Dr. Tamira Brennan, section head of curation at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, recently completed a six-week archaeological field school in southeast Missouri. Hosted by the Institute for Field Research (IFR) in partnership with Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO), Field School students travel from all over the U.S. to participate in hands-on research.
This year's field school study site was a large, pre-contact village dating to the 14th century, offering insight into the social landscape of the region during a period between the decline of the Native American city, Cahokia and the depopulation of the entire region only a century later. Previous excavations at this village by Brennan and her IFR co-Director, Dr. Jennifer Bengtson of SEMO, as well as a geophysical survey completed at the site by ISAS in 2019-2020, revealed intense occupation that was atypical of the time and region. The 2022 Field School students investigated several of the magnetic anomalies apparent in that survey to determine their nature and timing.
Although students came to contribute toward answering those research questions, the primary goal of this intensive, hands-on experience for them was to learn archaeological methods and process. Twelve undergraduate and recently graduated students spent half of the course excavating 700-year-old cultural features at the site, and the other half preparing the objects they unearthed for curation, so that they might be readily accessible for later research and consultation with interested Tribes.
The equal emphasis of Brennan’s field school on excavation and curation sets it apart from other archaeological experiences in that curation is rarely part of anthropological curriculum, be it in the field or the classroom. As a result, most students and professionals alike are unprepared to properly manage the collections they create. This situation has led to a “crisis in curation,” wherein there is an enormous backlog of improperly prepared collections and a lack of planning or funding for their perpetual care, making them inaccessible and therefore, decreasing their value for research and education. The dual-topic approach of Brennan’s IFR Field School provided students with an experience that will not only prevent them from contributing to the curation crisis, but prepare them to be part of its solution.