Meet ISAS veteran Jim Pisell! Jim has been with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) for nearly 20 years, and while technology has changed the face and pace of what archaeology looks like today, at its core Jim believes it's deeper than artifacts–it is a type of informed storytelling.
He recently answered some questions about his work.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at ISAS.
For over 19 years I have been working out of the Western Illinois Field Station in Jacksonville, Illinois, as part of a team of truly dedicated archaeologists. I primarily conduct archaeological surveys for Illinois Department of Transportation compliance projects and write the accompanying reports detailing that work, which helps build and improve our infrastructure while preserving the past. However, I also do research relating to these projects that contribute to our efforts to reconstruct the stories relating to past human societies in the region. One of the more enjoyable aspects of my job is doing archaeological site excavations, which has given me the opportunity to travel across much of the state and work with other ISAS researchers.
What drew you to your particular area of study?
I have always enjoyed studying different cultures from around the world, so this drew me to the social sciences. I combined what I loved doing with my academic strengths and now research and write about historic and pre-contact societies in Illinois, which is very gratifying.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Keeping up with new technologies can be difficult and has changed the face and pace of archaeology. Just when I finally get used to a particular software, a new version is released. For the most part, though, this has actually made my work easier and has really expanded what we can do as researchers.
What do you wish more people understood about being an archaeologist?
Archaeologists study and document the lives of people who generally did not leave any written records and no longer have the ability to tell their own stories. Our discipline is truly more than stones, bones, and arrowheads–it is a type of informed storytelling. The more I study about the past peoples of Illinois, the deeper I come to respect their ways of life.
What’s it like taking on this role in the middle of a pandemic?
I am very grateful for being able to work remotely during the pandemic. It was very nice to catch up on a lot of research and writing, but I really missed working with my colleagues. Getting back in the field with them has really provided a much-needed sense of normalcy because we have such a great sense of comradery and passion for what we do!
What advice would you give to those just starting out in your field?
Really work at your craft! Write good field, site, and excavation notes. Familiarize yourself with the existing archaeological literature of the area where you work or hope to work. Plan on getting dirty and take great pains to understand the local soil types. Geology classes are a great companion to your anthropology courses and will serve you well in this field. Most of all, remember that archaeology is collaborative, so get ready to be part of a team and always help your fellow crew members!