Skip Navigation

Oklahoma Archeological Survey Preserves Cultural Significance With Oklahoma Department of Transportation

September 22, 2021

Oklahoma Archeological Survey Preserves Cultural Significance With Oklahoma Department of Transportation

Mike McKay, an archaeologist with the ODOT Cultural Resources Program, conducting archaeological evaluative testing at a site in Coal County, Oklahoma.
Mike McKay, an archeologist with the ODOT Cultural Resources Program, conducting archeological evaluative testing at a site in Coal County, Oklahoma.

What do Oklahoma bridges and highways have to do with cultural preservation? More than you might expect, says Amanda Regnier, director of the Oklahoma Archeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma. A longstanding program between the survey and the Oklahoma Department of Transportation allocates resources to ensure that sites identified for state infrastructure projects are assessed for cultural significance and impact before new projects are begun.

“Any time there is a project that involves federal funds, like a highway project, the law requires that the cultural and historical resources that would be impacted by new road construction are evaluated,” Regnier said. “In order to do that, in the 1970s the Oklahoma Department of Highways, as it was then known, now the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, contracted with the Oklahoma Archeological Survey to fulfill those responsibilities.”

This collaboration currently supports 12 staff and two graduate research assistants at OU, including archeologists and architectural historians dedicated to assisting transportation projects and helping ODOT meet its mission of providing a safe, economical and effective transportation network for Oklahomans.

The assessments gauge whether a transportation project will impact any known cultural resources or built environments that have cultural or historical significance, like recorded archeological sites. If no known documentation exists, Regnier said, they will go out and survey the area to determine if any archeological sites or historical buildings are present within the footprint of the new construction project.

“One of the biggest ways we know where archeological sites are located in the state is through these road projects,” she said. “A lot of major recent archeological projects are driven by transportation.”

“We have at least two known sites at bridges – stream crossings – where the bridges needed to be replaced,” she added. “Those sites had excavations done where the new bridge is going to impact the archeological site."

Nicholas Beale and Greg Maggard, archaeologists with the ODOT Cultural Resources Program, completing an archaeological survey in Payne County, Oklahoma.
Nicholas Beale and Greg Maggard, archeologists with the ODOT Cultural Resources Program, completing an archeological survey in Payne County, Oklahoma.

Assessments are conducted using criteria defined by the National Historic Preservation Act, specifically Criterion D, which classifies sites as significant “that have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.”

“We have to make sure that there are enough intact archeological materials in place. The archeological sites encountered can be more than 15,000 to less than 100 years old,” she said. “Historical buildings and other parts of the built environment are evaluated based on criteria including association with historically significant figures and events or whether they represent rare and unique representations of a particular architectural style.”

After finding these sites, the investigators are able to conduct deeper research to uncover information about past cultures and civilizations.

“In recent years, we’ve had a number of projects go on to full mitigation, where we have to excavate everything in the transportation project footprint before construction can take place, and that leads to really important archeological data or information about past cultures,” she said. “We have sites that date back a couple of thousand years that we have recently worked on, and sites a few hundred years old that give us a really good idea of what sort of people were living in Oklahoma.”

Regnier and her colleagues Scott Hammerstedt and Patrick Livingood have been working on preserving the Spiro Mounds archeological site in eastern Oklahoma, a very important site in pre-contact North America and the only archeological site open to visitors in the state.

“A project came up, a bridge was going to be replaced in northeastern Oklahoma that was going to impact a site,” she said. “It turned out that the site was related to Spiro Mounds. ODOT recognized our expertise in this area and provided us an opportunity to complete studies within the footprint of the project, which provided information that ODOT could use in project planning while adding a significant contribution to the research of the survey and faculty within the Department of Anthropology.”