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CRA building on historical significance

By Frank Goad

Lexington might not be considered a mecca of historical studies, but it is home to Cultural Resource Analysts Inc., a 30-year-old firm that is one of the largest in America specializing in archaeological and anthropological services.

Employees with Lexington-based Cultural Resources Analysis pass soil through screens to seek archaeological artifacts during a dig at a project site.
Employees with Lexington-based Cultural Resources Analysis pass soil through screens to seek archaeological artifacts during a dig at a project site.

Before certain categories of construction projects break ground, under federal, state and sometimes local laws, the project sites must be surveyed for environmental factors including the possibility that valuable artifacts and important signs of life from the past are present that merit preservation. You’ve probably driven by a site that was being investigated for signs of historical significance – and CRA may well have been performing this specialized task.

Archaeological and anthropological service is a competitive industry of which few are aware. The modern business began in 1966 with a congressional mandate that applied to federal projects. Since 1976, the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit Program, providing a 20 percent income tax offset, has leveraged over $62 billion in private investment to preserve and reuse over 38,000 historic properties nationwide.

In 2013, Kentucky ranked 12th nationally in utilizing the federal historic rehabilitation tax credit, with 23 successfully completed projects generating investment of $28.1 million. The Kentucky State Historic Preservation Tax Credit, offering up to a 30 percent offset, was implemented in 2005 and has benefitted 680 historic rehabilitation projects representing private investment of $527.9 million.

This cultural heritage preservation market also is driven by a trend toward higher density, mixed-use housing that is spurring rehabilitation of inner city areas. Nearly half the respondents (47 percent) in a recent National Association of Realtors poll said they prefer neighborhoods with a mix of houses, shops and businesses compared to only 1 in 10 preferring a suburban houses-only neighborhood.

CRA architectural historians are called upon to evaluate individual structures and entire neighborhoods to determine how much and what sort of renovation can be done without harming historic value – including whether green initiatives can make the structure economically viable in the face of rising energy costs.

The range of other projects includes road and bridge construction, timber and land sales involving public property, municipal cultural preservation, advising on historical and heritage tourism and many other areas.

One public works project can have multiple sites to examine. The Avenue of Saints project extending north from St. Louis, Mo., required CRA employees to examine 55 sites, some of which yielded artifacts carbon dated to the Middle Archaic period. “The detailed analyses of the artifacts (of the Berhorst Site) and their associations,” according to CRA’s website, “allowed us to see a short period of time in the life of people who lived in Missouri some 7,000 years ago.”

History teacher became an archaeologist

Charles “Chuck” Niquette, CRA’s founder and CEO, was a history teacher when the lure of archaeology grabbed him. Since starting the company in 1983, not only has the need for cultural resource services grown, so has his company. It has 12 offices in 11 states and is the largest federal contractor of its type in Kentucky that investigates, collects and protects the evidence of our cultural heritage.

Charles “Chuck” Niquette, president and CEO of Cultural Resources Analysis, had been a history teacher before he founded the company 1983.
Charles “Chuck” Niquette, president and CEO of Cultural Resources Analysis, had been a history teacher before he founded the company 1983.

“It encompasses buildings, bridges, battlefields, pioneer sites, Native American settlements – capturing and recording those historical anecdotes that give people a sense of place, who they are and where they came from,” Niquette said. “What we gain from it has value chiefly in learning about ourselves and how we’ve become the people we are today. It’s not about what we find, it’s about what we learn.”

This includes a broad spectrum of topics from architectural history to artifacts left by prehistoric peoples, Native Americans and early settlers. They must assess whether there are personal relics such as currency, weapons, clothing or household effects. Is there evidence of cultural remains such as funeral ceremonies or items from religious worship?

Beyond artifacts, CRA seeks to understand how those who left the evidence lived and to fit this information into what is previously known about a site’s history. Assessments can include surveying modern buildings to determine if they are significant architectural specimens, if they are the work of a noted architect or a place where a significant historical event occurred, in which case re-examination will comb through for objects from those times.

High-tech sleuthing in “a special place”

The rigorous scientific process CRA follows relies on a variety of staff skills and experience. They integrate satellite images, geophysical surveys and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to create computer-generated maps of what is on the surface and on the levels below ground.

“This lets us have a good idea what’s in there before we get the first shovel in the ground,” Niquette said. “Each device generates data that complements the other results. This is all preceded by our experience, which tells us if it’s likely that anything is there before we unload a single piece of equipment. Our employees are still the most sophisticated part of our array.”

Project sites can include cemeteries; CRA surveys the area, catalogs what it finds and transfers graves to their new location, taking care to preserve everything they find. Much of the work is done by hand, but it requires the use of technology such as ground penetrating radar.

“Moving a graveyard used to be a very haphazard process and not done carefully,” Niquette said. “Now it’s done with respect, care and with an eye toward our cultural heritage.”

The commonwealth’s ancient and more recent past provides plenty of opportunity in the present.

