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Highlights, Challenges, and Visioning from Retired State Archaeologist Dennis Griffin

September 3, 2020

Dennis Griffin served as the State Archaeologist with the Oregon State Historic Preservation Office for the last 18 years. He retired at the end of August and we took the opportunity to ask him what the highlights and challenges were of his time at the Oregon SHPO and also what he believes is the future of protecting Oregon’s archaeology sites.

What were some of the highlights of your time working at the Oregon SHPO?

When I first started at the Oregon SHPO, archaeologists wanting to conduct research using our records had to schedule an appointment to come into our office to access paper USGS maps to discover where all of our known archaeological sites were located and to get access to hard copy reports and site forms that were in our library. Since that time we have scanned over 32,000 reports and 43,000 site forms and they are all available to qualified researchers on-line when ever they need them. While the earlier process enabled our staff an opportunity to meet and get to know many of the archaeologists working in our state, on-line access to our data greatly improved ready access to this information which reduced damage to sites while saving time and expense in freeing up agency staff from having to travel to Salem to conduct project reviews.

A big highlight for me was seeing our office’s archaeological staff enlarged from that of a single archaeologist to a staff consisting of up to four archaeologists which allowed our office to increase our review and compliance of project related reports and issue state archaeology permits in a more timely manner, to increase our opportunity to reach out to the public to help them understand the history of our state and the importance of our archaeological resources, and to work with and encourage good cultural resource stewardship among state and federal agencies, and the public.

My job as the State Archaeologist at SHPO for the past 18 years provided me with the opportunity to work closely with each of our state’s nine federally-recognized tribes as they developed and expanded tribal cultural heritage departments and established their own tribal historic preservation office.  The opportunity to communicate and consult with each of the tribes in a wide variety of venues, such as the state’s government-to-government Culture Cluster and Intergovernmental Culture Resource Council (ICRC), and to collaborate on projects throughout the state has been a major reward to me.

Our office has taken a major step forward during the years that I have been fortunate to work at SHPO toward increasing public outreach opportunities and providing education regarding our state’s history and resources. These have included increased grant opportunities which provides funding for both public and private historic preservation work, the building of a strong community of Certified Local Governments and a very active Main Street Program, the development of heritage bulletins that increase awareness of cultural resources and historic cemeteries, and the coordinating of heritage workshops across the state, including SHPOlooza, an event we put together that provides an opportunity for archaeologists and archaeologically-oriented people in the state to get together to talk about what is working and what needs to be tweaked so that our office can better serve the public interest. These all have served as major highlights during my tenure.

What were some of the challenges?

One of the major challenges I have seen since starting at Oregon SHPO is being able to stay abreast of the many changes in archaeological technologies that are being developed and to be able to suggest and encourage their use as they relate to future projects. Remote sensing technologies have greatly expanded since I first started at SHPO and they offer us many new ways to try and incorporate non-destructive methods to identify the presence of archaeological sites and features without spending thousands of dollars, so that if a site is found to be within a project area and it can not be avoided, money can be spent where it will do the most good to mitigate any adverse effect that will occur to the site. The recognition of the importance of underwater archaeology in Oregon also has brought us a challenge to see where such technologies are best applicable. During my tenure our office has drafted state guidelines for both conducting field archaeology in Oregon and for reporting on such efforts so that the results will be applicable to other projects in the future. While the drafting of guidelines, where before there were none, is always a challenge, keeping such guidelines relevant to our discipline and and applicable to the projects that occur in Oregon will continue to be both an opportunity and a challenge for our office.

What do you envision for the future of protecting Oregon’s archaeological sites?

The future protection of archaeological sites in Oregon directly stem from the challenges that we now face. The most important thing that we as a state, and SHPO as an agency dedicated to historic preservation faces is the need for an increase in public education and stewardship. If the public does not recognize  the importance of archaeology,  the recognition and protection of archaeological sites in the future will not occur. I think that archaeology needs to be introduced into our classrooms so that people will learn about the importance of our history, and the archaeological sites that remain to provide evidence of our past. Only through such early education can we hope to combat the looting that continues to occur to sites across the state, and increase the awareness of archaeology to the public and the importance of site stewardship. I think our office can provide a leading voice to encourage such an increase in educational awareness through our future grant opportunities, workshops,  bulletins, meetings and public outreach. Only about 14% of Oregon has been archaeologically surveyed to date, and these lands are predominantly managed by federal agencies (e.g., USFS, BLM). The majority of lands that would have been most attractive to human use and settlement over the past 15,000+ year history are now under private ownership. Likewise the majority of major Native American sites are probably located on private land and have yet to be recognized as such. Through education and stewardship we may be able to identify more of the important sites that still exist in Oregon and gain their protection by encouraging the public to become site stewards by offering their protection of such sites.

On a different front, I see the future offering us much in the way of the development and use of new non-destructive technologies for site identification and protection. I look forward to seeing what will be developed in this regard.

What’s next???

For me, the first thing I hope to do is to learn to sleep in and enjoy some free time catching up on reading, music and some writing projects that have been on the back burner for far to long. I recently purchased a small van that is being converted to a camper and I will need to head back to the mid-west to pick it up and drive it back to Oregon, which means a road-trip is in my near future which I find both exciting and a bit scary given the pandemic. 

I have a number of personal projects focusing on Oregon history and archaeology that I hope to follow up on over the next couple of years which should put my van to good use crisscrossing across the state visiting archives, historical societies and tribal offices while I put my research and writing skills to work. I also hope to do a little consulting work which will provide me an opportunity to stay abreast of research that is occurring within Oregon, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. A number of years ago I formed a private consulting company called Cultural Horizons for when I would do consulting work in Alaska. I hope to be able to use this company to work on small projects in our region and continue finding opportunities to consult and work with the tribal nations in our state.

Thanks Dennis for all of your work helping to protect Oregon’s important archaeological resources!

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