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Archaeological finds reveal our stories before highways get built

Maryland Department of Transportation Chief of Cultural Resources Julie Schablitsky and her crew examine artifacts at the homesite of abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s father in Dorchester County last year. Many states have archaeologists who help excavate and preserve artifacts. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Transportation via

By Jenni Bergal

When Julie Schablitsky’s team discovered a 19th century homestead during an archaeological dig in the path of a planned state highway project in Montgomery County, she was thrilled.

As the Maryland Department of Transportation’s chief of cultural resources, Schablitsky, an archaeologist, knew that digs often uncover interesting artifacts, but this one in 2007 was even more special.

Researchers eventually learned that an enslaved woman named Malinda Jackson had lived with her family in a cabin on the several-acre site, which Jackson later bought after she was emancipated.

The team not only found evidence of the dwelling, which had burned down long ago, but also recovered more than 160,000 artifacts, including melted glass bottles, burned plates and toys, all of which allowed them to reconstruct how the family lived.

“It was an amazing site,” Schablitsky said. “We even found evidence they were using West African spirit practices to protect the home.”

Schablitsky’s team also was able to locate Jackson’s descendants, who still lived in the area but knew nothing of the homestead. Family members were fascinated to learn about their ancestors and the history, she said.

“Archaeologists aren’t just there to dig up old things and put them in a box in a museum somewhere,” she said. “Our job is to reach communities. They may not have that family history written down.”

The highway eventually went through the site, but the state installed interpretive signs and a bench along a bike path near the former cabin.

Across the country, archaeologists working for state departments of transportation help excavate and preserve artifacts before road or bridge construction begins and the items are lost forever. In some states, archaeologists also offer expertise to other government agencies, even if the job may not involve road or bridge work.

Such professionals are called highway archaeologists, and they have helped uncover everything from prehistoric animal bones, stone tools and ancient ruins to remnants of 17th and 18th century farmsteads, historic mills and military forts.

“Highway archaeologists are the ones who have the expertise to understand the importance and interest that the public and others have in archaeological sites,” said Owen Lindauer, chief archaeologist at the Federal Highway Administration, which provides the state agencies with funding, guidance and technical assistance. “They also understand the need for highway departments to build the road and make improvements but do it in a way that minimizes the impact on those sites.”

Lindauer said most state DOTs have an archaeologist or a team of them on staff, but they also hire consultant archaeologists, who conduct digs and provide other assistance.

State DOTs are required to take these steps before they move ahead with a road or bridge project. That’s because of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, which established the National Register of Historic Places and set federal policy for preserving the nation’s heritage.

Every state transportation agency gets federal funding or approvals for projects. The law requires that in advance of that, states must identify and evaluate cultural resources and then consider the construction’s potential impact on a historic property, Lindauer said.

That means archaeologists and architectural historians need to identify whether there is anything historic or worthy of preservation on the site and then assess whether the project would have any adverse effect and how to resolve it.

State highway archaeologists typically start out doing cultural research surveys, reviewing aerial photos and historic maps and screening soil.

“We first try to avoid affecting a historic property,” said Kevin Mock, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation’s lead archaeologist. “As much as archaeologists love to dig holes and find stuff, our primary mission is not to disturb it.”

But if highway archaeologists do have to dig, they look for the presence of artifacts, and if they find them, they may do a full excavation.

If the archaeologists come across a historical or archaeological site that needs to be saved, they may recommend that engineers avoid the site or make minor changes to design around it. If that’s not possible, they may archaeologically excavate, collect information and remove whatever is important.

Highway archaeologists are required to preserve any artifacts they find on state or federal land at a state repository, typically a state historical agency or museum, where they are curated and can be studied by scholars or researchers, according to Lindauer. Some states publish photos of the artifacts on their websites or put them on public display.

In many states, if the archaeologists find artifacts on private land, those items belong to the owners. But the archaeologists usually get the owners to agree to donate the collection to the state.

