Archeology is the study of the human past through the material remains people left behind, whether arrowheads and pottery, the ruins of structures or refuse at dumpsites. Anything that people created or modified is part of the archeological record.
Why is archeology important?
Over 98 percent of human history in Nebraska occurred prior to written records and the only way to tell the stories of those people is through oral traditions and archeological investigations. Even when written records became common, many aspects of the lives of early Nebraskans were not recorded. Archeology provides an opportunity to learn these unrecorded details of the past, revealing information about how people lived on the land and interacted with their neighbors and the environment that might otherwise remain unknown.
Archeological sites consist of much more than the artifacts seen in museums. The location of artifacts in relation to other artifacts and features at a site provides clues as to how these objects were made and used, and what activities took place at a site. This information, known as the site’s context, often provides more clues about past human behavior than the artifacts themselves. Given the importance of this information in understanding the past, archeologists encourage the preservation of sites when possible, and make every effort to record minute details of a site when excavation is necessary. Field notes, maps, drawings, and photographs are all used to document sites during excavation, as this information can never be recreated once it is removed.
Do archeologists dig up dinosaurs?
No, archeologists are often confused with the scientists who do research fossils, including dinosaurs, known as paleontologists. Although many of the field techniques are very similar, paleontologists are concerned with biology and natural history, and study ancient plant and animal fossils such as mammoths. Archeologists study anthropology and history and investigate sites with some form of human association such as Native American villages or old military forts.
What are artifacts and features?
An artifact is an object made or modified by humans, including bone and shell tools and ornaments, stone tools and production debris, ceramic vessels, metal objects, etc. Features are physical structures or elements that are constructed or altered by human activity, often immovable from a site, including pits, walls, and ditches.
More than 10,600 sites have been recorded to date. These include campsites, rock shelters, earth lodge villages, homesteads, townsites, and forts. Keep in mind that archeologists have only looked at a very small percentage of the land in Nebraska. There are likely many more sites across the state that have yet to be discovered.
How long have people lived in Nebraska?
The oldest artifacts discovered in Nebraska are Clovis spear points which date to about 13,500 years ago. The Clovis people are likely distant ancestors of modern Native Americans. Although new information and theories about the peopling of the Americas are constantly emerging, and it is probable that people were in North America before Clovis, no pre-Clovis sites have been definitively found in Nebraska to date.
What tribes are from Nebraska?
Many tribes once lived permanently or seasonally in what is now Nebraska. Three tribes currently have a reservation mostly in Nebraska: The Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, and Santee Sioux Nation. The Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska and the Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska reservations both have small portions in Richardson County, NE. The Ponca Tribe of Nebraska or Northern Ponca Tribe does not have a reservation, but their tribal government is centered in Nebraska and they lived in Nebraska historically. Other Historic Tribes that once lived in Nebraska include Arapaho, various Lakota groups, Oto, Ioway, Missouria, Plains Apache, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Comanche, Kansa, Crow, Kiowa, Arikara, and possibly others.
How do I find information about archeological sites in Nebraska?
Information can be obtained from History Nebraska and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission about archeological sites and historical state parks that are open to the public. The Nebraska Master Site File is a paper file archive and computer database of over 10,600 documented archeological sites in Nebraska. Contact the History Nebraska State Archeology Office for assistance with obtaining information related to specific sites. [Note that some information, including site locations, is restricted and may not be available to the public.]
Finding and Identifying Artifacts
Collecting artifacts and metal detecting on private land with the permission of the property owner is not illegal. The exception to that is if collecting involves human burials or mortuary objects regardless of land ownership. However, History Nebraska recommends leaving artifacts in place, unless the site is in immediate danger from construction or erosion.
Collecting on public lands (i.e. state parks, national forests) is generally prohibited although the regulations of specific land-owning agencies should be consulted for details.
Can someone identify my artifacts? What is their monetary worth?
History Nebraska Archeologists may be able to provide assistance in identifying the function and age of artifacts. If possible, please send digital images of the artifacts to Archeological Collections. Archeologists may also be available to look at your items by appointment; however, it is not uncommon for staff to be out of the office doing fieldwork.
History Nebraska does not appraise items for monetary worth under any circumstance.
Identifying sites is the first step in protecting them and learning what they might tell us about the past.
Despite years of research, many of the state’s archeological resources remain unknown. This is due to a number of factors, including the limited number of archeologists working in the state, limited funding for archeological research, and limited access to lands for survey. Increasing our collective knowledge of Nebraska’s archeological heritage is very dependent on the help of landowners and local residents who know the land and resources best. As more sites are identified, we are able to better answer questions about the past people in Nebraska, including who lived here, what they ate, where they came from, and how the experience of living on the plains changed over time.
Archeological sites are truly non-renewable resources. Once they are gone, they can never be restored. Knowing the location of sites means we can avoid inadvertently destroying them through construction and development. We cannot protect sites if we do not know they exist.
Reporting a site is simple. You can contact History Nebraska to report the location of artifacts and types of materials discovered in Nebraska. An archeological site form is available to help document the site. Contact the Curator of Archeological Collections with questions about documenting a site.
If I report a site, how will that information be used?
When sites are reported to History Nebraska, the information will be added to our site file and geographic databases. These databases are accessible only by professional archeologists in the course of cultural resources management undertakings or research. Information about site locations is protected by law and exempted from freedom of information requests. This information is kept confidential so that site owners will not be disturbed by trespassers, and sites will not be damaged or destroyed by vandals.
Reporting a site on your property does not in any way restrict the use of your property or grant permission for others to conduct research at the site. History Nebraska archeologists are only interested in recording the site’s location and artifacts from your site for research purposes with the aim of expanding our knowledge of our state’s past.
