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Darby O'Donnell

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Tell us the basics: Who are you, what’s your company’s name and how long have you been at this company?

My name is Darby O’Donnell, and I’m the owner and principal archaeologist at Darby O’Donnell, LLC. My cultural resource management firm provides archaeological services that are required by permit for new construction and development.  I’ve been in business since October 2011, and I’ve been in archaeology for more than 15 years.

What sort of archaeology is required before new construction?

The first stage of archaeology is a survey of the land that will be impacted by earth moving.  This is done by gridding off the area and digging a 1-foot-wide hole every 50 feet along the grid.  Next I screen the soil from each hole for artifacts.  Humans are messy, and no matter the era in time, they leave remnants of their presence. This method identifies the archaeological site boundary and its time period. Also, I use historic maps and local history to help guide the survey. Once the boundary is determined, my client uses this information to plan.

In a city as old as Richmond, do you ever get through a dig without hitting something?

It’s tough to put a shovel in the ground in Virginia and not find something. Human occupation in our region spans back to 12,000 B.C. and possibly later.  However, the most important part of my job is not just identifying archaeological sites, but making decisions about their significance. If a site has good research potential and meets certain federally established criteria, it may be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. In this case, a more intense excavation will be required if the site cannot be avoided by an alteration in the construction plan.  However, if the archaeological site is not eligible for listing, ground disturbance and construction may continue.

What type of clients do you serve?

My clients are land developers, civil and environmental engineers, land use attorneys and federal agencies, all of whom may need to perform an archaeological survey to obtain a permit.

What's a lesson you've learned during the recession?

To be successful in this climate you must deliver a superior product in a short timeframe for a fair price and, most importantly, guide your clients to the end of the process. My clients, many of whom have very limited knowledge of the archaeological process, cannot proceed without a survey. It is my job to make this somewhat arduous process as simple and painless as possible so they can more forward.

As a small business, my quick response time and ability to keep overhead down allows me to be competitive. And by maintaining close business relationships with my clients, I get referrals through word of mouth.

Is there a secret to your personal success? Perhaps a piece of advice you’ve always remembered? 

As an archaeologist, I’ve literally come face-to-face with the dead -- and that is motivating. Life is finite, so get on with it. Do what you love, take the risk, and you’ll find the path to success.

What’s the part of your job you dread the most? 

As a guy who relishes the adventure and discovery inherent in archaeology, I dread the accounting end of the business. That and poison ivy.

What’s the part of your job that excites you the most, the thing that makes you want to hurry to work?

Every project is something new somewhere different.  An archaic Native American campsite in King George County, a Civil War era military camp in Stafford County, or a 19th-century log cabin nestled deep in a forgotten hollow of the Shenandoah Valley are all unique sites lost to time, waiting to be rediscovered and recorded.


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