Originally published in Business Digest, October 1998

Frink Digs His Work

by Craig C. Bailey

Douglas FrinkDouglas Frink founded Archaeology Consulting Team Inc. in Essex nine years ago. The company stays in business thanks to federal and state legislation from 1969 mandating archaeological reviews prior to certain types of construction. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

More than an archaeologist, much more than a businessman, Douglas Frink considers himself first and foremost an environmentalist. As founder and principal investigating archaeologist of Archaeology Consulting Team Inc. in Essex, Frink works to balance the practical concerns of his clients ?developers required as part of the environmental review process to complete archaeological studies of sites before breaking ground ?with his passion for the cultural resources that are at the center of his work.

Archaeology, he stresses, is a planning tool for the future ?a cultural cousin to the protection of wetlands, endangered species and prime agriculture. “It’s easy to understand the potential value of a wetland: You can see it,” Frink states. “An archaeological site remains invisible until we discover it.” Even then, it often remains clouded in mystery to the untrained eye, fueling the notion of some in the development community that archaeologists are a breed bent on slowing or halting development.

We’ve all heard the story of the random arrowhead that shut down the construction project. More often than not such stories border on urban myth. “In all probability, there’s no square inch of the state of Vermont that has not at least been stepped on by a person,” says Frink. But, he adds, that doesn’t mean every square inch is significant. In fact, 90 to 95 percent of Vermont is unlikely to yield any significant information from past cultures.

Frink’s team makes its initial determination based on essential characteristics of human behavior ?the bedrock of archaeology. “Given the option, people will locate their domicile on flat, well-drained soils, and not on steep, rocky hillsides,” Frink offers. “Based on a number of similar expectations, settlement or site locational models have been developed to focus our studies in those areas where a proposed development has a high probability of affecting a potentially significant site.

“We probably look at only 2 to 5 percent of all projects in the state, because it is possible to determine right from the start that the probability of encountering significant sites is so low that it doesn’t warrant the study,” says Frink. Sometimes a random arrowhead is just an arrowhead.

Frink’s team determines a project has the high likelihood of yielding significant data based on a further set of criteria: “Proximity to portable water; concentrated food sources; raw materials for tool production; and transportation conduits may be expected to influence settlement site locations,” he says. When enough evidence indicates a site most likely played home base to people at some point over the course of Vermont’s 11,000-year human history, the site almost always yields significant data.

Frink emphasizes people in his field strive to foster sensible development. “There are a number of developers that we’ve had the absolute pleasure of working with, because they do see it as a valuable planning tool,” he offers. “We also have those that feel we are ... parasites living off the developer.”

David White, owner of Burlington real estate consulting, development and brokerage firm David G. White & Associates Inc., proclaims his enthusiasm for environmental review. White has been so satisfied with Archaeology Consulting Team that it’s the only firm he’s employed for archaeological reviews since he founded his business eight years ago. “I’m in Vermont by choice. I absolutely love this state, its environment, its character and absolutely endorse the importance of having effective environmental review. But the key word there is effective,” says White, adding he feels increasing influence from the local level that impedes development. “Act 250 tends to take a lot of heat, but in the last few years I’ve had more concern about what’s happening on the local level with planning commissions and zoning boards.”

According to White, Frink “has learned the knack of balancing being true to the archaeological resource while actively looking for ways to serve his client well. Understanding that a development project has schedules and loss of time is very expensive ?I think he’s very good at that.”

White would like to see the extent, and consequently the cost, of archaeological review adjusted to match the likelihood of significant results. It’s a feeling Frink says is common in the development community: “We’re still in the process of learning to accept the validity of archaeological resources as part of the environmental smorgasbord.

“We have a history in this country of denying that there was a viable human population here much prior to Samuel de Champlain. Within the last 20 years we could still find textbooks in the classroom that would declare that Native Americans did not live in Vermont. There’s not only been plenty of evidence, but there’s been plenty of Native Americans who could tell you,” Frink exclaims. “There’s a cultured of cultivated ignorance that is still a major part of our culture.”

Frink says there is only one type of archaeological find that can truly stop a development project in its tracks: burial grounds, either Native American or European American, the type of discovery that has eluded him throughout his 10 years of business. More likely, once significant sites have been identified, they can be avoided or excavated to extract the relevant cultural data before construction is allowed to proceed. “Sometimes we’ll be finishing up, and we’ll literally wave to the bulldozer to come ahead through,” Frink says.

“If the developer avoids the identified archaeological site then the focus of the review process shifts to protecting the site,” Frink continues. The permit might require a simple fence to be erected around the site during construction and other measures be taken “to insure protection beyond the life of the permit. While the site is effectively protected, it is available, with landowner consent, for research-oriented excavations should the need arise and proper funding be available.

“All identified sites, whether determined to lack significance, avoided and conserved in place, or excavated prior to the proposed development are listed on the Vermont Archaeological Inventory maintained by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.” That way even land of no great cultural significance is labeled and filed for the future.