Remember: Reporting sites does not jeopardize your ownership, does not place any restrictions on your property, and does not require you to open the site for archeological investigation or public visitation.
How do I protect archeological resources on my property?
The first step in protecting sites is to identify and report them. Read “Archeology in Nebraska: A Guide for Landowners” to learn more about the steps you can take to protect archeological resources on your property.
Good stewardship begins with responsible actions. Archeological sites can offer significant insights about the past. They can also be prime targets for pothunters and looters. While it is legally permissible to allow the collection of artifacts on your property, site integrity and significance is diminished as artifacts are removed. Since any excavation activity is destructive, it is recommended that you do not dig or allow others to access your property for this purpose.
I have encountered human remains, what should I do?
If you suspect that human remains and grave goods (funerary objects) are found on NON-FEDERAL PROPERTY, contact local law enforcement immediately. Local law enforcement and the county attorney will determine if the site is an active crime scene and then contact the archeologists at History Nebraska if necessary. Under the provisions of the “Nebraska Unmarked Human Skeletal Remains and Burial Goods Protection Act,” when human skeletal remains and burial goods are discovered and law enforcement determines a crime is not involved, division staff will be contacted by the appropriate county attorney’s office. Staff are required to conduct an on-site investigation to determine the origin and identity of the remains and promptly relate our finding in writing to the county attorney and interested parties, who may include: a descendant Indian Tribe, a descendant family, or the Nebraska Indian Commission. Field evaluations may consist of inspection of disinterred or intact remains or artifacts. Disinterred remains may be collected and turned over to descendent parties or the county attorney for reburial. Intact remains are to be left in place. The only specified exception to this procedure involves intact materials encountered during public highway, road, or street construction. These remains may be excavated and reinterred to allow continuation of construction.
If you suspect human remains have been found on FEDERAL PROPERTY (such as land managed by the National Park Service, the US Army Corps of Engineers, or the National Forest Service), contact managers of that agency or if unavailable, local law enforcement.
When artifacts are collected by or donated to History Nebraska, they are typically taken to the lab to be sorted, washed, and identified by archeological technicians and volunteers, with the help of professional archeologists. Once these collections have been analyzed, they are labeled and cataloged, and then organized into containers created for long-term protection and preservation. These collections are then stored in our archeology compact storage unit, which allows for controlled access and the monitoring of environmental conditions, including temperature and humidity.
Some of Nebraska’s most significant and interesting artifacts end up being displayed in museums. The remaining thousands of artifacts in our collections are invaluable to understanding the past and are open to detailed study by visiting archeologists and students. These studies are often published and become part of the ever-changing story of Nebraska’s past.
How do I access state artifact collections?
Contact the Curator of Archeological Collections for assistance or information about conducting archeological research at the SAO, loans of artifacts to museums or other public exhibit venues, loans for research purposes, or for other information such as what types of artifacts, archaeological sites or historic eras are represented in state archeological collections. Because of the restricted nature of archeological site locations, many resources housed at the SAO are not open for access to the general public.
Can I donate my archeological collection to History Nebraska?
Artifacts found on private land are the property of the landowner with the exception of human remains or funerary objects. History Nebraska may be interested in acquiring unique or very significant archeological artifacts from Nebraska. However, due to limited space and an extensive collection of archeological objects already in place, History Nebraska rarely accepts donations of archeological collections. Potential donations can be directed to the Curator of Archeological Collections. For more information, view History Nebraska’s Collections Policy.
State Archeology Office
The State Archeology Office preserves, explores, and interprets Nebraska’s archeological sites and other historic resources for the benefit of the public and the advancement of knowledge. The office maintains the master file of all archeological sites discovered and projects conducted in the state. The SAO curates the primary records from archeological research as well as the collections recovered through History Nebraska fieldwork, as well as for other governmental agencies on a contractual basis. Staff archeologists are actively involved in field and laboratory research via cultural resource management contracts and grants. The most active component of this research is the Nebraska Highway Cultural Resources Program. Staff also assists in the recovery of human skeletal remains during inadvertent discoveries, as well as repatriation efforts with descendent tribes and families.
Where does funding come from?
Several state and federal laws require planning for government-funded construction projects to include a consideration of impacts to archeological sites. As a result, the majority of archeological research in the state is in response to these guidelines and the funding for studies is provided by contracts with the appropriate government agencies. Additional funding originates with private donations and research grants.
How is the Nebraska Department of Transportation involved?
Several state and federal laws require planning for government-funded construction projects to include identifying and minimizing impacts to significant cultural resources, including archeological sites and historic structures. Much of the archeological research in Nebraska is conducted in cooperation with one of the major earthmovers in the state, the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT). Through a long-standing agreement, the History Nebraska Highway Cultural Resources Program helps the NDOT meet requirements for consideration of impacts to archeological and historic properties, while assisting us in the discovery and understanding of Nebraska’s past. Visit dot.nebraska.gov more information.
Depending on available funding, students can conduct independent projects and thesis research on History Nebraska collections, work as archeological technicians, and volunteer in the lab and/or the field.
All students, including high school students, are welcome to visit the Archeology Division to tour our facility and learn more about careers in Archeology. Advanced scheduling is necessary – contact the State Archeologist for more information.
What opportunities exist for volunteers?
Volunteers can participate in lab and fieldwork as projects allow, where they obtain experience in archeological methods while contributing to important research. Many volunteer projects are coordinated with the History Nebraska Foundation or the Nebraska Archeological Society. For information on current volunteer opportunities, contact the State Archeologist.