Why is Archaeology Important?
Over 98 percent of human history in Nebraska occurred prior to written records and the only way to tell the stories of those people is through oral traditions and archaeological investigations. Many members of the public enjoy knowing about the past and understanding history and archaeology enriches their lives. Preservation of important historic places and archaeological sites for public visitation enhances appreciation for the past.
How Long Have People Lived in Nebraska?
The oldest artifacts discovered in Nebraska are Clovis spear points which date to about 13,500 years ago. These people are likely distant ancestors of modern Native Americans. Although new information and theories about the peopling of the Americas are constantly emerging and it is probable people were in North America before Clovis, there have been no pre-Clovis sites definitively found in Nebraska to date.
Who Conducts Archaeology in Nebraska?
Most archaeology in Nebraska is conducted or sponsored by universities and various state and federal agencies including: the National Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Federal Highway Administration, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, the Nebraska Department of Roads, and History Nebraska (formerly the Nebraska State Historical Society). The Nebraska Archaeological Society is our state’s amateur archaeology organization.
How is Archaeology Funded in Nebraska?
Several state and federal laws require planning for government funded construction projects to include identifying and minimizing impacts to significant archaeological sites. As a result, the majority of archaeological research in the state is in response to these guidelines and the funding for studies is provided by the government agencies. Additional funding originates with private donations and research grants from entities such as the National Science Foundation.
What ‘Tribes” of Indians Lived in Nebraska?
The most common Native American groups that have or still live in Nebraska include: Omaha, Winnebago, Ponca, Ioway, Oto, Missouria, Santee, Pawnee, Sac and Fox, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Apache, Kiowa, Crow, and Lakota. Most of these groups came to Nebraska after 1700 although the Pawnee likely had some presence in Nebraska for over 1000 years. While we know people have been in Nebraska for at least 13,000 years, it is only sites dating to the past 1000 years or less that can be affiliated with specific groups of ‘tribes.’
Do Nebraska Archaeologists also Study Non-Native Americans?
Yes! Important archaeological investigations have focused on early military and fur trade sites, immigrant trail sites, early townsites and farms, and even industrial sites and WWII Prisoner of War camps. Although there are written records of these types of sites, archaeology can add great detail and provide information not often recorded in documents.
Do Archaeologists Dig up Dinosaurs?
Nope! Archaeologists are often confused with the scientists who do research fossils, including dinosaurs, known as paleontologists. Although many of the field techniques are very similar, paleontologists are concerned with biology and natural history and study ancient plant and animal fossils such as mammoths. Archaeologists are students of anthropology and history and investigate sites with some form of human association like old forts and Native American villages.
What about Private Artifact Collecting and Metal Detecting?
Collecting artifacts and metal detecting on private land with the permission of the property owner is not illegal. The exception to that is if collecting involves human burials or mortuary objects regardless of land ownership. Professional archaeologists and amateur groups are continuing to work together so that important sites are not damaged and can at least be recorded. Collecting on public land is generally prohibited although the regulations of specific land-owning agencies should be consulted for details.
How Can I Get Involved?
A good way to get involved is through joining the Nebraska Archaeological Society. Also, contact some of the government agencies and museum listed above to see what field and laboratory volunteer opportunities are available.
What is the Importance of all those Hundreds of Boxes of Artifacts Tucked Away in Museums and Never Displayed?
Only a very small fraction of artifacts end up being displayed in museums. Museum exhibits typically are reserved for the most aesthetically pleasing objects. However the thousands of other artifacts are invaluable to understanding the past. These ‘curated collections’ are very often described and studied in detail by graduate students and visiting archaeologists interested in various poorly known aspects of the past. These studies are often published and become part of the ever-changing story of Nebraska’s past.
Are There Laws in Nebraska to Protect Burials, Sacred Places and Other Types of Sites?
Yes, a federal law protects human burial sites on federal land and a state law protects burials sites on all other land in the state (including private land). Burials can only be relocated if they are in imminent danger of destruction and then in consultation with law enforcement, archaeologists, and tribes. Non-Burial sites are afforded far less protection in Nebraska. If a site is listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) it must be accorded special treatment during the course federal- or state-funded construction projects like road, park, and dam building. In order for a site to be NRHP-eligible it must be very well-preserved and contain data to address important research questions. Typically sites like this are avoided during government sponsored construction undertakings or become the subject of an excavation program prior to construction.
Sites (other than burials) on private land or involved in non-government-sponsored construction are not protected by any law and there is no process to record or work at these sites. Nevertheless, there have been some fruitful collaborative efforts between archaeologists and developers using private funding and volunteer efforts.
Hasn’t Everything Already Been Discovered and Dug Up?
There have been thousands of archaeological sites discovered in the state and many dozens of these have been the subject of some level of detail excavation. Remarkably, this is the result of covering less than 10 percent of the land in Nebraska looking for sites. There are many more undiscovered archaeological sites in Nebraska and many unanswered questions about our past inhabitants.