Dr. Tamira Brennan, who previously worked at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey’s (ISAS) American Bottom Field Station as a coordinator, researcher, and ceramic analyst, is returning to the survey as the section head of curation.
ISAS houses one of the most extensive archaeological research collections in the state of Illinois, which is used by researchers from around the world to gain insights into our history. As curator, Brennan will oversee the organization, processing, documentation, care/conservation, and storage of all the artifacts held by ISAS and will facilitate access to the collections and data so they can be used for research by ISAS archaeologists and other scholars.
Brennan has been doing archaeology since 1999, primarily in research-based cultural resource management settings. This work included a seven-year stretch participating in the ISAS investigations at East St. Louis, one of the largest late pre-Columbian sites in the Eastern Woodlands. Most recently Brennan has been curator for the Center for Archaeological Investigation and an adjunct assistant professor of anthropology at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIUC). Brennan earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and both her master’s and PhD from SIUC.
In recognition of her expertise, Gov. JB Pritzker recently appointed Brennan to the Illinois State Museum Board.
Brennan answered a few questions about her new role with ISAS and her career in archaeology.
What are you most looking forward to about your new role as ISAS curator?
I am really excited about transforming ISAS’ collections into a major research tool. They represent a valuable resource with vast potential, but accessibility issues are presently a major limitation to that potential. I look forward to removing the roadblocks and seeing what comes of it!
What challenges lie ahead for you as curator?
I foresee two primary challenges coming into this position. This first is that the sheer size of ISAS’ collections adds complexity to even the most straightforward aspects of collections management, and there is little about these collections that are straightforward. It will be a challenge to craft the best long-term solutions for making the most of collections.
The second challenge is ensuring that ISAS respectfully serves its many stakeholders through its curation program. This means that, through our collections, we facilitate the advancement of archaeological (and other) research, we educate the people of Illinois, and last but not least, the collections’ use is done in consultation with the peoples whose cultural heritage they represent.
How are the items in the ISAS collection used in research activities?
The collections are used in a multitude of ways, and by senior researchers and graduate students alike. Among other things, assemblages from single sites are used for comparative research with other sites, single items are used to add data to studies of specific artifact types, and the documents (photos, maps, and more) are used in publications and presentations.
Congratulations on your appointment to the Illinois State Museum Board! What will you be doing as a board member?
I’ll be able to address that question in more detail after I actually set in on the post—which, like everything else, has been postponed due to the coronavirus. But in general, the Board shapes the future of the museum by providing advice to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on operational matters, working with the director of the museum, and contributing input on museum policies.
You previously worked with ISAS for more than seven years. What work are you most proud of from that time?
I’m most proud of our work on the East St. Louis Mound Precinct for the New Mississippi River Bridge Project. The number of committed people who were and are involved in the excavation, analyses, and reporting of that project is astounding, and the results of their efforts are a truly significant contribution to pre-Columbian history.
What made you decide to go into archaeology?
I initially planned to be a biological anthropologist, but after several seasons of fieldwork as an undergraduate, I was hooked on digging! I really enjoy the physical labor and outdoors aspect of fieldwork, as well as the critical thinking that it requires. The thrill of discovery also never gets old, even when dealing with everyday items.
How has archaeology changed since you first started your career?
Technology has rapidly taken a front seat in this traditionally manual field since I began, redefining how we do even the most preliminary of tasks. Manipulating big datasets now requires significantly less effort, so the field is seeing large-scale research conducted more quickly and by smaller groups of people “on the ground,” while small-scale research requires a lot less legwork.
The digitization of scholarly material is also a game-changer for someone like me, who once spent endless hours and all of my spare change at a photocopier just to get research materials!
What advice would you give to other archaeologists?
Although having a specialty makes you marketable, I think it’s still very important to learn a little bit about a lot of things—different analytical techniques, different geographical areas, different time periods, for example. Many archaeologists emerge from the university with an intense focus on a single thing and stay that course, but I can’t say how much I’ve benefited from being open to learning opportunities outside of my primary research focus.