Schablitsky said her team of eight archaeologists determines a project’s effect on everything below ground. The archaeologists work with a team of four staff architectural historians, who determine the impact on everything above ground, such as historic bridges or buildings. The agency also spends more than $1 million a year for outside consultants who conduct archaeological excavations and document architectural history.

“Not everything needs to be saved or is going to give us some information we don’t already know,” she said. “But some archaeological sites have the potential to reveal stories and history, such as what people who were enslaved did on a daily basis and what they ate, that’s not captured in archives or documents.”

Archaeologists can analyze animal bones and find, for example, that enslaved people ate low quality cuts of beef and pork and supplemented their diet with raccoons, turtles, rabbits, crabs and fish, she said.

Schablitsky conceded that sometimes there’s a clash between transportation officials eager to get a project constructed by a target date, and archaeologists who want to slow the process and take time to investigate.

“Everyone has to get a job done,” she said. “Being a highway archeologist, you have to be an advocate for an archaeological site. But at the same time, you’re working for a construction agency. The goal is to get projects built but have as little impact as possible on cultural and environmental resources.”

In the end, highway archaeologists say transportation officials usually listen to and respect their input.

“Our leaders realize the importance of what we’re doing,” Schablitsky said. “If we’re going to the mat, it has to be significant.”

When archaeologists found ruins at the historic Simpsonville Mill in Howard County, for example, transportation engineers designed around it and put an elevated highway over it rather than tear it down, she said. The public now can visit the site.

Schablitsky’s team also partners with other agencies on projects. Earlier this year, it worked with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources to help excavate two small mid-19th century cabins at the historic Elkridge Furnace in Howard County. Archaeologists uncovered brick floors, stone foundations and other artifacts.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the furnace used enslaved, indentured and convict labor, and the site now is part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

Last year, the team again worked with the natural resources agency and helped discover a historic home site on a federal wildlife refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that was once lived in by the father of famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who helped people escape north through the Underground Railroad.

In Nebraska, which has one of the oldest highway archaeology programs in the nation, begun in 1960, archaeologists from History Nebraska, the state historical society, work with the state Department of Transportation as consultants, said Stacy Stupka, the agency’s cultural resources manager.

Stupka, an archaeologist, said she and the other archaeologist on staff review the work and make sure it meets all the state and federal guidelines. They occasionally participate in field surveys and excavations when they can, she added, and hire consultants for digs.

Highway archaeologists in Nebraska have found everything from prehistoric stone tools, pottery and dishes to remnants of farmsteads, historic flour mills and military forts.

Among the team’s discoveries: fur trade and early American artifacts and food remains in the buried ruins of log cabins built by Major Stephen Long’s scientific expedition in the early 19th century.

“The artifacts themselves are less important to us than the story they might tell about the people who lived there. The way we learn about them is found within the site,” she said. “People leave an imprint on the landscape, and we don’t always have written records about how they lived and where they lived. Even if we have written records, they don’t always tell the truth.”

Stupka said for the most part, her team has a primary strategy of not collecting anything or disturbing an archaeological site.

If they come across an ancient Native American burial location, for example, their first recommendation would be to avoid construction work in that area.

“That’s the most respectful thing to do,” Stupka said. “If it can’t be avoided, then we do a lot of consultation with tribes to determine the best course of action.”

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Transportation has six archaeologists and one archaeologist supervisor, plus the same number of architectural historians on staff who assess whether projects would affect historic properties, according to the agency’s Mock. The archaeologists do some digging themselves and get help from students from a summer internship program with a state college. For bigger projects, they hire consultants for excavations.

Mock said highway archaeologists have found everything from Native American stone tools and pottery dating back several thousand years to 18th and 19th century Euro-American household refuse.

“People on the farmstead would just throw all their waste out their back door, such as dinner plates and glassware,” he said. “We use that to reconstruct how people lived back then.

“We provide a good public service for our citizens,” Mock said. “We’re the ones recovering the history of Pennsylvania.”


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Archaeological finds reveal our stories before highways get built