“Kentucky is a special place,” said Craig Potts, executive director of the Kentucky Heritage Council and state historic preservation office. “In comparison to many states, we have an incredibly rich trove of historical treasures, much of which is prehistoric. It’s easy to see why so many peoples have populated this area, given its topography, abundance of game, easy access to water and its fertile ground. This has led to high standards in our state for archaeology, and professionalism in its discovery and cataloging.”

CRA “has done work internationally, knows the industry extremely well, has a very wide range of resources and, because of that, has grown to be the largest cultural resource management firm in Kentucky, and perhaps the country,” Potts said.

The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet comes in for praise also.

Stone pot fragments found at a dig site are coded for cataloging.
Stone pot fragments found at a dig site are coded for cataloging.

“They have embraced our cultural heritage, take preservation very seriously and are respected nationally for their efforts,” Potts said. “They have a highly qualified staff and do a really good job.”

CRA and the Transportation Cabinet have received national recognition for their work with communities and educational outreach programs.

“Just look at the Red River Gorge,” Potts said. “It’s known internationally for its plant domestication record, which has shown some of the earliest signs of people using the plant life for food and medication. It’s known as a plant life hearth of sorts, and people worldwide visit to study and research it.”

Many historical treasures were lost

A generous portion of what we now know about our ancestors came from the Works Project Administration (WPA) efforts during the Great Depression. Professor William S. Webb of the University of Kentucky was very active then, and his publications from the 1930s are still considered excellent examples across the nation.

After WPA funding had dried up, America went through a post-World War II period of intense growth and modernization, and many historical treasures were lost. Realizing this, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966. Its crucial Section 106 requires all federal agencies to include historic preservation in their many projects across the nation.

In ’66, colleges and universities, with their trained professionals on staff, were the natural place to turn for the required heritage preservation help.

“In a field like this, if you do your job right, the work returns again and again,” Niquette said. “The universities had almost all the work, and it was tough breaking into this business back in ’83. But new opportunities came along as people began to understand this work’s importance. Local communities soon realized that their cultural heritage has real value in economic development and the push to attract new business. People began to understand and respect the value of our heritage on many levels.”

Since those early days, Niquette has guided the company from his office and the field. The firm has 12 locations across the country in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming. It has steadily expanded its range of capabilities also.

For instance, the company’s specialists range from people like bioarchaeologist and anthropologist Alexandra Bybee, to laboratory director Heather Barras, to zooarchaelology specialist Flora J. Church. There are historians, architectural historians and specialists in lithic artifacts (such as stone tools and weapons), geophysical mapping, data collection, geospatial information systems, computer-aided design and other categories.

Among the many CRA staffers who have with the company for 15 to 20 years or more are, left to right, Derek Wingfield (1995), chief of the information technology office; Alexandra Bybee (1999), anthropologist, principal investigator and field supervisor; Jason Anderson (1999), computer aided design and geographic information systems specialist; RaSonda Smith (1998), chief financial officer; Steve Creasman (1992), executive vice president; and Jonathan Kerr (1988), Kentucky director of operations and archaeological resources group leader.
Among the many CRA staffers who have with the company for 15 to 20 years or more are, left to right, Derek Wingfield (1995), chief of the information technology office; Alexandra Bybee (1999), anthropologist, principal investigator and field supervisor; Jason Anderson (1999), computer aided design and geographic information systems specialist; RaSonda Smith (1998), chief financial officer; Steve Creasman (1992), executive vice president; and Jonathan Kerr (1988), Kentucky director of operations and archaeological resources group leader.

Artifacts found during an excavation are carefully photographed and then cataloged by exact location, depth, condition, job number and other criteria. Next, they are carefully packaged and sent to the nearest facility for cleaning and examination. They are then readied for curating and submission to their final destination. Rarely does CRA keep any of the artifacts they find, as they belong to the company contracting them or the landowners.

Many employees have been with the company for a decade or more, and all are passionate about work that they know is valuable and respects the history of many individuals.

“Part of my job is ensuring that when we unearth someone’s remains, we collect everything possible when we move them because, after all, they are a part of someone’s family,” Bybee said.

Native American burial mounds are regular finds in Kentucky, but often they have been plowed through and finding the remnants is an arduous task. They find every remnant possible, gather them and inter them in a suitable location – with patience, diligence and great respect.

Surprising and rewarding

Sometimes even the firm’s seasoned veterans are surprised. While excavating a site along U.S. 68 south of Lexington, where they found the remnants of The Old Higbee Tavern.

Until railroads were established in the mid-1800s, many Kentucky goods needing to go to market were taken to Maysville, Ky., and put on a boat on the Ohio River. Traders floated down the rivers to New Orleans to sell their product, then walked home. Into the 1800s, payment often was in gold Spanish doubloons or silver “pieces of eight,” which were legal U.S. currency through 1857. To their surprise, CRA employees working the Old Higbee Tavern site found some pieces of eight, evidence of an early Kentuckian’s round trip to market.

Frank Goad is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected]