Illinois Archaeology

Spreading the Word about Archaeology in Illinois

My archaeological career began as a high school student participating in a field school at the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Illinois. Although my job responsibilities have changed over the years, my research interest still focuses on bioarchaeology and learning how people lived and died in the past. I have been working for almost 20 years at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey/Prairie Research Program at the University of Illinois.  Our organization has a long history with the Illinois Department of Transportation where we are responsible for conducting archaeological investigations prior to any type of road construction. During this time, I have had the opportunity to work with an amazing group of archaeologists who are dedicated to Illinois archaeology and site preservation.

In recent years I have become more involved in outreach and public engagement.  This is a very broad field and includes being involved with events such as ‘Archaeology Days’ at day camps, formal presentations to community groups, presenting research at professional conferences, and helping to organize events where we are able to share our knowledge with school groups and families as well as professional conferences.  In addition, we have recently made a push to disseminate information about Illinois archaeology through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, and our website. Fortunately, I work with three other amazing people (Mike Lewis, Angie Patton, and Linda Alexander) and we are each able to focus on one aspect of the process (selecting images, posting in Facebook or Twitter) so that the task doesn’t become overwhelming. My days often consist of lots of emails, attending meetings, giving presentations, assisting researchers gather information, entering Facebook posts, as well as – occasionally- my own research projects in bioarchaeology.

from David Davis History Career Day Camp website

I feel strongly that one of our responsibilities as archaeologists is to give back to communities and teach them about archaeology and the importance of preserving the past- whether it is preserving the site materials or the site itself.  One area of my job that I particularly enjoy is when I can interact with children and teach them about archaeology. Earlier this week, a coworker of mine (Alli Huber) and I assisted the staff at the McClean County Museum of History for their Archaeology Day – part of their week-long History Careers Day Camp. This is a wonderful program where the campers (grades 4-6) learn about the importance of history and the different types of careers. On Archaeology Day, Alli and I met the counselors and campers at the David Davis Mansion in Bloomington, Illinois, where the day started with the campers learning about the history of the David Davis family and the mansion, discussing the close relationship between history and archaeology, and what we can learn from each area of study. The days’ activities included a tour of the historic Mansion with some inside activities as well as a mock dig outside where fragmentary historic material similar to the time period the Davis Mansion was occupied were buried in sand. In addition to teaching them the basics on how archaeologists excavate using maps, trowels, measuring tapes, collecting and sorting materials, they learned how artifacts can tell us important information about who lived at a site and what their life was like. The last part of the day each of the groups sort through the material they discovered in their excavations and answered questions about what the artifacts tell us about the people who used them.  Inevitably, all the campers are excited about what they learn on this day and several tell me that they want to be an archaeologist when they grow up. When I hear those words, I feel that I have succeeded in my goal to pass on my curiosity and appreciation of the past to the next generation.

Zen and the Art of Curation

 

Greetings from the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, a division of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Champaign! Recently, I have been spending my days in the lab helping to update and transcribe site inventories into a digital database.  The excavations that produced these artifacts were conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and the only inventories that exist are on hard copy.  Additionally, some of the artifacts are still in their original paper collection bags.  I am currently relabeling and rebagging artifacts, mostly lithics, and entering catalogue and provenience information into a digital database.  (Provenience refers to the exact location on the site at which the artifact was found; as opposed to the “Antiques Roadshow” term provenance, which refers to the entire history of the object from its discovery to the present).  It is important to curate these items using materials and technology that will help to preserve both the artifacts and their associated provenience information.

 

While this task might not entail bullwhip-cracking excitement and Spielberg-worthy finds, I think it is every bit as valuable as the discovery of a new site, the excavation of a unique artifact, or the ground-breaking research taking place daily.  This is due in part to my recent completion of a Master’s thesis in which I analyzed artifacts from the Chesapeake Bay region, despite living about 800 miles away in the Midwest.  I was able to conduct a majority of my research and some data collection using the Comparative Archaeological Study of Colonial Chesapeake Culture database (http://www.chesapeakearchaeology.org/index.cfm), created by the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory and other Chesapeake archaeologists and collaborators.  This information was available to me thanks to the careful curation and meticulous inventorying of thousands of artifacts by Tidewater archaeologists in Maryland and Virginia.

 

As I work on curating the artifacts and information from excavations conducted years ago in Illinois, my recent research experience is always in the back of my mind.  I hope that our careful curation of the artifacts from decades-old excavations will assist researchers investigating these sites to more easily access this information.  The field of archaeology continues to advance both technologically and theoretically, and it is important to preserve artifacts and information as completely as possible to assist future researchers in the reinvestigation and reanalysis of previously-excavated sites.  Who knows what exciting reinterpretations might someday be based on these nondescript bags of broken rocks?

These chert samples were collected from a site investigated in the 1960s and 1970s.