Archaeologists join crews at road work sites
It's a painstaking process.
A heavy-duty excavator made to clear tons of dirt in a matter of minutes slowly grates inches of soil away, then pauses.
Archaeologist Todd Kapler, of Sioux City, steps forward and sifts through a few pieces of dirt, then steps back.
The work begins again.
This is the re-grading and re-paving project on county road C-60, about 10 miles south of Le Mars.
Most of the project is straight forward, cutting down a hill on C-60 so visibility will be better and less snow drifts will form.
However, about 1 mile west of county road K-49, the road passes next to a pioneer cemetery, with graves that date back to the early 1900s.
Instead of quickly slicing down 7 feet, which was done in adjacent fields, the road construction crew digs down this section of road shoulder next to the cemetery 6 inches at a time.
After each new layer is scraped off, Kapler steps down into the newly dug area.
"He's looking for disturbed soils," Plymouth County Engineer Tom Rohe explained. "When all the natural ground is not disturbed, he knows there are no other grave sites."
After the digging was done, Kapler confirmed the construction crew stayed well away from the known grave sites in the cemetery and that he found nothing else of historic significance.
He saw no evidence the soil near the cemetery had been disturbed years ago for any additional grave sites.
"If you even nick part of [a grave shaft], you're going to notice it because the soil is going to be a different color and different texture than the surrounding soil," Kapler explained.
Also, historic burials -- unlike prehistoric burial sites -- usually include coffins, which would still be evident had they been there, he added.
This project is just one of many Kapler has a role in.
He and other archaeologists don't only oversee road projects near grave sites.
In fact, U.S. law requires that for every construction project involving federal dollars, permits or land -- and that's most of them -- planners must take into account the effect on any district, site, building, structure, or object included in or eligible for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. That generally means things 50 years old and older, Kapler said.
"The only way they can do that is to look for it before they begin," Kapler said.
Iowa's soil holds some of the land's history -- artifacts from prehistoric villages, remnants from pioneer settlements -- and since roadwork generally disturbs that soil, the expertise of an archaeologist is needed.
Rohe said up to two-thirds of the projects his office completes require having an archaeological study first.
"Most of what we do are bridge products," Kapler said, adding that other projects include cell tower sites, new trails and parks, and road or river re-alignments.
When Kapler gets to a project site, he first walks the whole area, checking for any artifacts visible on the surface.
Next is a shovel test. At regular intervals through the whole area, he digs into the ground and sifts the soil through a wire mesh.
"If I find something -- an arrowhead or a knife, I have to make a determination: is the artifact of significance, and is there a chance there's more material here?" Kapler said.
At times, a non-invasive process called remote sensing is used at a site.
Remote sensing detects subsurface features or cultural materials with little or no damage to the surrounding soil, according to information from Kapler's company, Cultural Heritage Consultants, in Sioux City.
One type of remote sensing, called ground penetrating radar, was used to help identify the existing grave sites at the C-60 Pioneer Cemetery.
Kapler likened ground penetrating radar to sonar on a submarine.
Such methods help planners "look" into the ground without digging before finalizing project plans, according to his company's website.
Finally, after surveying a site, Kapler makes a recommendation.
"My report says, 'here's the project, here's what we did, here's how we tested, here's what we found or didn't found,'" he said.
For road projects, Kapler's report goes first to the Iowa Department of Transportation, then to the State Historic Preservation Office, which has 30 days to agree with the report or ask for more information.
Usually, 95 percent of projects move forward as planned, Kapler said.
"We (as archaeologists) never stop a project," he added. "We don't have the authority to say, 'we think there's artifacts here; you have to stop your project.' We submit it to the state ... and they make a determination."
Sometimes, even if significant artifacts are found, a project still will go through on top of the site, Kapler said.
He gave the example of the Highway 75 bypass.
"When they built that, they encountered a prehistoric village below the ground (just outside the limits of Sioux City), but there was no way they could move that (bypass) project, which cost millions of dollars," Kapler said. "They actually paid archaeologists to go in there and take that material out before they did their work."
Artifacts discovered are studied and eventually kept in the state repository in Iowa City, at the Office of the State Archaeologist.
Kapler emphasized that archaeologists don't dig up burial sites -- prehistoric or historic -- for the purpose of studying it or for science.
"Grave robbing is a crime. It doesn't matter if it's five days old or 5,000 years old. You can't actively go out and look for burials," he said. "No one wants their ancestors to be excavated."
There are times burial sites have to be excavated -- perhaps because a project is going through or because the soil there is eroding away, he explained.
Construction sites, though, often reveal a piece or two of the land's history.
"What haven't we found in the past?" Kapler asked.
At urban sites, Kapler has found historic artifacts 100 years old or more.
"If we find a brick, that won't stop a project," he said. "But if that brick turns into 1,000 bricks, suddenly you have to say, 'well, wow. What's going to put 1,000 bricks here?'"
At rural road construction project sites, he's unearthed pottery and prehistoric stone tools such as spear points, arrowheads, scrapers.
"I know the type of prehistoric artifacts normally found in northwest Iowa," Kapler said. "They're different than what's found along the Cedar River out east. So you kind of know the type of artifacts here. Different prehistoric peoples occupied different parts of Iowa."
Northwest Iowa has some of the most important archaeological sites in the state, he added.
Kapler said the reality of archaeology isn't as exciting as movies make it out to be.
"I used to hold public excavations, and the public came and volunteered," he said, then chuckled. "People's visions of archaeology changed after two days in the hot sun, not finding anything."
Still, after 26 years in the field, Kapler continues to enjoy his work.
"I won't say I've seen everything, but I've seen a lot," Kapler said. "Sometimes something truly amazing is found, or something really, really early -- spear points from big game hunters, the mastodons."