Friday, April 15, 2016

John F. Doershuk, Ph.D., is the State Archaeologist and Director of the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA), as well as an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology. In this Q&A he offers a glimpse into OSA, part of the UI Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development—what it is, what it does, and why it matters.

Tell us a little about the Office of the State Archaeologist

The OSA is first and foremost a University of Iowa research center. Our mission is to develop, disseminate, and preserve knowledge of Iowa’s human past through archaeological research, scientific discovery, public stewardship, service, and education. We do our best to foster a diverse and vibrant learning environment and in the process contribute to the university’s mission and goals.

How did OSA get its start?

OSA was initially established in 1959; it grew from a one-person show in its early years to the current 24 salaried employees, including archaeologists, architectural historians, archivists, bioarchaeologists, educators, and technology specialists. Depending on the particular grants and contracts we might have in progress at any given time we also employ between five and 45 project-specific researchers who assist primarily with field and lab data activities. Today, OSA annually conducts between $2 and $4 million in Iowa archaeological research. Around 15 percent of these funds come to OSA via the university. The remainder comes from grant and contract sources. We use these funds to conduct basic research and to translate that research for the public to help build support for our activities and for the preservation of archaeological sites.

What does OSA do?

While we aren’t a teaching department, several OSA staff members have adjunct appointments in the Department of Anthropology and occasionally teach courses, work on graduate committees, and mentor undergraduates. In fact, OSA is very open to working with students and we routinely fund several work-study positions as well as host interns and independent study projects. Engaging students in OSA’s everyday research activities enriches the student experience at the UI and helps us to complete research projects that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to undertake.

Can you talk a little more about OSA’s educational role?

We have an education program through which we try to connect with the people of the state. We formalized our Education and Outreach program with the launch of Iowa Archaeology Week in 1993, with the intent to increase public awareness about Iowa’s past and the value of preserving it. This program was expanded in 2000 to Iowa Archaeology Month and eventually grew to include participation in RAGBRAI.  In addition, our education staff visits classroom and communities across the state to talk about archaeology and OSA activities, participates in festivals and events such as the Meskwaki Powwow, creates for-the-public literature and classroom curricula, and maintains more than a dozen themed Discovery Trunks with classroom materials available to educators statewide. Last year, OSA educators and archaeologists reached nearly 10,000 people on campus and in 36 Iowa counties. With the addition of the UI Mobile Museum, our education staff also partners with departments across campus to develop research-based exhibits and educational materials.

What work does OSA perform on behalf of the State of Iowa?

OSA maintains the official site file for the State of Iowa. This online Geographic Information System (GIS) portal, “I-Sites,” has both public and professional versions that contain the locations of all known archaeological sites recorded with us. Currently we have almost 29,000 sites on record. As much as 50 percent of those places may no longer exist, and our data are the only remaining records. The locational details remain important because they may hold keys to other and yet-undiscovered archaeological sites.

The professional version of I-Sites supports a key partner: the State Historic Preservation Office (State Historical Society of Iowa, Department of Cultural Affairs) and numerous Iowa businesses conducting archaeological consulting, with their compliance-based infrastructure development projects. The public version allows all Iowans to get a sense of the distribution of recorded archaeological sites across the state and even in their local area. [It’s important to note that specific site location data is confidential in the public version to protect landowners from uninvited visitors and to help protect the archaeological resources from potential thieves.]

Talk a bit about the role of OSA as the State Archaeological Repository.

We currently have an estimated four million items from about 14,000 archaeological sites here in the state. The OSA Archives include more than 250,000 maps, photos, and documents that enrich what we know about the artifacts in our care.

So not just pottery sherds and arrowheads?

Those, too, of course, but context matters. Artifacts like stone projectile points and decorated ceramic sherds or carved animal bones are interesting and often visually stunning, but it’s the context of these items that tell the bigger story about past human adaptations. The repository is a secure, professionally managed curation center that is regularly used by researchers from all over the Midwest and Plains regions as well as occasional visitors from farther afield seeking comparative materials for their studies. OSA also works with many Iowa museums, historical societies, and other venues that borrow specimens for display and educational purposes. These loans enrich the learning opportunities for Iowans all across the state.

What can you say about the thrill of discovery?

The best part about being an archaeologist is finding stuff that most people have completely forgotten about. Sharing these discoveries amplifies the discovery process (and fun).

The OSA staff wants to be good stewards of our public funding so we want to share as much as we can with the public. That includes not only doing really good research but also making sure that Iowans hear about what we’ve discovered. Our experience conducting research and public engagement statewide is a primary reason UI Vice President Dan Reed asked OSA to partner with the UI Pentacrest Museums to create the UI Dare to Discover Mobile Museum, whose mission is to bring UI research to Iowans statewide. We are in the process of launching “MoMu” on its third year—in the first two we were able to visit 142 different venues in 58 Iowa counties! We’ve featured UI archaeological, paleontological, water quality, history, and even space research and hosted more than 67,000 visitors. I think Iowans will really enjoy the 2016 exhibits.

Why does OSA matter to Iowans?

Strategic partnerships drive OSA’s activities across the state. Our central focus is generating the most knowledge, the greatest understanding, and the maximum appreciation for Iowa’s past. We work with public and private institutions, organizations, and units of government from small towns to federal agencies to maximize the preservation and appreciation of Iowa’s past.

Our shared history, which includes the histories we have inherited from all the people who ever lived in what we today call Iowa, is a nonrenewable resource. Our goal is to learn from it, and honor those who came before us.

Learn more about OSA at