Meet Lauren Fitts, Research Archaeologist with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS). Initially drawn to archaeology because of Jurassic Park, she now leads archaeological surveys in advance of Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) related projects.
She recently answered some questions about her career, commonly-held misconceptions about archaeology, and her advice for those just starting out in the field.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your role at ISAS?
I began working at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey in March of 2010 at the Jacksonville, Illinois office, I then transferred to the Elgin office in 2015 and have continued to enjoy my career as it develops. I am originally from the Chicago suburbs and was happy to move closer to my family and friends. My role at ISAS is as a Research Archaeologist and basically, I lead archaeological surveys in advance of IDOT related projects. I locate and document archaeological sites and then prepare or contribute to the accompanying compliance reports that detail our studies/findings, including the analysis of artifacts we find in the field. We also get the chance to participate in various forms of public outreach and engagement, and this is one of my favorite aspects of the job.
What drew you to your particular area of study?
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs and the movie, Jurassic Park. I wanted to be a paleontologist. As I got older, I found that I was more interested in the human aspect of our past and studied anthropology in college. While at Illinois State University, I took a field school course that introduced students to archaeological fieldwork. I fell in love with being/working outdoors and the shared sense of discovery, purpose, and comradery that you get from having these daily experiences with like-minded people. After field school, I followed my dream and landed a job at ISAS about 6 months after I graduated from ISU.
What tools are indispensable to your fieldwork?
Since you always need direction in your life, a compass is indispensable to me because my coworkers and I have to create field maps to document the locations of archaeological sites. Most of the time, we find ourselves working deep in the woods, where there are no known landmarks. The compass is the best way to orient yourself and is a great tool for making accurate maps. The other thing that I find indispensable is Tecnu! The amount of poison ivy we encounter in the field can only be combated by using special washes like this as soon as we are done with fieldwork. Some days we scrub our hands and arms both at lunch and at the end of the day so that we can hopefully avoid several weeks of itching skin. In the summer of 2016, I believe I had poison ivy for almost 5 months straight, but that just comes along with the job!
What question do you get asked most frequently about your career?
The most common question I get when I tell people I'm an archaeologist is “Have you found any gold?” While finding gold would be extremely cool, typically the most interesting things we find are simple pieces of stone that once formed a tool used by someone thousands of years ago or fragments of hand-made pottery jars. This, to me, is what is so cool about archaeology. Being able to touch something that no one has handled in over a thousand years and feel an affinity with the people who made it.
What do you wish more people understood about archaeology?
I wish people understood that you can have a career in archaeology. When I was in college, a lot of people thought I would never find a job in my discipline. I went on to find one right out of college and was able to travel all around Illinois in the process. I met some amazing people and made great memories with my original cohort in Jacksonville. I continue to enjoy my career in Elgin and even had opportunities to work with the Field Museum on research. It has been a great experience.
What advice would you give to those just starting out in your field?
Don’t give up! The best thing you can do to prepare yourself for a possible future in archaeology is to enroll in a field school. They are offered through many different universities and all over the world. This will give you a taste of what this life and the hard work are like and is usually a requirement for most archaeological positions. A field school is the best way to figure out if this is the right career path for you. Also, just enjoy the ride, get dirty, and don’t be afraid to ask questions!