Highway projects open window to the past

'The artifacts tell us so much about the lives of the people who were here before us.'

Every highway has a story behind it – or beneath it. Why was it built? Why that spot? What was there before? The answers often reveal a surprising historic perspective of movement through a landscape.

Transportation corridors typically reflect ancient pathways. The same corridors used by the earliest Idahoans are the ones now widened and covered with asphalt or cement. The reasons ancient ancestors pounded out footpaths along rivers and through mountain crevices are the same ones for selecting modern-day passages: They are the easiest and most sensible routes.

Top ITD Archaeological digs

Several large-scale archaeological excavations have been completed as a result of ITD transportation projects. Two of the largest in terms of number of artifacts recovered are:

1. The Hatwai site located in District 2

The U.S. Highway 95/U.S. Highway 12 road improvement project adjacent to Hatwai Creek in the late 1970s uncovered artifacts from more than 11,000 years of prehistory. Excavation work was completed under the direction of Ken Ames, former ITD State Highway Archaeologist (1975 – 1978).

After leaving Idaho, Ames took the collection with him to Portland State University where he was a professor. ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds are being used to return the collection to Idaho and archive it at the University of Idaho.

2. The historic Sandpoint town site in District 1.

The U.S. Highway 95 Sandpoint North and South roadway improvement projects revealed four sites associated with the historic 19th century Sandpoint town site. Archaeological excavations resulted in the recovery of more than 800,000 artifacts.

This is arguably the largest archaeological dig in the state’s history and provided significant information about the daily lives of the ethnic people who dwelled there, including Chinese and Japanese workers who built the area’s railroads, and the women who lived in the “Restricted District” along the eastern bank of Sand Creek.

Just as building a highway inevitably leads to increased development, so the ancient pathways enticed the building of the first communities. In Idaho, there were Native American tribes such as the Nez Perce and the Bannock, Spanish and French explorers, early pioneers along with Chinese miners and railroad workers.

Fragments of those long-ago cultures often lay dormant for centuries beneath the soil adjacent to and under roadways – until a new highway project begins, and the turned-over dirt reveals hidden treasures.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (NHPA) requires that all federally funded projects, including transportation, assess impacts to historic and archaeological resources that might occur as a result of construction. In cases where archaeologically significant items are found, the site often is excavated to recover artifacts and information before the road project can proceed.

As a result, ITD has recovered thousands of artifacts from highway construction projects for more than 40 years. Most of the items are bits and pieces of ceramic bowls and pipes, glass bottles, or Native American stone tools such as arrowheads, spear points and grinding stones.

Often the items are recovered quickly and do not require significant delays in highway construction. However, a few major finds in Idaho have produced hundreds of thousands of items that have required extraordinary attention to detail related to their extraction and removal (see accompanying details).

By 2004, ITD’s collection represented excavations at more than 86 distinct archaeological sites statewide and filled about 120 cardboard boxes. Until recently, they were stored in the East Annex building at ITD headquarters in Boise.

“The situation was hardly ideal,” said ITD State Highway Archaeologist Marc Münch.

He wrote a grant proposal and successfully obtained $150,000 in federal stimulus funds to properly curate the important collections.

“It is the responsibility of both ITD and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to ensure that any artifacts recovered as part of our transportation projects, are properly curated,” he said.

Earlier this summer, the artifact-filled boxes were transported from the Headquarters Annex to three repositories around the state where they will be systematically catalogued, organized and permanently stored. These repositories are:

  • Idaho State Historical Society, Archaeological Survey of Idaho
  • Idaho State University, Idaho Museum of Natural History
  • University of Idaho, Alfred W. Bowers Laboratory of Anthropology

The stimulus funds have been used to hire six people to catalog, organize, analyze, and in some cases, interpret the artifacts, as well as place them in new storage containers that meet federal guidelines. The target completion date is the end of 2011.

“This project will result in the preservation and long-term maintenance of these important artifact collections for generations to come,” Münch said.

Glenda King, Curator of Archaeology at the Idaho State Historical Society, says the archaeological finds not only will be fully identified and encapsulated in appropriate acid-free packaging, but will be added to the state’s electronic databases for further study and education.

“The objects, documents associated with their recovery and analysis, and the electronic information are now part of the Archaeological Survey of Idaho,” King explained.

“The Survey was created by the Idaho State Legislature in 1990 to ensure that archaeological materials recovered in Idaho do not leave the state, but remain here within the educational system where they are accessible to the state’s universities and are available for the enjoyment and education of Idaho citizens,” King added.

In fact, Münch plans to create an educational display about some of the ITD recovered artifacts included in this curation project to share with the public. Münch regularly participates in several educational programs for the Boise and Meridian School Districts where he provides a show-and-tell for students that allows them to learn about Idaho’s rich history through ITD’s collections. “The artifacts tell us so much about the lives of the people who were here before us.”

Photos: Native Americans patiently chipped away pieces of obsidian to form arrowheads, spear points and knives (top); a glass bottle in nearly perfect condition (middle); new storage racks help protect catalogues artifacts (bottom).

Published 7-30-2010