Frink’s tone is an intriguing blend of philosopher, educator and salt-of-the-earth Vermonter. He peppers long passages of slow, measured prose with occasional down-country witticisms and a casual Vermont twang, whether by nature or for calculated effect is debatable. “Anything about Don Quixote I love,” he offers. Artwork featuring the original impossible dream chaser graces the company’s cramped conference room. “Tilting at windmills? That sounds like environmentalism to me.”

A fifth-generation Vermonter, Frink, 47, was born in Bristol and moved to South Burlington at age 16. His parents worked in the agricultural and scientific fields. “My father was a man with a golden arm: an artificial inseminator,” Frink says, strategically placing a cough for his punchline. “We can say he worked in the agricultural trade,” he offers as a kicker. His mother was a scientist and the first woman to use an electron microscope in the anatomy and physiology department at the University of Vermont.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and Asian studies from UVM in 1974, he co-founded Vermont Garden & Landscaping in Hinesburg with four partners. He landscaped for several years, then sold his share in that business, which evolved into SiteWorks Inc., and returned to college at age 30. “Landscaping, while certainly a physical challenge, quickly ceased to be a mental challenge,” he explains. Clearly relishing the intense intellectual workout involved in his current line of work, he offers the following distinction: “Archaeology is very similar in that you’re still digging holes ?they’re square now, rather than round.”

In 1983 he graduated from the University of Connecticut with a master’s in anthropology focused on Northeastern American archaeology. “Why choose archaeology? Why limit yourself to not choosing archaeology?” Frink asks, expounding on the all-encompassing nature of the endeavor. “You never become an archaeologist. You’re always becoming one,” he says in describing its appeal. “In many ways, it’s like practicing medicine: You’re always practicing.”

Following his master’s, Frink worked at the Consulting Archaeology Program at UVM’s department of anthropology, one of Archaeology Consulting Team’s few competitors in the area. He also worked at the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation in Waterbury, and Atlantic Testing Laboratories in South Burlington, before founding his business in 1989. Landscaping remains an interest and passion. The Westford home Frink has lived in since marrying Nora Sabo, a state social worker, 13 years ago is carefully tended. “While I only have four-tenths of an acre, which I refer to as the back point-four-oh, it is pleasantly landscaped,” he says. Children Ryon, 11, and Hilary, 8, would “like to get real jobs,” when they grow up, Frink jokes. “I’d probably encourage them to, because there’re no retirement plans for archaeologists.”

Whether his flippancy is meant to be taken seriously or not, Frink is planning for the future with an employee benefit plan that rewards long-time team members with shares in the company. It’s a shrewd strategy to prevent the business from devaluing. “A consulting firm like this,” Frink explains, “is not the kind of business one would build up to sell. Your competitors in the area wouldn’t buy it because all you have to do is go out of business and your clients would then go to them. If out-of-state firms wanted to be in the area, they’d be in the area ?they don’t have to buy their way in.”

The goal is to allow an easy transition to the future generation when Frink retires by bringing employee ownership up to 50 percent where either side can easily buy out the other. To hear Frink explain it, he nearly sounds like a businessman, a role he downplays. “It’s not hard to run a successful business,” he offers, “where your income outweighs your outgo year after year ?as long as your expectations are in line with the industry.”

Waterbury Center native and project archaeologist Charity Baker, an eight-year veteran at the firm, is the only staff member who has earned shares in the company.

“The main difference here, and the reason I like it so much, is because it’s small,” Baker says of the five-person business. “We try to have everybody involved in all the steps ?from the fieldwork to the laboratory work right on through the report writing. It gives you a much better idea of how the review process works.”

The company’s team approach is exemplified by its Pinewood Plaza headquarters: Frink chose it for its wide open space when the business relocated from 67 Lincoln St. in March 1997. A handful of desks and computer terminals fill the room, which is flanked with a few smaller labs, storage rooms and conference spaces. There are no private offices and no private desks.

Frink describes educational outreach projects ?which he felt were lacking at previous places he worked and which helped motivate him to go into business for himself ?as the more satisfying parts of his job. “We have an obligation to the public to present archaeology to them. Not just preserve it on their behalf, but make it available to them,” he says.

“The whole reason the environmental review process was set up was to preserve or share the resources that we have,” agrees Baker. “It’s really our obligation to try to involve people as much and as often as we can.”

“We’ve been instrumental in producing educational programs at local schools where the students actually become the archaeologists,” Frink says. The company’s first “History in Our Backyard” program was conducted in 1992 and 1993 at the Williston Central School as an outgrowth of studies the firm was conducting during the construction of a bike path in the area. The company repeated the program for the Malletts Bay School in Colchester in 1994 and 1995, and the Westford Elementary School in 1996 and 1997. “I like to think that we’re working hard to break new ground,” says Baker.

Frink’s ideals come at a cost. “Education is not a profitable venture in any sphere of the American public,” he says. “We put on programs that have a budgeted cost of approximately $10,000 and have revenues of approximately $2,000.

“It’s part of our obligation, part of our mission.”