The good news is that the Thunderbird Dig, an archeological excavation that has revolutionized the interpretation of the culture of the earliest Americans, was designated a National Historical Landmark in May.
The bad news is that a month earlier, in April, the 120-acre site, which has yielded evidence of a 12,000-year-old Paleo-Indian settlement, was divided into five-acre "farmettes" and sold, ending attempts to create a protected archeological park.
And the significant news is that in a confrontation between development and preservation that could have resulted in the loss of a rare archeological resource a compromise has been reached that will allow scientific work to continue.
Prior to sale of about 25 1cts, which run in narrow strips from a raw, red dirt road cutting along a ridge down through the primary Indian sites to the south fork of the Shenandoah River, the developers wrote into their contracts a protective covenant.
For 10 years, the individual landowners cannot disturb a 400-foot-wide, mile-long strip that contains the prime Indian sites. The covenant will continue for a second 10-year period unless two-thirds of the owners vote to void it.
"It's much closer to being good than being bad. We could have wound up with nothing," said Dr. William M. Gardner, chairman of Catholic University's anthropology department and the archeologist who has overseen the digging south of Front Royal since it began in 1971.
Charles Anderson, a partner in the development and sale of a 1,000-acre area that contains the digs, said, "When we saw that Dr. Gardner was not going to be able to come up with the money to buy the land, this was the best alternative."
Anderson and Bradley Haynes had bought the land at a foreclosure sale with a $600,000 loan payable in two years. After a story in The Wawhington Post last December reported the imminent sale of the archeological site and at the request of son and Haynes agreed to delay the sale. Rep. J. Kenneth Robinson (R-Va.), Ander-to give Gardner a chance to come up with $250,000 to buy the 120-acre excavation site.
"They were trying to get the money from several different groups but the Nature Conservancy was the main source," Anderson said. "When they couldn't get a commitment from the Conservancy, I felt they couldn't get the money for a long time."
At the Nature Conservancy, a private conservation group that buys endangered land and holds it until a state, federal, or other protective group can take it over, a spokesman said archeological sites are outside of what we normally do."
"The National Hitoric Trust is looking after houses and we're focused on natural resources and there really isn't anybody in between looking after something like Thunderbird. It's a shame," the spokesman said.
"If we could have had an assurance that the money would be available in six months or a year there would have been no problem, but we had commitments that had to be met, mortgages from strictly financial people," Anderson said. "We had to gear our workings with Dr. Gardner in essentially the same way we had to work ith our creditors."
Anderson and Haynes informed Gardner in March that they would sell in April, and the lots moved rapidly at an average of about $13,500 each, Anderson said.
"It was not like we were thinking the hell with the archeologists. We were thinking hat can we do other than sell it to them. This way they can get in there and dig and have plenty of time and not have to come up with the money," Anderson said.
"From their point of view, they have been extremely cooperative," Gardener said of Anderson and Haynes. "We can get a hell of a lot more done in 10 years than in one year or no years."
But there is a strong edge of bitterness in Gardner's voice as he talks of the site, which has yielded evidence that in 9,500 B.C. as the Ice Age came to an end, Indians were living in fixed settlements, building shelters and making a wide variety of tools in a far more complex civilization than had previously been thought.
Designation as one of 1,500 National Historical Landmarks carries with it the possibility of a 50 per cent matching federal grant to protect a site, but that came too late to help.
"I'll put it this way," Gardner said, "the designation means that it isn't any longer just my word that this site is important. And we also get a bronze plaque to put beside the road - if the state will let us put it on their right of way.
"We're supposed to get those green state signs so people can find us, but the last word was we don't draw enough people (about 20,000 last year) to put the signs up. The only pre-historic site in the Middle Atlantic region with an historic designation and thos bastards won't put up a sign.
"The ideal dream was to turn this into an archeological, ecological research center with field training, and conferences, research grants for graduate students to come and do doctoral dissertations.
"The museum here is the only one in the state devoted exclusively to prehistory in the entire State of Virginia. The only place school groups, the Smithsonian Associates, groups like that can go."
Gardner concedes that part of the responsibility for the failure to secure money to buy the big site rests with himself.
"If we had had a full-time hustler we might have done better," he said. "I just haven't been able to follow up on all these things.
"If I had been able to drop everything and concentrate just on this we might have done it," Gardner said, but that was not possible while heading a department at Catholic University, teaching and directing the activities of the private, nonprofit Thunderbird Research Corp., which drafts environmental impact statements to make money to keep the museum running.
"I'm getting very pessimistic now. We'll keep the museum open through the fall, but if we can't get money or the state to take it over we'll have to close it. It's be a nice experiment that failed," Gardner said.
The archeological digs will go on because Thunderbird is one of the few sites in North America with continuous evidence of habitation over 12,000 years, Gardner said.
"But any other state in the union and we'd have had all sorts of backing for this project," Gardner said.
"You know, if somebody had built a log cabin on this land in the 1700s and George Washington had come by and slept, the state would have bought it up just like that," Gardner said, snapping his fingers.