The Nebraska Highway Archeology Program—Rescuing Important Historical Information in the Path of Road Building Since 1959

What does archaeology have to do with highways? Are we digging up ruins of hold highways? Why would anyone do that? Highway archaeology is about identifying important archaeological sites, bridges, and historic buildings prior to road construction. It’s a cooperative relationship between two sets for professionals that you might think would be at odds. We need roads, and it’s the job of the Nebraska Department of Roads to build and maintain them. But doing so can impact sites that reveal the secrets of Nebraska’s past. Important information can be lost forever.

This became a big deal in the 1950s during the planning stages of Interstate 80. People had concerns over impacts to Native American burials and Oregon Trail remnants. In response, the Nebraska Department of Roads and the Nebraska State Historical Society created the Nebraska Highway Archaeology Program (NHAP) in 1959. Over nearly six decades, NSHS archaeologists and historic architects have identified hundreds of sites. Dozens of these have become the focus of major field investigations and research projects. The program also provides public outreach programs and volunteer opportunities in the field and the laboratory. It has allowed many University of Nebraska-Lincoln archaeology students to gain practical experience.

Highway archaeology has made significant contributions to understanding all aspects of Nebraska’s past, from early Native American hunter-gatherers and farmers, to post-contact tribes, to Euro-American explorers and settlers.*   — Rob Bozell, (former) Associate Director and Archaeologist, Nebraska State Historical Society *This blog post is the first in a series, so come back for more information about these subjects!


In the 1960s, highway archeologists worked hard to recover important information from archeological sites shortly before it is lost permanently. Today’s staff has traded in the pith helmets and ‘safari shorts’ for orange hard hats and safety vests.

Later the same summer, the same UN-L crew excavated another Native American lodge discovered before construction of the Mahoney State Park I-80 Interchange between Lincoln and Omaha. The three students mapping are all still archeologists today working for various government agencies.

In 1989, Society highway archeologists were assisted by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Archeological Fieldschool in excavating and mapping a 700 year old Native American lodge in Butler County. The high spot where the lodge was buried was taken for highway construction fill dirt only moments after the UNL team finished final mapping.

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