University of Illinois

Filming Archaeologists

I tell people I have the very best job. I get to work with a great group of archaeologists at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey–Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois. I have filmed a mummy getting a CT scan, to a lost fort in Warsaw, Illinois, to the most recent story of the bob kitten that was buried like a human. Our archaeologists and staff make my job very easy and let me come to their sites, sit through interviews, and help me tell the story of the archaeological and preservation work they are doing.



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.

Molecular Archeology Puts Artifacts in Perspective

Buried inside the Earth, lay secrets. Archeologists piece together histories often lost to time as they unearth human remains and their long-lost possessions.

Where archeologists exhume secrets from the soil, molecular archeologists uncover secrets lying inside human remains. By piecing together ancient DNA, molecular archeologists can more definitively answer questions about our past.

“Some people in my field consider themselves to be molecular archaeologists as we tend to work with archaeological remains and use an archeological context to help infer the genetic patterns we see,” said Ripan Malhi, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).

While the day-to-day rigor of being a professor may not seem illustrious, over the course of the year, Malhi’s lab makes amazing discoveries.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer. ©

The Golden Era of ancient DNA

“We can do things now that we haven’t been able to do before,” Malhi said. “I like to say that ancient DNA is in a golden era. When I was a graduate student working on ancient DNA, it probably would’ve taken me years to sequence one complete mitochondrial genome and now we can do that in a week or so.”

Today Malhi’s lab studies complete genomes as well as DNA passed down from mothers to their offspring (called mitochondrial DNA) and from fathers to their offspring (called the y chromosome) to infer the evolutionary history of populations and species. Currently, research in the lab is split into two research areas: the evolutionary history of Native Americans and evolutionary genetics of non-human primates.

Last year, his lab found an ancestral link between ancient remains and their living descendants.

“The community members were really happy about the results because their oral histories have said that they’ve been there for a very long period of time as well,” Malhi said. “Now through scientific and DNA data we are able to show this connection in a different way. Being able to show that connection with something that they’ve known to be true was really satisfying.”

While most archeology doesn’t include DNA analyses, they can be vital to distinguish cultural processes from biological processes, Malhi said.

In the past, movement of arrowheads or pottery from one region to another indicated that a population might have moved. But in reality, Malhi said, a number of other factors could explain the distribution of artifacts.

“By combining DNA evidence with this cultural data we can distinguish whether people are moving or cultural artifacts are being traded from one community to the next,” Malhi said. “Using DNA evidence, we can show how genetic variants moved across the geographic landscape after neighboring groups intermarried.”

This work does more than solidify community backgrounds and establish migration patterns. It can also illustrate evolutionary process and show us how we may evolve with other organisms. One of Malhi’s students is studying how infectious diseases brought over after European contact affected Native Americans’ genomes.

How molecular archeology works

First, Malhi works with Native American communities to find out what questions they would like to answer. It’s a first step that scientists have often skipped in the past.

“They know their own history better than I’ll ever know it,” Malhi said. “They can look at the genetic patterns and give us ideas about what those patterns may represent.”

Malhi interacts with Native American communities and museum curators to discuss what the community members hope to learn from DNA analysis, the questions he wants to address, and how best to extract DNA from the ancestral remains.

Next Malhi visits the communities or museums to pick up the remains. Sometimes he has the chance to be onsite during the excavation as the archeologists collect the remains with gloved hands to prevent modern DNA contamination, from their skin cells and microbiome.

At Malhi’s lab, the remains undergo a surface decontamination to ensure that modern DNA is not included in the final analysis. Then they drill out a sample about the size of a cavity from the bone or tooth. The sample is ground up to a fine dust then sequenced and analyzed.

Finally Malhi is able to look for genetic patterns by combining the new results with published results from various databases and combines that information with other anthropological information, such as the community’s oral histories or cultural artifacts from the archeological site.

Today molecular anthropologists like Malhi can turn DNA fragments that are only around 200 or so base pairs in length into a complete human genome made up of about three billion base pairs.

It’s more than a job

From interacting with Native American communities to seeing his students begin successful careers, Malhi said his job is really satisfying.

“It’s always fun to go back to communities and report results and see how people take those results and incorporate that knowledge and then ask new questions,” Malhi said. “I am now at this stage in my career where I have my students presenting at meetings.  They spent years working really hard developing their research. When they put it all together and present it and the audience gets excited about it and the students are excited about it—that’s a really good feeling, too.”

Malhi also values being a part of the Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics (SING) workshop, which facilitate discussions about how genomic research is conducted and to create a support network for Native American students in the sciences.

Malhi earned a Master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology at the University of California at Davis. He also took molecular biology, population genetics, and other biological courses to complement the anthropology curriculum. Today a student interested in this field can pursue graduate degrees in biological or molecular anthropology.

“I recall hearing about a genetic study where an Italian population did not get heart disease because they had a natural genetic variant, and I realized there’s lots of genetic variation out there that can be interesting and useful,” Malhi said. “Then I learned about connections with history and how you can infer human history from DNA variation, and I was hooked.”

The Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) is dedicated to interdisciplinary genomic research related to health, energy, agriculture and the environment. The Institute’s cadre of world-class scientists, collaborative laboratories, and state-of-the-art equipment create an environment that inspires discovery and stimulates bioeconomic development at the University of Illinois. For more information about the SING workshop, visit

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.

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 (, 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.