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What is Archaeology?

ArchaeologyArchaeology is the scientific study of past human cultural behavior, based on the analysis of material remains or artifacts (things made or modified by people) and their patterns and distribution within archaeological sites (places where evidence of past human social and cultural behavior are preserved).  Missouri Department of Transportation archaeologists conduct research and field investigations necessary to identify and evaluate the significance of historic and prehistoric archaeological sites in areas that may be affected by proposed or planned transportation projects.  MoDOT carries out archaeological investigations in order to comply with federal and state preservation mandates, and as part of its larger commitment to environmental responsibility.  Where significant archaeological sites cannot be avoided or impacts to those sites cannot be sufficiently minimized, MoDOT archaeologists may conduct excavations to recover artifacts and other data that might otherwise be lost or destroyed during construction of transportation projects.  One of the goals of archaeology is to expand our knowledge of history and prehistory by examining how people adapted to changes in their natural and social environment and their responses to contact with new ideas and different people.  Information recovered from archaeological sites adds incrementally to the accumulated knowledge and understanding of our shared past. 

ArchaeologyWhat Type of Archaeological Sites are Found in Missouri?

Prehistoric archaeological sites in Missouri commonly include villages and campsites, cave/rock shelters, cairns and mounds, petroglyphs (i.e., rock art), and specialized resource procurement sites.  Historic archaeological sites that are commonly encountered in Missouri include, post-European contact era Indian villages and hamlets, homesteads, farmsteads, cemeteries, trails, early roads, trading posts, forts, shipwrecks, and early industrial sites (e.g., mills & factories). 

General information on MoDOT’s approach toward archaeology—as well as the more common types of projectile points found in Missouri—can be found in the brochure Archaeology in Missouri.

Examples of MoDOT Archaeological Investigations

MoDOT produced an 11-minute video as part of the investigations conducted at 55 archaeological sites in Lewis and Clark counties, Missouri, in conjunction with highway improvements of US Route 61, the Avenue of the Saints. This video provides background on the project, how large-scale archaeological investigations are conducted, and information concerning the sites that were explored. MoDOT is also conducting Archaeological Investigation for the New Mississippi River Bridge Project in downtown St. Louis. An example of a MoDOT archaeological investigation that relates to a current issue was featured in MoDOT’s Pathways Spring 2002 issue in the article “Great Quakes!” Additional examples of archaeological sites investigated by MoDOT can be found by using the Archeological Research link at the bottom of the page.

Learn More About Archaeology

Interested public, students and educators can learn about archaeology through various resources available on the Internet.

Archaeology picture

The Missouri Archaeological Society (MAS) is a nonprofit organization dedicated exclusively to educational and charitable purposes. MAS encourages cooperation among professional and amateur archaeologists, promote the study of prehistoric and historic remains in Missouri, and foster the dissemination of research in archaeology and related disciplines. Educational resources provided by MAS can be found here.

The National Park Service (NPS) is steward of a diverse cultural legacy ranging from the cliff dwellings of the Southwest to the reminiscences of neighborhood residents where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up. The NPS Archaeology Program provides technical guidance to aid in preserving this heritage. The NPS also provides Teachers Resources and guidance for Teaching with Historic Places.

The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is an international organization dedicated to the research, interpretation, and protection of the archaeological heritage of the Americas. SAA strives to stimulate interest and research in North and South American archaeology, advocate and aid in the conservation of archaeological resources, and encourage public access to and appreciation of archaeology. SAA provides educational resources at Archaeology for Educators.

The Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA) is the largest scholarly group concerned with the archaeology of the modern world (A.D. 1400-present). SHA promotes the research and dissemination of information concerning historical archaeology. The SHA provides guidance to both students and teachers.

The Osage Historic Preservation Office, with the assistance of the Traditional Cultural Advisors Committee, consulted with professors and graduate students at Missouri State University to create a one-of-a-kind traveling trunk to educate the people of Missouri about the Osage Nation.  To learn more about the Osage Culture Traveling Trunk, please click here.

In addition, the Archaeology Channel has two 30-minute videos that focus on Missouri archaeology:

    • Uncovering Ancient St. Louis – “Ancient history didn’t happen just in famous places like Rome, Tikal and Angkor Wat. It happened also in the heart of North America. Modern St. Louis residents may not realize that their city once hosted a complex Native American culture, represented by a cluster of mounds, possibly an actual city rivaling Cahokia across the Mississippi River. A small army of scientists, while uncovering thousands of prehistoric Native American archaeological sites around this fertile convergence of rivers, has some fascinating questions about what took place here.”
    • Footsteps into the World Beneath “Six hundred years ago, humans, black bears, and mountain lions were inhabiting a Missouri cave. When the entrance collapsed, everything was trapped inside, creating a time capsule not to be discovered until a small hole in the ceiling exposed the cave in 1985. In this 30-minute documentary by Emmy-winning director Christian Cudnik, rappel 65 feet into the darkness and follow cave archaeologists as they document prehistoric footprints, rock art, torch marks, bear tracks, beds, and much more in this cave north of Springfield, Missouri.”


Archaeological investigations conducted by MoDOT over the last several decades have provided us with the opportunity to increase our knowledge of the prehistory and history of Missouri.  To learn about current research or past excavations conducted by MoDOT click the title.



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