Preserving our Past at TDOT

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2015, Day 17

Ryan Robinson
Tennessee Department of Transportation

This year marked the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s (TDOT) centennial.  As part of the celebration to commemorate this anniversary, TDOT buried a time capsule at Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park in downtown Nashville and capped it with a granite marker that reads, in part, “Preserving our past, maintaining our present and moving Tennessee into the future.”  As an archeologist with TDOT, the inscription on the granite marker resonates with me and captures the spirit of our approach to our historic preservation responsibilities under the National Historic Preservation Act.

Granite memorial marking TDOT’s time capsule at Bicentennial Mall.

Granite memorial marking TDOT’s time capsule at Bicentennial Mall.

Balancing preservation of the past with the needs of the present is what TDOT archaeology is all about. Our most effective strategy to meet this objective is by designing transportation projects to avoid impacting archaeological sites altogether. For new construction projects, that is, projects not associated with an existing road or bridge, new alignments can be, and often are, realigned to avoid important archaeological sites (see the map below for example). For projects that require adding right-of-way, like the widening of an existing road, avoidance is often accomplished by reconfiguring or reducing the footprint of required right-of-way in the location of the archaeological site. In the past ten months alone, we have managed to avoid impacts to no fewer than six archaeological sites by relocating small parts of overall alignments. And, for those archaeological sites where there is no feasible or prudent way to avoid them, we recover the non-renewable archaeological information they contain through the implementation of a rigorous, scientifically based research design developed in consultation with the State Historic Preservation Office, federally recognized Native American Tribes, and our partner agencies like the Tennessee Division of Archaeology, US Army Corps of Engineers, and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Conceptual map of State Route 150 in Marion County showing an alternate APE (alignment) designed to avoid adverse effects to an archaeological site located along the original APE.

Conceptual map of State Route 150 in Marion County showing an alternate APE (alignment) designed to avoid adverse effects to an archaeological site located along the original APE.

Even though archaeology is a destructive science, it can lead to additional preservation efforts. For example, in the 1990s, improvements to the intersection of Hillsboro Pike and Old Hickory Boulevard in the city of Forest Hills on the Davidson-Williamson County line impacted a portion of the Kellytown site – a Late Mississippian village occupied during the early 15th century. Data recovery excavations in advance of the construction project raised public awareness of the site, which many years later grew into a grass roots effort to preserve remaining portions of Kellytown outside the limits of the original TDOT project. These efforts culminated in 2014 when, with leadership and support from the Friends of Kellytown, Metro Nashville purchased the site to create a greenspace and educational preserve.

View of the floor of a Mississippian house exposed during archaeological data recovery excavations at the Kellytown site.

View of the floor of a Mississippian house exposed during archaeological data recovery excavations at the Kellytown site.

The phrase “preserving our past” may seem like a platitude, especially when used by public agencies and organizations better known for construction and development than for preservation. However, we understand that archaeological sites are non-renewable resources, and therefore take our historic preservation responsibilities seriously, recognizing that the key to creating preservation success stories hinges on positive and productive relationships with our engineers, planners, and consulting archaeologists, as well as our partner agencies and federally recognized Native American Tribes. In doing so, we have succeeded in avoiding more archaeological sites than we have impacted, all the while delivering our small part project development process on time, and contributing positively to TDOT Commissioner John Schroer’s mission to be the best multimodal transportation department in the nation.

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