Helping Reconstruct the Past...
Nebraska's plains and rolling hills have not always been as they are today. Eons ago, prehistoric animals, large bears, camels, elephants, and other strange creatures wandered over a landscape that was very different from the one we are familiar with. (It has been estimated that there are more elephants buried in Nebraska than there are alive today in Africa!) Later in the timeline, historic Native American settlements dotted the land we now call Nebraska.
As one of the major earthmovers in the state, the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR) is frequently in the position of being among the first to uncover evidence of historic significance. By taking part in a cooperative program of archaeological and paleontological salvage, we assist experts in other fields as they study the history of Nebraska and the planet. But we're not novices to the idea of preserving the past.
Since 1937, there has been a provision in our Standard Specifications for Highway Construction that requires contractors to suspend operations whenever excavation uncovers articles of historical or geological interest. Even before 1937, several of our district engineers who had an amateur interest in archaeology and paleontology successfully encouraged cooperative contractors to treat such items with care.
In 1959, Nebraskaís Legislature passed a law authorizing NDOR to enter into agreements with the appropriate state agencies to remove and preserve archaeological, paleontological, and historical remains when such remains were to be disturbed by highway construction. This legislation also authorized the use of highway funds for this specific purpose. At that time, federal legislation had not been enacted to cover this type of work. Nebraska and New Mexico were the first states in the country to develop such cooperative programs.
The Current Program Takes Shape
Using the 1959 legislation as a springboard, in 1960, NDOR entered into agreements with the Nebraska State Historical Society and the University of Nebraska to evaluate all bridges, standing structures, and archaeological sites potentially impacted by construction. NDOR provides Society archeologists and historians with construction plans several years prior to project construction. Those persons work full-time surveying the rights of way and borrow areas of the Departmentís projects. They institute background literature searches, review aerial photos, conduct in-field reconnaissance. Archaeologists test excavations to locate historic sites and evaluate them for eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. Paleontologists test excavations to locate significant fossil sites. When such extraordinary sites are discovered, University, Society, and NDOR Project Development Division staff work together to craft a mitigation plan, which can be accomplished by minor design changes to avoid the property.
A Record of Success
In the past decade, the Highway Archaeology Program has evaluated over 1,000 proposed highway improvements, discovered over 200 previously unrecorded archeological sites, and photo documented hundreds of standing structures. NDOR also completed an evaluation of all bridges in the state for their historic significance. About 100 were found to be eligible for the National Register. When these are scheduled for replacement, they will be preserved in place, recorded, or moved. In the rare cases when National Register-caliber archaeological sites can not be avoided, systematic excavations are undertaken to recover valuable scientific information. Such information has advanced our understanding of past Great Plains cultures and increased tourism appeal. Examples of major excavations funded by the Department of Roads include: an 1870s pottery factory in Lincoln, a Civil War-era homestead, Pawnee Indian buffalo hunting camps, portions of historic territorial-period towns, and Native American villages. Overall, this program results in a win-win situation where everyone benefits from the joint efforts of the agencies involved.
For the Future
Today every state in the country has a mechanism for the rescue of significant archeological and historic properties discovered in the path of highway construction and rehabilitation. The Nebraska Department of Roads is proud to have been there at the beginning of these modern programs, and we look forward to continuing our cooperative efforts to preserve our history.
For more information on the NDOR Cooperative Salvage Program, contact Cynthia Veys.