A passion for unearthing the past

A passion for unearthing the past

Jim Pisell digs so Illinois projects can move forward

By David Blanchette

It was the experience of a lifetime. Jim Pisell lived in a tent in New Mexico for six weeks, two hours’ drive from the nearest civilization, with one generator, one propane-powered refrigerator and 25 colleagues all doing the same thing — searching for a record of the past.

“It was fun, 25 students doing archaeology as part of a field school in the middle of nowhere for six weeks. Some people would be terrified of that idea, but I thought it was fun,” Pisell says. “Our professor wanted us to feel like we were back in the 1920s on an expedition, and boy, did it have that feel!”

Pisell made archaeology his career, and for more than two decades he has been part of an Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) team that searches areas ahead of planned transportation projects, looking to uncover evidence of the past from relatively recent history through thousands of years ago.

Pisell had been bitten by the archaeology bug in college already, but that New Mexico field school confirmed what he had suspected, that digging for the past was his passion.

“We dug a prehistoric site that dated to about the same time period as the Mississippians in Illinois, about 1,000 years ago,” Pisell says. “We cleared areas off and mapped what was left of their structures. They even had ball courts. I found stuff leftover from point-making and a lot of pottery pieces.”

Pisell was born in Normal and raised in nearby Cooksville, “with just 270 people, so a really small town in the middle of nowhere,” he says. Pisell excelled in social sciences in high school, and at Illinois State University he decided to take an anthropology class “just for fun” and enjoyed it. He discovered that archaeology is one of the four disciplines of anthropology, the others being physical, cultural and linguistic anthropology.

“I thought archaeology was a social science I could do, and it made sense to me after that,” Pisell says. “I also had an interest in history. In archaeology you get to touch the things from a time period, not just read primary and secondary sources about them.”

Budding archaeologists who want to do field work after college need to take part in field schools hosted by professors “who enjoy it because they get to do their research and their employees pay them to go to work,” Pisell says. “But then, they impart their wisdom to you, and I had some really good ones.”

Pisell took part in the New Mexico and several other field schools. The same weekend he received his college diploma, Pisell drove to Ohio to start work the next day for a private firm doing archaeological work in a Cleveland suburb. Later that summer, he also did archaeology in southern Indiana. However, the contract archaeology work for which he had signed up was sporadic.

“When you go out in the field and you don’t hold down a full-time job in archaeology, they call you a ‘shovel bum.’ You bounce around to different projects,” Pisell says. “I shovel-bummed my first year. In between archaeology jobs, I would pick up ‘normal’ jobs. I even worked at a grocery store for a while.”

Pisell did archaeology work in Iowa before returning to Illinois to work on archaeology in his home state. That’s when the opportunity came to make his passion a full-time career with the Illinois State Archaeological Survey.

The ISAS is administered through the University of Illinois, funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation, and its employees assess the impact that any state or federally funded road, airport or railroad construction projects may have on archaeological resources. The process complies with state and federal law.

“We look at or test the area and see if any significant archaeological resources would be damaged or destroyed during construction,” Pisell says. “If something huge is there and will cost them a lot of money to remove, we tell them to avoid it. If it’s something that we can manage to remove and document ourselves, we tell them that — or we give them a plan on how to do it properly by using a contract archaeology firm that they will hire.”

Pisell works for ISAS’ Western Illinois Field Station, which is based in Jacksonville and covers more than 20 counties, including a large part of the Illinois and Mississippi River valleys. The region is among the richest archaeological areas in the country, and survey employees often find evidence of prehistoric, or pre-European contact, people on land they are asked to investigate.

“A lot of the sites in Illinois help to dial in when cultural changes took place, for instance when agriculture started or bow and arrow use became common,” Pisell says. “The more we dig in western Illinois, the more we can tighten time periods and learn more about local people.”

Pisell said the best way to find an archaeological site is to look at the bare ground a day or two after a nice rain. If nothing is evident on the surface, a series of holes can be dug to test for any archaeological evidence. Ground penetrating radar and other methods of scanning below the surface are also coming into wider use in the field.

But whether he uses low-tech or high-tech methods, Pisell still gets excited when he finds something.

“When I first started, I had some professors that if we got really excited when we found something. They would say, ‘Stop acting like a collector, we are trying to make you professionals,’” Pisell says. “When I came to work for the archaeological survey, my boss told me, ‘Around here, you can be excited about what you find and still be a professional.’”

Pisell can’t imagine being in any other career. He loves being out in the sun all day and enjoys the beauty of nature when he is in the field. Still, this get-your-hands-dirty calling isn’t for everyone.

“We get young kids straight out of college who don’t know if they will get poison ivy. Well, they find out pretty quickly,” Pisell says. “They will get bitten by bugs they don’t even know exist. It’s not for everybody, but those who love it enjoy the outdoors like I do.”

So, what will archaeologists in the future discover about our current civilization?

“I feel bad for them because we are so consumer-driven, they are going to have so much stuff to go through,” Pisell says. “It would be daunting to pick up tons of plastic to study a time period. Right now, we make a lot of stuff that will last for thousands of years.”

Pisell considers his career to be vital to understanding our past.

“Archaeology is important for history. You’re adding stuff that primary and secondary sources don’t talk about,” Pisell says. “Looking at objects can help us deduce how people actually did things. Sometimes the information is even more important than the artifacts.”

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