UO archaeologists help keep state road projects moving

Sifting soil at a road project site

The state has long relied on UO archaeologists to help preserve Oregon’s past, but in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic it’s also counting on them to help preserve its economic future.

As state agencies limit their operations to help slow the spread of coronavirus, the Oregon Department of Transportation is moving forward with critical highway, bridge and culvert construction projects around the state, and staff archaeologists with the Museum of Natural and Cultural History have been on hand throughout to help the agency comply with state and federal cultural preservation requirements.

Housing the state’s most active archaeological research program, the museum is regularly hired by ODOT and other state and federal agencies to survey public works sites for cultural remains and determine whether projects can safely proceed without harm to tribal and other heritage resources. Now, following strict social distancing protocols, museum archaeologists continue to travel to sites to identify, document and protect any cultural materials that may be uncovered during construction.

Tom Connolly, director of archaeological research at the museum, said that as many as a dozen researchers are out conducting fieldwork at various ODOT sites each week.

“To ensure the safety of our staff and partners, we’re limiting travelers to one person per vehicle and limiting our fieldwork to day trips that don’t require staying in motels or eating out,” he said.

A project taking place west of Salem involves the installation of lighting at a busy highway intersection. There, museum archaeologists have identified historic archaeological remains and are currently evaluating whether construction would harm an adjacent 19th-century farmstead site.

In Depoe Bay, Connolly’s team has been assessing the cultural sensitivity of sites where ODOT aims to complete a bridge upgrade and streetscape enhancements. Meanwhile, south of Tillamook, another team member is monitoring construction near a site where the museum previously identified archaeological remains estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 years old.

Stone tool flakeResearchers are also evaluating construction sites on the Siuslaw River north of Mapleton, on Highway 58 near Oakridge, in the downtown historic district of Corvallis and numerous other locations around the state.

Connolly said that the museum’s state contract work would increase in the event that Oregon receives a federal stimulus package for transportation projects.

The team is also assisting with federal projects in Oregon and California, including the Historic Columbia River Highway State Trail project, headed up by the Western Federal Lands Highway Division, and the National Park Service’s effort to add California’s Santa Rosa Island to the National Register of Historic Places.

“While our public spaces are currently closed, the museum is by no means shut down,” said Jon Erlandson, a professor in the anthropology department and the museum’s executive director. “We continue to support Oregon students, educators, tribes and agencies by providing essential services, work that keeps key parts of the state and U.S. economies moving.”

—By Kristin Strommer, Museum of Natural and Cultural History