Across the Great Lakes region, construction crews built about two thousandmiles of new roads in 1999. From conception to completion, building a roadcan be a long process that can easily take twenty years. Much of the workis done before bulldozers move a single mound of dirt. The Great LakesRadio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has the story on one profession youmay not expect to see at a highway construction site:
Across the Great Lakes region, construction crews built about 2-thousand miles of new
roads in 1999. From conception to completion, building a road can be a long process that
can easily take twenty years. And much of the work is done before bulldozers move a
single mound of dirt. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Matt Shafer Powell has the
story on one profession you may not expect to see at a highway construction site.
Dave Ruggles works for the Michigan Department of Transportation, but he doesn’t
operate a backhoe, he’s not part of a survey crew, and he doesn’t direct traffic around a
construction site. Ruggles is an archaeologist.
“It’s not quite the Indiana Jones-fedora-bullwhip-and-.45 kind of approach. Although it
does a lot for Hollywood, it does nothing for Archaeology.”
Ruggles says it’s part of his job at the Department of Transportation to make sure that the
ancient history of an area is taken into consideration before a road goes through it.
“We work very closely with the engineers in helping them design a sensitive design that
accommodates all the needs that best can fit the need for the traveling public.”
Ruggles says it’s a delicate process, one that involves a series of judgment calls. Because
the archaeologists work for the Department of Transportation, they want to see the
project completed as quickly as possible. But they also have the responsibility to protect
the historical integrity of a site. Although they don’t have the authority to stop a project,
their input can slow it down. Dean Anderson says that’s just part of the job. Anderson is
an archaeologist for Michigan’s office of Archaeology. He is one of the many experts
consulted by the DOT.
“There’s a fascinating past to Michigan that’s not in history books but is out there
Anderson says construction crews don’t just go into a site and start digging, especially if
they plan on using federal funds. It’s part of a procedure mandated by the government
under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. First, archaeologists determine
whether or not there are any sites along the proposed route that may be of historical
value. Then, those sites are tested to see if they can be deemed “significant”.
“Archaeology is all about understanding people and the past, and if there’s information
on those sites that can help us do that, the site is significant.”
A significant site may have been part of a major transportation route, such as a river or a
stream or it may have been part of an urban center. It may contain many relics, such as
pottery, animal bones, weapons or tools. And in some cases, it may contain human
Such was the case in 1998, when the New York State Department of Transportation
began to reconstruct one of the streets that ran through the heart of downtown Albany.
Archaeologist Mary Ivey says the project took place near a churchyard cemetery, one that
dated back to the 1600’s. In advance of digging, Ivey says the department took great
pains to identify the location of any graves. So she says it was a big surprise when the
remains of two people were uncovered.
“We were quite sure that we were outside of the cemetery area and in fact, we were. The
human remains that we encountered turned out to be those of some individuals who had
been reburied at some point, possibly taken out of the cemetery and reburied.”
The bodies were between 250 and 300 years old. One of them was still reasonably intact
and Ivey says department officials soon began to call the body “Pearl” after the street
under which she was found. She says archaeologists determined that Pearl lived among
Albany’s poor. They knew she had rickets and sinusitis, she had poor dental health, and
may have suffered from gout.
“To all of us I think it was incredible glimpse not into the history that we read about in
the history books, but the everyday existence for someone living at the time here in
In general, however, Ivey says the New York State DOT would like to avoid disturbing
any remains…or any artifacts for that matter.
“Archeology in its own way is a destructive science. You have to dig up the material to
get the story, but then the material is out of its context forever, so we really try very hard
to avoid the impacts wherever possible.”
In Michigan, the state has gone to considerable lengths to keep the location of these sites
from public eyes. Although they exist as state records, they’re considered so sacred,
they’re not even available under the Freedom of Information act. Dean Anderson says
that’s to keep amateur archaeologists from randomly digging around to enhance their
“which is like tearing pages out of a book to us. It really takes away information that
really helps us understand Michigan’s past.”
Anderson says he can personally understand the natural curiosity people have about what
lies beneath the ground. He says it’s that curiosity that got him involved in archaeology.
But he says it’s often a curiosity better left unfulfilled.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Matt Shafer Powell.