Interview with John Doershuk

Since 1999, Iowa State Archaeologist John Doershuk has taught a course or two each year at Cornell, including Archaeology, Introduction to Archaeological Field Methods, Human Origins, and Indigenous Peoples and Cultures of North America. Doershuk also opens his lab at the University of Iowa to students for internships and independent research projects.

How does teaching fit in with your role as State Archaeologist?

Teaching archaeological field courses has been a particularly rewarding way for me to be engaged with students while also conducting substantive archaeological research. In many ways it's the classic blend: participating in the training of the next generation of archaeologists while also getting to study something of real interest to me.

Since archaeological data collection is generally a time intensive and physically demanding activity, having a group of enthusiastic students ready to survey and dig for an entire block is a real boon. More importantly, participating in field archaeology really hammers home to the students the fragility of the archaeological record and how important it is that everyone participates in preserving the past.

What do you enjoy most about working with students?

I especially enjoy working with those students who really get hooked on archaeology. It's a great deal of fun, and professionally very satisfying, to mentor these students and watch them make progress. This process starts with the field experience but can really blossom in the lab, doing the really tough part of archaeology -- the processing and analysis.

How do you involve students in your lab?

Most students are only involved in the field part, collecting the artifacts. But each time I've taught the archaeological field course at Cornell (four times now) there have been one or two participants who've really been interested, and they've continued working with the artifacts under my supervision through independent studies. These students wash, label, bag, sort, identify, catalog, box, summarize, and generally research the relationships between items and groups of items to actually begin developing the understanding of past lifeways.

Any examples?

In 2009 Montell Edger worked part of the summer at the Office  of the State Archaeologist (OSA) as a volunteer processing the materials from the field course she and her fellow students participated in during May. This past November/December, Cornell student Mary Mortensen completed an internship here at OSA working on two projects, one with my colleague Cindy Peterson cataloging artifacts recovered from the original War of 1812 fort that Fort Madison, Iowa is named after. Mary is also working on a study with my colleague Mark Anderson investigating which cherts from Iowa geological sources have functionality as flints-as for flintlock rifles or strike-a-lights-as not all chert will produce adequate sparks. Those that do would have had much greater economic value in the past when folks were dependent on these technologies, and their presence on archaeological sites may signal trade relationships.

You completed your undergraduate degree at Carleton.  What advice would you give to a student considering studying archaeology at a small liberal arts school in the Midwest?

I must admit I have a bias-small liberal arts colleges like Cornell and Carleton are wonderful places to really "learn how to learn," as one of my mentors once described the process to me. From an archaeological perspective, Cornell is fortunate to have Iowa City and my office relatively nearby-not all similar schools have ready access to such resources.

I recommend that if a student is considering studying archaeology at a small Midwestern college it is important they carefully determine what sort of archaeology is actually going on at the school. Generally, formalized programs with multiple faculty positions dedicated to teaching archaeology are rare, but as at Cornell there may well be a defined archaeology major that can be achieved by a student carefully selecting the right combination of history, geology, anthropology, and other courses to meet the requirements.

Were there any particular undergraduate experiences that helped you along the path to becoming a professional archaeologist?

I was able to participate in several summer archaeological field projects while I was enrolled at Carleton, although these were not Carleton-sponsored digs. These field experiences introduced me to a whole bunch of practicing archaeologists representing all levels of expertise and academic credentials. Some of these folks proved to be very useful contacts and supporters at later stages of my career-the lesson is you can never start networking too early. It's sometimes hard for students to recognize, but their interactions at Cornell can turn out to be the basis for lasting positive connections throughout their careers.

Do you think Cornell offers similar opportunities to what you experienced as an undergrad?

I really benefited from the mentoring I received at Carleton, and I see plenty of evidence for similar behavior by the faculty at Cornell. The two schools are similar in that they have combined sociology and anthropology departments without a full-time archaeologist (both schools have an archaeologist in their classics department).

Both schools have strong history and geology departments which are important related disciplines to archaeology and which, along with classics and anthropology, provide ways for students interested in archaeology to round out their undergraduate education in such a way as to prepare them well for graduate study in archaeology. Courses that involve consideration of landscapes, the interfacing of humans and the natural environment, that use GIS, consider cultural diversity, and-for those interested in specialty studies-chemistry, animal bones, microscopy, and the like can easily be packaged into a robust undergraduate course of study for the beginning archaeologist.