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Michael Aiuvalasit joined the Illinois State Archaeological Survey as an environmental archaeologist in August 2019. Previously he was at Southern Methodist University in Texas.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at ISAS?
I’m most excited about the ability to leverage the expertise of archaeologists at ISAS and other PRI and University of Illinois scientists to tackle research questions that span disciplines. For example, how can communities develop sustainable water infrastructures for the long term? Are new technologies always a panacea to mitigate water insecurities, or can robust local social institutions work just as well? Just how unprecedented was the recent flooding in Illinois? Restoration ecologists spend lots of time and energy returning ecosystems to “natural” conditions, but what is “natural” in places where people have intensively lived and used resources for thousands of years? Archaeologists can address these questions with long-term case studies, but we only do it well when we collaborate with other scientists and in partnerships with members of communities who really care about these problems. PRI and ISAS should be a great place to accomplish this kind of work.
How old were you when you first became interested in archaeology? What sparked your interest?
My father was a federal employee and a Civil War buff, and much of my elementary school years were spent in the D.C. area. Many weekends involved trips to Civil War battlefields, and I developed an appreciation for experiencing historical landscapes while imagining battles occurring in today’s empty fields. As a kid I also liked exploring in nature in woods behind our house and could while away the hours looking at leaves or bugs under a microscope. In school, I developed a love of both history and science, and archaeology has been a perfect way to combine both interests.
What drew you to specialize in environmental archaeology in particular?
I’m not any good at artifact typologies and the idea of excavating human remains creeps me out! Kidding aside, I feel environmental archaeology provides tremendous opportunities to address fundamental questions about adaptation and economics in past societies, as well as generate data useful to other environmental and earth scientists. In my work, I get to go out on landscapes and do things like hypothesize that the small swales or rock alignments that others may trip over are actually ancient water reservoirs or agricultural terraces. I then get to test these hypotheses by collecting data in the field and conducing lab analyses, and then I get to link the results to archaeological and paleoclimate data to tell a story about how people solved resource management problems in the past.
What advice would you give to future archaeologists?
I believe archaeologists are well positioned to contribute our perspectives to pressing social issues like effective climate change adaptations, addressing root causes of social inequality, and sustainable solutions to resource management problems, but to affect change we’ve got to find ways to get a seat at the table with other experts, communities, and policy makers. Future archaeologists need to learn how to do the things archaeologists do—work well in a team, not mind breaking a sweat to get your data, and develop a specialty—but they also need to look outside the discipline for good questions to address with their work, and for problems that need solving.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your research plans or about yourself?
I plan to continue my research projects on water insecurity and eco-hydrology of the North American Southwest but also to develop new research projects in Illinois. I’m especially interested in timeframes spanning late prehistory into modern eras that look at anthropogenic land cover change, fire ecology of prairies, and the sensitivity of water resource availability (and the changing way people use water) to periods of climate change.