While PennDOT builds and maintains Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges, the department also works to discover any history that may be buried beneath them.
Home to the state’s largest public sector archaeology program, PennDOT annually invests between $5 million and $15 million to identify and preserve the secrets of Pennsylvania’s past.
“Archaeology is one of the areas that are so important at PennDOT, yet few people know it even exists,” said PennDOT Secretary Allen D. Biehler. “Every time we design a project that disturbs previously untouched land, we investigate to determine any impact the project may have on historical or archaeological sites.”
PennDOT conducts about 50 archaeological investigations each year, mostly related to bridge replacement and road widening projects. If a historical site is discovered, the department’s first choice is to avoid the area and leave history undisturbed for future generations. It also is a less expensive option.
However, if an area cannot be avoided, PennDOT conducts an excavation. Currently, the department is involved in seven excavations around the state, including at the Freeport Bridge site in Armstrong County and the Arch Street Bridge in Lycoming County.
If artifacts are discovered, they are housed in collections at the State Museum in Harrisburg.
One of the largest and most recent finds came during the construction of the Lewistown Narrows in Juniata County. Excavations, which documented the area’s long history as a transportation corridor, uncovered sites and artifacts ranging from an 8,000-year-old Native American trailside camp to an intact lock from the Pennsylvania Canal.
Over the years, PennDOT archaeological projects have encountered some of the commonwealth’s most important and widely reported archaeological sites. While constructing I-279 in Pittsburgh, archaeologists found more than 700 unmarked graves of the 19th Century Voegtly Church Cemetery. Prior to the recent improvements to state routes 11 and 15 at Liverpool in Perry County, PennDOT discovered the campsite of a band of late Ice Age Native Americans, some of the very first Pennsylvanians.
“The information and artifacts that have been discovered through our archaeology program are a vital piece of Pennsylvania history,” Biehler said.
Along with the active excavations, PennDOT also participated in an Archaeology Day at the Capitol on Oct. 21.
Artifacts from the department’s prior investigations were displayed and archaeologists were available to answer questions.