Discussions about Lincoln’s South Beltway project began approximately 25 years ago. Construction started in March 2020. Before the project could begin, the Nebraska Historical Society had to verify the absence of any significant archeological sites in the path of the construction.
In 1959, the NHS reached an agreement with the Nebraska Department of Transportation to look for significant archeological sites, standing structures and historical bridges prior to construction. Seven years later, Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, making it a law that federal projects using government money or land would have to check for such sites prior to construction.
Nolan Johnson has been a highway archaeologist for the NHS since 2012. His primary responsibility is scouting for potential sites prior to the start of construction projects.
“Every time there’s a road that gets improved, or a bridge that gets built, or like a couple years ago during all that flooding, when all those bridges washed out across the state, we’re out there looking for historic buildings and archeological sites,” Johnson said.
In the mid-90s when the beltway project was proposed, researchers from the University of Nebraska were contracted to conduct the archeological work. So in 2015, when it became clear the beltway project was going to proceed, Johnson went over the adjusted construction plans and scoured the areas along the new path for potential significant sites.
“The summer of 2015 was the first effort,” he said. “We surveyed a whole bunch of stuff, and we found some archeological sites, but none of them were significant. There was nothing we needed to do further work on.”
The element of significance is the central part of what needs to exist in order for a site to pause construction.
“We find a lot of archeological sites, but most of them turn out to be not significant,” Johnson said. “The preservation laws basically say it has to be able to tell you stuff you don’t already know. So a lot of sites are scattered stone tools or the parts you knock off to make arrowheads. You find those all over, but they don’t really tell you anything you don’t already know. Our job is to make sure irreplaceable historic resources aren’t needlessly destroyed by infrastructure projects.”
Last fall, the plan for the beltway added large overhead road signs. To put these up, crews had to place the footings approximately 30 feet in the ground. This meant additional work needed to be done below the surface to determine if significant sites would be disturbed.
To do so, the NHS used a coring machine to dig out 4-inch diameter cores of dirt which were then taken back to their lab. There, researchers soaked the cores in water to loosen them up and sift them through various screens to find any significant artifacts.
The coring project unearthed primarily “farmstead scatter” such as nails and broken plates from the early 1900s which does not meet the significance criteria. Because of that, the beltway project can proceed in the good graces of the NHS — a good thing in Johnson’s eyes.
“We all have the same goal, right,” he said. “We all want these roads to get built. We all drive on the same roads. We all want safe and reliable transportation.”
As of now, the project is on track to start paving by mid-2021, though the exact date of the opening is still unknown.