mounds

Archaeology Under the Arch

Tamira here, Research Archaeologist with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). I currently serve as a Site Supervisor at the East St. Louis Mound site, one of the largest Mississippian period (AD 1000-1450) sites in the pre-Columbian world, just downstream from Cahokia Mounds. Large-scale excavations have been ongoing at East St. Louis since 2008 in advance of the construction of a new bridge that will span across the Mississippi river from Illinois to Missouri. This project involves more than just the bridge though – it includes new utilities, interchanges, road realignments and improvements, and the diversion of an interstate from its current route to the new bridge. A large portion of this project’s footprint impacts the site. It’s our job to recover as much information as possible from this portion of East. St. Louis before construction takes place.

This bridge project requires LOT of work from a lot of different groups. ISAS works with all of these groups on a daily basis in order to ensure that this important project runs safely and with efficiency. Just like the many other groups working on this project, we have deadlines that must be met so that the bridge will open as scheduled in 2014. Unlike those contractors however, we really never know what lies ahead on any given day – which is one of the most exciting parts of being an archaeologist. We could be faced with rock hard soil or sloppy mud depending on the weather or enjoy a perfect day of sunshine; be completely shut out of an area due to another contractor’s schedule or finish an area ahead of time; spend hours digging finding nothing but dirt or discover an amazing artifact that will help rewrite the history of the site. These factors make a large part of the job a balancing act between maximizing data recovery and doing top notch research while meeting the demands of the larger project. Luckily, we have a hard-working crew of more than 80 individuals who rise to meet the challenge day after day. Our team includes not only the excavators and supervisors on site, but essential staff in the office who make our maps, write reports, curate finds, coordinate with native groups, and make sure that our research both reaches both the scientific and public communities.

My particular role at ISAS shifts depending on the needs of the project. Until recently, I spent my days running one of the many excavation blocks at the site – supervising crew, interpreting features, making sure that paperwork is done properly, coordinating with supervisors in other areas of the site, and deciding what’s to be done next among other tasks. The job requires a great deal of flexibility, problem solving, and people skills. I worked in this capacity until the day that my daughter, Orin was born. This came with particular challenges – working through morning sickness, an increasing need to visit the port-a-john as the due date approached, and navigating my baby-bump in tight excavation areas – but the most unexpected challenge was probably finding field-appropriate clothing for the expectant archaeologist! Try a Google search of “maternity work wear” and you’ll see what I mean. Despite these minor obstacles, a healthy pregnancy allowed me to enjoy my entire pregnancy in the field, and there’s no place I would have rather been!

I returned to work from my maternity leave just last week and am now active on the next stage of the project – analysis and write-up. My day to day involves checking over notes and maps from the field, examining the artifacts – which includes anything from the refuse of daily life such as pottery and chipped stone to exotic and unusual items, interpreting finds, and most importantly, pulling all of this information together so that it can be written up and presented in a cohesive report. For a project of this scale, this process will take a large team of researchers several years to complete. The finished product will be a seminal volume that will rewrite the history of the East St. Louis site and its contemporaries, helping us to better understand the people that made their lives in the fertile river valley that I now call home.

So how did I end up with this awesome job, working on this awesome site? Well, unlike many of my colleagues, I didn’t always want to be an archaeologist. I used to go arrowhead hunting on the family farm as a child and was always fascinated with Native American culture, but I actually went to the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to pursue a degree in music. I was derailed from that path by an excellent gen ed course in anthropology during my first semester, which led to a new major and my participation in Dr. Tim Pauketat’s archaeology field school the following summer. Several additional summers of excavation convinced me that there was no better life than the digging life, and I’ve been doing it ever since – for the government, independent contractors, universities, in graduate school at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and ultimately at ISAS on one of the most impressive and important projects in North America.