Helping Reconstruct the Past...A Cooperative Venture

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 Transportation (NDOT) 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.


Early Efforts

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, Nebraska’s Legislature passed a law authorizing NDOT 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, NDOT 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. NDOT provides Society archeologists and historians with construction plans several years prior to project construction. Those persons work full-time surveying the right of way and borrow areas of the Department’s 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 NDOT Project Development Division staff work together to craft a mitigation plan, which can be accomplished by minor design changes to avoid the property. In addition to state highway projects, federally funded city and county projects are coordinated by NDOT.


Historical Society records indicate that approximately 420 submittals have been received in the past two years for review. Over 250 of the submittals dealt with roadway projects on primary highways, over 100 involved county projects, 52 were ISTEA (Intermodal SurfaceTransportation Efficiency Act) projects, and four were urban projects. Early identification allows for avoidance of sensitive sites by using design options.


A Record of Success

Since the partnership between the three agencies began, a significant number of discoveries have been made. Recent notable finds include Major Stephen Long’s Scientific Expedition (1819-1820), an engineer cantonment area in Washington County. Excavations produced a wide variety of fur trade/early American-period artifacts and food remains in the buried ruins of log cabins built by members of Long’s scientific expedition. This was the subject of one of PBS’s “History Detectives” series.


A Fort Mitchell military site was excavated in Scotts Bluff County. A Pawnee Indian Tribe community was recently uncovered at Genoa, Nebraska, along with the finding of food storage areas and early tokens of the City of Genoa. Nebraska Highway 71 excavation through the Wildcat Hills south of Gering, Nebraska, unearthed fossils of at least 65 different animals that roamed Nebraska 22 million years ago.


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. NDOT 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.


In 2002, NDOT was awarded the Asa T. Hill Memorial Award. This award was given to NDOT for its half-century of partnership with the State Historical Society. This partnership has resulted in the location and excavation of an 1880's Lincoln pottery factory; Civil War-era homesteads; Native American flint workshops; Pawnee Indian buffalo hunting camps; an Omaha Indian village, and portions of historic downtown Brownville.


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 Transportation 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. With the continuation of archaeology/paleontology activities in the years ahead, the advancement of our understanding of past Plains cultures will continue.