The company uses high-tech tools to make historic discoveries without digging in the dirt.
Archaeology summons a romantic image: adventurers huddled near the ground on the hunt for long-lost treasure. Yet, in reality, Ohio Valley Archaeology adopts a more high-tech—and practical— approach to the field. “Even though you think of digging holes and sifting dirt, that's a very basic way of doing things,” says owner and president Jennifer Pecora. “When you incorporate the technology, it really ramps things up, which is really cool.”
Although the company does excavation work, the staff of seven also administers geophysical surveys in which modern equipment is deployed to discover what lies beneath the Earth's surface—without the need to dig. “We have ground-penetrating radar,” Pecora says. “We have a magnetic gradient instrument.”
So-called noggin carts, she adds, are operated much like a lawnmower, pushed back and forth over an area of interest. “It's shooting, basically, lasers down into the ground, and it comes back up,” says Pecora, whose team then scours the results for “the possibility of burial sites, the possibility of earthworks, earth ovens, pits—that kind of thing.”
Ohio Valley Archaeology brands itself a cultural resource management company. Although it also works for local and private clients, the company's bread-and-butter are groups that receive money from the federal government for construction projects. As such, they are required to abide by Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which governs spots or structures that are part of the National Register of Historic Places (or might be added in the future).
“If the area had not been surveyed previously, they need to go through what's called either a cultural resource management survey or an archaeological survey,” Pecora says. “And that's where we come in.”
A records review—involving scrutinizing maps and topography—is a first step, but high-tech tools allow the team to understand a site's history without bringing out shovels. “We can kind of get a sense without having to break ground,” Pecora says. “For example, a lot of Native American tribes appreciate that. They may not want the ground to be disturbed.” Jarrod Burks, the company's director of archaeological geophysics, is among those tasked with interpreting the information that the instruments yield. “The images the instruments make are a lot like an X-ray,” Burks says. “Sometimes, it's really easy to see what's going on in an X-ray, and sometimes you need a lot of experience to interpret it well. That's what we've been doing: honing our skills on interpreting the images.”
Sometimes, nothing of note is found. “We'll say, 'Well, we found this, this and this, but together, all of it doesn't make the site historical,' ” Pecora says. On the other hand, if a site turns out to be significant, some clients opt to sell the land; others augment their plans. “We've had clients who have put historical markers up and incorporated that into their design, which is actually the smartest thing to do,” Pecora says.
In addition to big-technology buys, Ohio Valley Archaeology has emphasized public relations under the tenure of Pecora, who has run the company since 2006. “We actually have a pretty active Instagram, because people love history and they love seeing pictures of people out in the field working,” she says “One thing that I'm really proud of our company for doing is we have a lot of public archaeology events.”
Despite its name, Ohio Valley Archaeology does not restrict its business to the Buckeye State. “Jarrod was in Tlaxcala, Mexico. … They were looking for the foundations of very, incredibly old churches,” Pecora says. “He's brought our ground-penetrating radar to South Africa to teach the South African police department how to run that and then possibly detect if there are any type of human remains.”
One of the company's most notable globe-trotting projects was a multi-year mission to locate (and bring back to the U.S.) the remains of Ewart Sconiers, an Army Air Corps lieutenant who perished overseas during World War II. Sconiers' niece, Pam Whitelock of New Albany, contacted Ohio Valley Archaeology, which, without charging a fee, attempted to identify Sconiers' burial site in a Polish park.
Although Sconiers' remains were later revealed to have been moved elsewhere, Whitelock praises the company for its help. “What they do is more than just a job,” Whitelock says. “They're helping people connect to the substance of their lives—and the evolution of history and our culture.”
Peter Tonguette is a freelance writer.