Timothy R. Pauketat, a University of Illinois professor of Anthropology, is the new director of the Prairie Research Institute’s Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) and also takes on the role of Illinois State Archaeologist. Pauketat, who has been a visiting research scientist at ISAS since 2016, has conducted most of his archaeological field research at and around the Native American city of Cahokia. An Illinois native, Pauketat credits his time as a student archaeology intern for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District, with showing him that archaeology could be his lifelong career.
Q. What makes you excited to take on this role with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey?
A. I’ve travelled all around the world to great archaeological and cultural-heritage sites, paying close attention to how diverse people actively engage such places. I’ve paid attention to the variety of academic and institutional models of archaeological research centers out there, from the U.S. to Brazil and China. I’ve thought a lot about the social and cultural necessity of doing archaeology, both as a way for society to collectively remember the past and as a means by which it might navigate its future. And I long ago came to the conclusion that meaningful archaeology, at least as I imagine it here, is only truly possible when done at large scales with public support and the participation of people from all walks of life. And that’s why I am excited to take on the role of directing the Illinois State Archaeological Survey. ISAS is, for me, the last best hope of a democratic and scientific archaeology performed by the people, for the people. There’s nothing quite like ISAS which, as a sub-organization of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois, has the ability to do everything from field surveys of entire transportation corridors to detailed molecular studies of the foods, fuels, and possessions of ancient people. And there is nothing quite like archaeology the way it has developed in Illinois—mostly a legacy of ISAS in its earlier iterations. Not only do we have among the richest arrays of archaeological sites and ancient histories in North America, the Mississippi, Ohio, and Illinois Rivers and the fertile Illinois prairie made the Illinois Country unique well into the historic era. World-changing things happened in Illinois.
Q. How do you envision ISAS evolving over the next decade?
A. Increasingly, ISAS will be directing its field crews and lab technicians in ever more theoretically challenging, globally expansive, and digitally sophisticated projects that better serve the citizens of the state and the mission of the University of Illinois. We’ll do this by developing online tools and databases that Illinoisans and descendant communities can use—such as predictive models of archaeological site locations and free apps that allow users to learn through their smart phones—and by reaching beyond the state to address the big problems of today: sustainable development, climate change, cultural identity, and the causes and effects of migration, among other things. We will be adding new scientists to our ranks to realize such an expanded mission and we’ll be joining forces with our colleagues in the Illinois Natural History, Illinois State Geological, and Illinois State Water surveys. Done right, ISAS will become a leading center of applied archaeological science recognized the world over.
Q. You’ve been a professor of Anthropology here since the late 90s. Do you plan to continue teaching and mentoring students?
A. I have a few more PhDs that I look forward to hooding! So, yes, I do plan to continue mentoring students, though not through the formal setting of an Anthropology classroom. Instead, I’m much more excited about returning to my first passion: teaching students and staff through real world archaeological experience. From the very beginning, I was passionate about fieldwork, which started with fossil collecting as a pre-teen and developed into the pursuit of archaeology. There’s something about the process of discovery in the field—the smell and feel of dirt, getting drenched by a thunderstorm, the realization that you are the first person to step onto an ancient house floor for a thousand years—that cannot be matched by any classroom activity or computer model. One has to be there to get it. And lots of people know this intuitively, because so many of them have dreamt at one time or another of being an archaeologist. Not surprisingly, my favorite course to teach used to be Archaeological Field School. Well, ISAS is like one long field school, and I’ll now have the opportunity to keep giving students and other adults the learning experience of their lives—archaeology.
Q, What do you think people in Illinois should know about their state’s archaeological history and cultural resources that they don’t know?
A. There are a few key things to recognize. First and most importantly, there is a substantial archaeological heritage all around us, and in every corner of the state! Second, the archaeological heritage of Illinois is surprisingly diverse: Native American farmers and hunters, African-American slaves and freed immigrants, Anglo-American pioneers, and French-colonial traders, colonists, and soldiers. ISAS works to identify, preserve, and interpret the archaeology of all! Third, there was never really a pre-historic era, where humanity might be characterized by broad brush explanations of human behavior. Ancient and historic-era Indigenous Illinoisan histories were as diverse, multi-dimensional, and tumultuous as any Euroamerican or African-American histories, with plenty of history makers in their midst; archaeology’s job in part is to make that point to ensure that we all respect and seek to understand the histories of each other. And, finally, the archaeological remains of all of these important histories are all too commonly under threat in ways that should concern us all. No one’s history should be erased, and it is the responsibility of us all to work to preserve our collective heritage.
Q. What drew you to archaeology and anthropology?
A. So much of what happens in life is a combination of experience and happenstance. For me, there was first a love of the outdoors. Then, there was an arrowhead, actually a chipped-stone spear point, that I picked up next to my grandparent’s barn—that led to a story from my mother, that led to my imagining a lost world of forgotten people—that ultimately led to my pursuit of archaeology. But there was also a deep-seated love of history and science. I think that narratives and objects-of-memory always fascinated me. So too did the story-telling component of history, which I realized later is where ideology, culture, and politics begin, other fascinations of mine. And I was always concerned with the environment and preservation, and the study of Native America seemed like a way of merging these things. Interestingly, I was not initially drawn to Anthropological theory at all, but preferred geology, earning a BS in Earth Sciences and Anthropology in college. Later graduate courses in archaeological theory at SIU-Carbondale and the University of Michigan had the side effect of creating a deeper concern for Anthropology, Political Economy, and Ecology generally.
But I still have that arrowhead.
Q. What else would you like people to know about you?
A. I’m fascinated by the night sky. I’m a fan of the Great Lakes, ocean beaches, old barns, and oak-hickory forests. And I’m a fervent believer in knowledge and its power to change the world for the better. I’m pretty sure I’ve helped to instill that belief in my two daughters, one currently a teacher in a charter school in Oakland, California, and the other a psychology post-doc at Princeton University. Along with my wife, who teaches at Indiana University, we are all committed to working on creating a positive vision of the future, despite daily reminders of the negatives. Partly this is because of the potential I see in archaeology and in ISAS. Yes, how frustrating it is to see the lessons of the past, things that we already know from history and archaeology, ignored in the present. But how encouraging it is to realize that archaeology, done right, can make a positive difference. That is what I see in ISAS—this great, unique team of archaeologists with the power to realize large-scale, multidisciplinary, applied-scientific results that matter.