'These Are People Just Like Us': Retiring State Archeologist Reflects on Nebraska Findings, Excavations

Dec. 29, 2021, midnight ·

Rob Bozell and another man looking at a document and writing on it with trees and grass surrounding them.
Rob Bozell (in the foreground) draws a map at an excavation site in Sarpy County near Gretna in 1984. (Photo courtesy of Rob Bozell)

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Rob Bozell, Let. Gov. Mike Foley and another man look over artifacts on a table.
Rob Bozell looks at artifacts with Nebraska Lieutenant Governor Mike Foley. (Photo courtesy of Rob Bozell)

Rob Bozell has a pretty cool job.

"You'd be surprised how many times somebody finds a skeleton in a construction site, an agricultural field, kids hiking along a stream or canoers," the Nebraska state archeologist said.

"The flooding in 2019. Phones were ringing off the wall with people finding skulls and stuff — seriously."

After four decades, Bozell is handing in his tools and keys as he heads into retirement. As the state's archeologist, he's been to the Sandhills and back, working on research and excavation projects over the years.

One of the most recent endeavors is trying to find remains of Native American children, possibly buried near the former Genoa Indian School in Nebraska.

Rob Bozell and another man walk over a large grassy field with one man pushing a machine that searches for objects below the ground.
Rob Bozell works with a contractor to locate possible Native American burials near the Genoa Indian School. (Photo courtesy of Rob Bozell)

He's working with a contractor to use ground-penetrating radar to try to locate burials.

"The machine looks like a lawn mower. You just push it along. So it's on wheels, and we set up a grid and run it every half meter — parallel lines, up and down. So, it's constantly collecting data," Bozell said.

The archeologist said it's challenging with the lack of historical documentation and varying accounts of where the cemetery could be located. His team went out a few times now with not much luck.

When asked if he had a favorite project he's worked on...

"I get this question all the time. I've never had a great answer. You think I would by now," Bozell laughed.

There's a lot to consider over the last 40 years.

Rob Bozell and seven others standing in a line in a prairie.
Rob Bozell and his graduate school classmates in Cherry County in 1981. (Photo courtesy of Rob Bozell)
Rob Bozell and Walter Echo-Hawk standing together in a field with grass and trees behind them.
Rob Bozell with Walter Echo-Hawk during a tour of sacred places in Nance County near Fullerton, Nebraska. (Photo courtesy of Rob Bozell)

"One of the most interesting was in the early 2000s, when we worked on the early 1800s winter quarters of the Stephen Long expedition. The Stephen Long expedition was a exploratory expedition. [It] came out from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains, and they wintered over in an unknown site north of Omaha, built some log cabins. And [we] did a bunch of scientific research there and commiserated with the local tribes. Through some research, we found out where this thing was and that it was wonderfully preserved under the ground. We worked up there for a couple summers. It was just fun. It was fun finding it," Bozell said.

The state archeologist will leave his Omaha office Thursday, but work won't necessarily be done. He has a number of projects on his retirement 'to-do' list that includes finishing up former projects.

"If I could get those three little side-excavations written up in a Nebraska archaeology book, then I'll really take a nap," Bozell joked.

He said he's excited to have that free time. Time to really dig into old archeological research.

Looking back, he said some of his favorite artifacts found were spearpoints. The ones he's located range from 8,000 to 10,000-years-old.

"When you pick up something or you find it in the ground that no one else has touched for 8,000 or 10,000 years, you get that feeling of how small we are, you know, in terms of time. And in terms of our life now, we have a very complex life. But, people have been around for a long time," the archeologist said.

Rob Bozell and five others sitting on the ground with shovels and buckets near them and trees in the background.
Rob Bozell (middle, back row) poses with an excavation crew at a future housing development area in Sarpy County in 1998. (Photo courtesy of Rob Bozell)

These are the feelings Bozell said he'll have long after he shuts his office door for the last time.

"I get that even with sites that are 300-years-old, or 1,000-years-old. It's like, particularly when you're excavating, and you realize, 'Wow, the last person who held this thing was, you know, that was 2,000 years ago when they dropped it and it got broken and discarded,'" Bozell said.

And that's why, he says, having a role like this, tucked inside History Nebraska, is important.

"These are people, you know, just like us."

The state archeologist mainly works with state agencies, like the Department of Transportation, when it plans to put in new roads and bridges.

"If you take a bulldozer and you go through an archeological site, it's never going to grow back. A forest will grow back. Native prairie can grow back. Streams can be cleaned. Hazardous materials, buried hazardous waste can be cleaned — not easy. An archaeological site — when it's gone. It's gone. It's never coming back."

It's people like Rob Bozell who make sure that whatever the road is replacing is documented and archived.

"So that's why I think [it's important] — the fact that we do have these opportunities to try to pick out the really important sites or really rare sites, unique ones, the well-preserved ones. To share that information," Bozell said.

Bozell's last day is December 30, 2021. David Williams, from South Dakota's State Historical Society, will assume the Nebraska's state archeologist role in 2022.

Rob Bozell and two others on the side of a cliff with dirt, grass, bushes and a tree behind them.
Rob Bozell and an excavation crew in Hooker County in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Rob Bozell)