RAPID CITY - The South Dakota Archaeological Research Center narrowly escaped elimination during this year's search for ways to cut the state budget, but state archaeologist Jim Haug says closing his office would not save any money.
If the office disappeared, someone would still have to do the research, manage more than a century's worth of records and take care of more than 9,000 collections of artifacts, Haug said. State agencies would have to hire their own archaeologists or consultants to protect graves and other records of the past at road projects and other construction sites.
"So nothing is gained," Haug said.
When state tax collections plummeted as the recession hit, Gov. Mike Rounds proposed closing the archaeology office to save about $309,000. With the arrival of federal stimulus money and passage of a boost in the state tax on tourism businesses, the Legislature spared the office when it passed a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1.
Rep. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, a member of the Legislature's Appropriations Committee and head of another panel that looks at government operations, said she believes the Archaeological Research Center must be kept. A recent review by lawmakers determined that the center charges appropriate fees to other state agencies and private developers, she said.
"They're running pretty efficiently, and they do what they do because of state and federal law," Peters said. "As far as I can tell, if the governor were to try to cut that department out of state government, the Legislature would have to put them back in."
State and federal laws require a check for archaeological sites before roads are built, mines are developed, or buildings are installed at state parks. The archaeologists get little attention until unmarked graves of Native Americans or early settlers are discovered at a construction site or bones are revealed when rain erodes the earth.
Haug, who has been state archaeologist for two decades, said his office may have been identified as a possible budget cut because many people do not know what the archaeologists do.
The center, located in an old one-story building on a side street in Rapid City, keeps records of about 20,000 archaeological sites that have already been identified in South Dakota. Those records are now being kept in computer files so researchers or those involved in construction projects can go to one source to find out where sites are located, Haug said.
The office also takes care of thousands of old collections, which range from boxes that contain only a few items to objects recovered from big excavations. Some collections are owned by the state, but many belong to federal agencies that have nowhere to store them, Haug said. About 80,000 photos also are kept by the center.
The archeologists conduct surveys of sites for other state agencies and private developers and organize excavations, Haug said. If his office closed, Haug said, the state Transportation Department would "have to start letting out contracts for every little gravel pit and small road project they are doing because they wouldn't have an agency like ours to fall back on."
The center recently got a call on a weekend when some bones were discovered near a cemetery, and a staff member quickly determined they were from dogs, Haug said. In another case, bones washed out of the ground proved to be human, so they were reburied, he said.
"We provide a pool of that expertise people can draw on," he said.
The center has 13 permanent staffers and about a dozen temporary employees who are working mostly on a study of the nearly 100,000 acres of land along the Missouri River transferred from the federal government to the state, Haug said.
Many people confuse archaeologists with paleontologists, who study fossils of dinosaurs and other ancient creatures, Haug said. Archeologists generally look at human society before written history, but they sometimes look at buried artifacts that tell more about how people lived in more recent times, he said.
Although only 20,000 archaeological sites have been identified in South Dakota, archaeologists estimate 150,000 to 300,000 sites exist in the state. The identified sites include campsites, places where early inhabitants killed bison or mammoths, caves, rings left by tipis, rock art, homesteads, abandoned town sites, mines and cemeteries.
Much of what archaeologists study in South Dakota is Native American culture from before written history, Haug said.
He said one of the oldest sites found in South Dakota was a campsite about 11,000 years old. Evidence was found at the site for a number of time periods, including a nickel from the 1940s probably left by deer hunters, Haug said. After the western South Dakota site was studied, it was torn apart by a road project.
"What's left in the ground over the centuries and centuries is the only documentation of those people having been here," he said.