Student Engineers in Action begin replacing steps at Moundville Archeological Park

Standing 60 feet tall and made up of approximately 112,000 cubic yards of dirt, Alabama’s tallest mound began receiving a make-over on Saturday, Feb. 6.

The Mound B steps at Moundville Archaeological Park have taken a beating since being built in 1967, and now, they’re getting replaced.

“The steps have been in need of attention for several years, but funding and time were not available for the effort it would require,” said Matthew Gage, director of the University's Office of Archaeological Research.

The University's Student Engineers in Action decided to do something about it. On Jan. 30, 25 student engineers removed all 110 railroad ties on the mound which had decayed and deteriorated beyond disrepair. On Feb. 6, 18 students began replacing the steps. They were able to install 39 steps and will finish the project on Saturday, Feb. 16.

In an early 2015 inspection of the steps by park officials and UA faculty, the steps were deemed unsafe to be used.

“They were starting to deteriorate. When we inspected them, the head of UA Museums, the interim director for the park and the park maintenance supervisor, we walked up and down the steps and looked at them to see, ‘Hey, can we repair them or do we need to replace them completely,’” said Betsy Irwin, education outreach coordinator for the park. “As we started to walk up and down them, there wasn’t a step that didn’t have some sort of flaw in it.”

Gage said that Tim Leopard, associate vice president for construction with UA Facilities, suggested that Philip Johnson, civil engineering advisor, and the SEA might be able to help.

“We had several meetings with the students, talked about the sensitivity of replacing steps on a prehistoric Native American mound, and even brought in Jim Caldwell, the gentleman who originally designed and built the steps in the 1960’s,” Gage said.

Over a period of four to five months, the students devised a plan to go about replacing the steps without disturbing any of the archaeological deposits in the mound.

“When you work on a project like this, not only do you have to worry about what you’re putting in and how you’re doing that, but you also have to be careful about the archaeological deposits that could potentially be impacted,” Irwin said. “For instance, it would be easy if you could roll the ties back down the mountain, but that might actually tear up some of the mound itself.”

Starting from the bottom and working their way to the top, the students had to physically carry each railroad tie up and down.

Gage said that these types of projects are not only vital to the park, but also a great educational opportunity for the students involved with them.

“For the park, it’s important to have student involvement not only for the labor on a vital infrastructure project, but also for their fresh ideas and involvement,” Gage said. “The park is an incredible asset to the educational programming offered by the University of Alabama.”

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