TDOT Archaeology: Balancing Past and Present
Phillip Hodge, Archaeologist Supervisor
Tennessee Department of Transportation
Sometimes people are baffled when I tell them I’m a professional archaeologist and that I work at TDOT. The typical follow-up question goes something like this: why does TDOT do archaeology and why do they need archaeologists? I usually say there’s a short answer to this question, and a longer, more complicated one.
The short answer is that it’s required by federal law. Since TDOT works on behalf of the Federal Highway Administration to administer the Federal Aid Highway and Bridge Replacement Programs, which is how the majority of transportation projects are funded in the United States, one of the laws they have to comply with is the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The NHPA was signed into law in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson and requires all federal agencies, or recipients of federal funds or permits, to take into account the effects of their projects on historic buildings, historic districts, and archaeological sites. Agencies like TDOT have archaeologists and historians on staff to identify archaeological and historical resources that might be affected by construction projects.
This inevitably leads to a second question, and to the long answer: Ok, why do we need the National Historic Preservation Act? Isn’t it just another layer of regulations and bureaucracy that drives up costs and drags out construction that inconveniences us all? As Presidential candidates often say, let’s take the second part first. Yes, it is regulatory and it is bureaucratic, but, when compared to what society gains, its benefits far and away exceed the costs. Archaeological sites are non-renewable resources that contain information about the past that cannot be obtained from any other source. After all, there’s thousands of years of Native American history in Tennessee pre-dating the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century. Not to mention the histories of marginalized peoples, like enslaved African-Americans, women, ethnic minorities and the poor, that simply were not recorded in official records. Archaeology is the only way to fill in these very real gaps in the historical record and, in effect, becomes the only way to tell the whole truth about the past.
Through the National Historic Preservation Act we are able to systematically survey the ruins and remains of the past – everyone’s past – which not only creates an inventory of these resources before they are destroyed, but it also provides a process to evaluate the importance of each site and determine which ones warrant further investigation and investment of taxpayer dollars. Lest this be seen as frivolous spending, or reflecting the interests of an academic minority, an oft-cited Harris Poll on the public perception of archaeology found that a clear majority of Americans – almost 100% – support laws to protect archaeological resources and that public funds should be used to do so (Ramos and Duganne 2000).
Let’s return to TDOT. TDOT is one of the largest and most active development agencies in the state, with an annual budget of almost two billion dollars spread over 500 transportation construction projects from Bristol to Memphis and everywhere in between. The Tennessee State Historic Preservation Office (TN-SHPO) reviews all state and federal projects conducted under the National Historic Preservation Act and has maintained a database of these projects since 1985. Over the last 30 years, the TN-SHPO determined that in excess of 8,000 TDOT projects were submitted to their office for review (Garrison 2013). Of which, almost 25% identified one or more archaeological sites. These numbers, along with the scope and extent of TDOT’s program, show that TDOT has more potential to encounter and investigate archaeological sites in more places than any other organization in the state – public, private, and non-profit.
As such, TDOT has made many important contributions to the understanding of Tennessee’s prehistoric and historic past. For example, during the 1980s and 1990s, there was a boom in large scale transportation construction as a result of then Governor Lamar Alexander’s initiative to connect every county seat with an interstate. This resulted in the discovery and investigation of hundreds of archaeological sites that would have otherwise gone undiscovered and, in all likelihood, would’ve been destroyed. Another more recent example comes from Rhea County, where TDOT discovered the lost city of Old Washington along Highway 30 near Dayton. Old Washington was an important river town on the Tennessee River that was abandoned after the founding of Dayton in the late 19th century and subsequently lost to time and floods. There is no above-ground trace of Old Washington today, but our work there discovered that the entire town, including the courthouse, is likely preserved as an archaeological site (Grantz-Bastianini and Fuess 2012).
TDOT Archaeology’s contribution to the state is not limited to knowledge about the past. Our projects also create jobs and contribute to local economies. Take for example a recent bridge replacement project on Highway 13 over the Buffalo River in Perry County. Our work there led to the discovery and full-scale excavation of the “Riley” site, an ancient Native American settlement. During the multi-year archaeological excavations and subsequent construction, TDOT was one of the largest employers in Perry County and the crews working on these projects lived at local hotels, ate at local restaurants, and shopped at local stores. TDOT’s relationship with Perry County didn’t end with the opening of the new bridge, as TDOT archaeologists continue to work with local officials to develop interpretive displays based on the discoveries made at the Riley site.
Working closely and cooperatively with the TN-SHPO, the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, and federally recognized Native American Tribes, public agencies like TDOT, TVA, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers attempt to balance the preservation and protection of archaeological sites with the development needs of the present. In doing so, agency archaeologists in Tennessee and across the nation work hard to ensure that both the letter and spirit of the National Historic Preservation Act are fulfilled and, in this way, serve as stewards of our nation’s unique and irreplaceable archaeological record.
For more information on TDOT and FHWA’s archaeology programs, please visit these websites: http://www.tdot.state.tn.us/environment/archeology/ and http://www.environment.fhwa.dot.gov/histpres/archaeology.asp.
Ramos, Maria and David Duganne
2000 Exploring Public Perceptions about Archaeology. Electronic document, http://www.saa.org/Portals/0/SAA/pubedu/nrptdraft4.pdf, accessed September 4, 2014
Garrison, Joseph Y.
2013 The Tennessee Department of Transportation and Section 106 Review 1985-2012. The Courier 61(3): 19. http://www.tn.gov/environment/history/docs/courier_jun13.pdf
Grantz-Bastianini, Denise and Martin Fuess
2013 Phase I Archaeological Survey of State Route 30 from State Route 29 in Dayton to the Tennessee River, Rhea County, Tennessee. Michael Baker Corporation. Submitted to Tennessee Department of Transportation, Nashville. Copies available from TDOT.