Mike Smith, a Senior Architectural Archaeologist and head of the Architecture section at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey, recently answered a few questions about his career.
In one sentence, what do you do?
I help preserve the architecture and cultural identity of Illinois by researching, documenting, and evaluating historic resources across the state in partnership with the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT).
What is the difference between archaeology and historic architecture?
In North America, archaeologists usually study features and artifacts that have been left underground to learn about the past. Architectural historians typically study buildings and structures that are still standing. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. Building remains, whether surviving above ground or below ground as foundations, floor surfaces, or post holes, can tell us a lot about the people who made them. In this way, both architectural historians and archaeologists use buildings as primary documents to study the past.
How does your work at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey impact Illinois?
Part of our mission is to help ensure that state-funded infrastructure projects are carried out in a way that is sensitive to the cultural heritage of Illinois. A community’s historic buildings help to create a sense of place that can be fragile at times. We help balance the need for development and economic growth in Illinois with archaeological and architectural preservation. I believe that protecting historically significant sites and structures can benefit every part of the state we work in.
We also generate a lot of research about the history and culture of Illinois. We try to share our findings through public outreach and educational programming whenever possible.
What does an average day look like for the Architecture team at ISAS?
Sometimes we get to go out into the field and document historic resources, but we spend most of our time looking at pictures and maps to help us compile our reports. One of the primary ways we document historic structures is through photography, so there is a lot of taking pictures, assembling photologs, and then describing and evaluating the buildings in the photos. We also get to spend time researching the structures and communities that are part of our projects through historic documents and images.
The pandemic has had a big impact on our daily routine. We all work from home whenever possible and when we do conduct field surveys, we make sure to follow safety procedures including wearing PPE and practicing social distancing with co-workers. We miss in-person communication, but otherwise, the workflow is the same.
What is the best part of your job at ISAS?
I love the variety that comes with working on projects all over the state. Sometimes I’m in the office and sometimes I’m in the field. Whether it’s downtown Chicago or the Shawnee National Forest-- I’m always learning new things about the local history and architecture of different communities.
I also get to work in a multidisciplinary environment with a team of people that are passionate about what they do.
What work/project/outcome are you most proud of?
ISAS created The Architecture Section relatively recently. It’s been exciting to be part of something that is growing and evolving. There was a short period when I was the only one directly involved in architecture at the Survey. Now we have 2 full-time and 2 part-time architectural historians, not including myself. It’s been challenging but I feel fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to help build something as section head.
How old were you when you first became interested in archaeology? What sparked your interest?
My parents noticed that I was fascinated with picture books about ancient Egypt when I was 3 years old and they did a lot to nurture my interest in history and archaeology from then on. When I was in grade school, they enrolled me in an archaeology summer camp program at a local community college and I was hooked!
In college, I was very fortunate to study historic archaeology with Michael Nassaney at Western Michigan University. Our field school excavated a French Colonial fur trading fort just outside the town I grew up in. This fueled my interest in the history and archaeology of the Midwest. These experiences taught me that history is something that’s found all around us even when it is hidden by our everyday surroundings. Everything is an extension of something that came before it.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m excited to keep expanding the Architecture Section and am always looking for ways to further integrate archaeology and architecture at ISAS. We’re beginning to use drones to help us document historic bridges and buildings. This will give us a new tool for documenting historic structures and is an exciting way to integrate some tech into our research.