Building federal and state highways requires an environmental impact statement well before the first bit of earth is turned. That requires an examination of cultural sites along a proposed right-of-way, and that requires someone with a background in archeology.

So what is more natural than for federal grants to train archeologists among the men and women who now work or who promise to work for federal, state or local transportation agencies?

The Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, through its National Highway Institute, has developed a new study program in "Public Service Archeology" to be given at the University of South Carolina. A notice that grant applications for the 1981-82 academic year were being sought was carried in the Nov. 13 Federal Register (page 75045).

Grants cover all tuition and education costs as well as a $500-a-month living stipend. Candidates already employed by state or local highway/transportation agencies who receive their normal salaries while in the program will be required to work after completion of the course for at least three times the length of the federally financed schooling. If they go two years, for example, and get their M.A. in Public Service Archeology from South Carolina, they'll have to work six years more for their home agencies, or pay back that federal grant money.