truly the crown jewels of really the resources that America has to offer.
So some of the projects that we’ve been working on recently is we’ve been teaming up with the Submerged Resources Center to help build our capacity for preserving our underwater resources as well. Recently we’ve partnered with George Washington University, the Submerged Resources Center, and Biscayne National Park to document an eighteenth century wooden vessel that’s in shallow water, was in sort of a precarious position in terms of its preservation, and we came in and brought in a number of students and ran it as a field school for them to help provide training. For the Park, they got documentation of a fragile impaired resource and for us it helped us fulfill our mission of making sure that we can be stewards for these resources along the way. So that’s one of the projects that we’ve been working on in terms of the underwater side of what we’ve been doing.

In terms of the terrestrial side, we have staff at SEAC who are just now preparing to go out to do another season of fieldwork at Cape Lookout, where we’re documenting a number resources in our coastal environments that are really being subjected to sea level rise and are being eroded out. So we’re taking a position where we’re documenting these resources as we’re afraid that they’re being lost. But it’s also generating primary data on climate change because these sites prove to be several thousand years old and are in different environments than they were now. They’re becoming impaired again. We actually have a chance to do some cutting edge research on long term duration and effects of climate change from several thousand years ago to today.

Another project that we’re doing is with Canaveral National Seashore where we have some amazing shell mounds that are poised right on the edge of the water and every time the waves hit, erosion occurs. The damage and loss to these is almost inevitable so we’ve worked with some of our active partners to figure out a way to use natural resources to armor and reinforce the bank lines in front of these by growing sea grass, also by growing and restocking oyster beds and letting natural processes help defend and armor that site from the effects of coastal erosion on it. That’s given us a lot of good opportunities to partner with a lot of different universities and preeminent researchers doing things like 3-D documentation, using Donax shells which is a species of shell that are fairly common in these that are used throughout the Florida coastal Georgia area to make coquina. Coquina shells is the common name. They are used as part of sort of a cement matrix for buildings and one thing and another. One of our researchers, Erv Kluetmeier at the Florida Museum of Natural History is using those and by looking at them microscopically and looking at the staple isotopic ratios of various elements in them, is able to project back and determine what the sea temperature was when those coquina were harvested and died several thousand years ago. So by looking at this simple coquina shell, he’s able to actually reconstruct the paleo climate so that we understand in a micro environmental level how climate change has occurred every thousands of years.
So we’re doing a number of these kinds of projects. They’re all based in partnerships. They’re all based strongly in cooperation with the Parks and Park Superintendents, who are the primary stewards with our partners because of course, we certainly do our best to stay on top of everything archeological. We are very much aware that there’s great minds throughout the country that we can bring to bear on this. In times where the economy makes it difficult to do some of this ourselves, this is a great time to embrace the partnerships we have.

So we have a lot of research that’s ongoing. We’re on the move almost constantly because the Parks are always working constantly to try and get the information out to the public, to safeguard those resources, or to plan ahead for the future.

David Morgan surveying a submerged cultural resource.

David Morgan surveying a submerged cultural resource.

Church:    Sounds like you are on constant move, lots of projects. Must be pretty exciting. We appreciate your talking to us today and I would like to talk to you again in the future on new projects that you might be doing.

Morgan:    My pleasure. Thank you.

Church:    Thank you.

Ammons:    That was Jason Church speaking with Dr. David Morgan. If you would like to learn more about today’s podcast, visit our podcast show notes at Until next time everybody.

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