On April 11, the Prairie Research Institute honored employees for their outstanding achievements and excellent work. Selection committees composed of staff from across the organization reviewed multiple strong nominations before selecting these 2018 honorees: ISAS Thomas E. Emerson was awared the Distinguished Research Scientist Award.
Dr. Emerson’s prestigious career includes commendable service to scientific organizations, a prolific publication record (including ~20 authored and edited volumes and ~150 book chapters and professional articles), and interdisciplinary collaboration involving innovative techniques that have advanced his discipline.
He has been recognized nationally and internationally by his peers and by organizations outside of his field for his significant contributions toward the management and preservation of cultural resources, toward the study and interpretation of pre-Columbian peoples, and toward a better understanding of complex societies. His career stands as an example of how the goals of the Prairie Research Institute are brought to fulfillment to serve the people of Illinois as well as the broader scientific community.
His nominators wrote: “Dr. Emerson is one of the best-known research and public archaeologists in the world today…He has carried out some of the most robust and transformative studies on the large-scale and long-term relationships of early complex societies, tribalism, governance and religion, much of his most famous work focusing on the scientific study of materials (pipestones, pottery residues, and bones) that may be used to infer those larger historical relationships.”
Among Dr. Emerson’s many research accomplishments, three stand out:
- First, along with Randy Hughes, formerly of the Illinois State Geological Survey, Tom helped to develop a new archaeometric technique for determining mineral spectra using laser light (the Portable Infrared Mineral Analyzer). Tom and colleagues then perfected this technique and applied it to a series of ancient pipestones, establishing for the first time that the elaborate carved stone figures associated with the ancient American Indian city of Cahokia were made from one source near the city and that many 2000-year-old “Hopewell” culture pipes (that ended up in Ohio) were made by people in Illinois.
- Tom’s writing on Cahokian ideology and symbolism changed the study of both the final pre-Columbian period in North America, known as the “Mississippian” era, and the study of complex society generally around the world. His works on this topic are must-reads for all serious students of Eastern Woodlands archaeology. Tom is internationally recognized for his work on the symbolism and imagery of the Mississippians, especially as these are connected both to the rise and fall of Cahokia and to the emergence of ethnic tribalism.
- Mobilizing other researchers and ISAS staff, Dr. Emerson has been reanalyzing the isotopic terrain of the American Midwest, especially as it involved the rise of Cahokia and including the famous Mound 72 burial mound. Data are in hand that will put current theorizing about the dietary basis, population diversity, multiple ethnicities, and migrations into and out of the Cahokia world on a firm footing, ultimately changing the way archaeologists around the world think about the foundation of this ancient urbanism.