Special Projects

Special Projects

The Special Projects section furthers the ISAS mission of investigating, preserving, and interpreting the archaeological heritage of Illinois by supporting field station projects with specialized analysis and geophysical survey capabilities. Housed in the Central Offices in Champaign-Urbana, Special Projects encompasses four materials analysis laboratories (archaeobotanical, fauna, ceramics, and lithics) and operates magnetometry, soil resistivity, and electromagnetic induction instruments for geophysical investigations throughout the state. The Special Projects section is also tasked with the completion of reports of major archaeological projects throughout the state that were delayed at the time of excavation by shortfalls in funding, personnel, or time.


Academic Hourly Employees

Laboratories and Activities

Archaeobotanical Laboratory

Identification, analysis, and interpretation of plant remains from archaeological sites around Illinois. Plant remains can tell us about the diets of past peoples as well as what they used to create their houses, clothing, and tools. Plant remains can also tell us about the natural environments of Illinois and how past peoples interacted with those environments. During much of the past, people in Illinois grew a variety of native crops that are no longer grown today like goosefoot, maygrass, and erect knotweed. Later on, they started to grow crops like maize and beans that were introduced from Mesoamerica.

modern goosefoot plant

Figure 1a. A modern goosefoot plant

recovered goosefoot seeds

Figure 1b. Goosefoot seeds recovered from an archaeological site.


Faunal Laboratory

scapula hoe demonstration

Figure 2. Steven Kuehn demonstrating a scapula hoe.

Analysis and interpretation of zooarchaeological materials (animal remains) from ISAS excavations. Animal remains (such as bone, teeth, antlers, fish scales, mollusk shells and eggshells) can provide important information on diet, animal procurement strategies, habitat use and resource availability, seasonality, and butchery practices. Exotic animal remains, such as marine shells and shark teeth, provide evidence of long-distance trade and exchange networks. Faunal lab staff also routinely participate in outreach events, teaching others about zooarchaeology and natural history in Illinois.


Ceramics Laboratory

Analysis and interpretation of pottery assemblages from ISAS excavations and older curated collections. The study of pottery allows archaeologists to distinguish between cultural groups, observe cultural or technological changes through time, and detect patterns of interaction or movements of peoples across regions. Alexey Zelin specializes in Late Woodland and Mississippian pottery in the American Bottom region, near modern-day St. Louis. A great deal of the archaeological work of the state has taken place in this region, as it was the epicenter of the Mississippian emergence circa 1050 CE and the focus of a great deal of urban construction (and cultural destruction) in the building of the St. Louis metropolitan area. Kjersti Emerson’s focus has been on another significant area of archaeological work, done in the Chicago region. The late precontact era in this region includes the Langford, Fisher, and Huber groups of Upper Mississippians, who occupied the region from approximately 1200 CE up until the contact period.


Lithics Laboratory

Analysis and interpretation of stone tools and stone debris from ISAS excavations. Lithic artifacts provide insights into hunting patterns, food processing and cooking behaviors, technological innovation and change, travel, interaction and information sharing, landscape alteration and horticulture, construction, and ceremonial practices, among other aspects of daily life. The lab maintains a comparative collection of chert from more than 50 geological sources across Illinois and neighboring states and is equipped with a Bruker Tracer III SD portable Energy Dispersive X-ray Fluorescence spectrometer and a Portable Infra-red Mineral Analyzer (PIMA) to further identify source materials. Lithics lab staff also record artifacts and collections held by private citizens through our Ask an Archaeologist platform or during face-to-face recording sessions.



Collection and interpretation of geophysics data from archaeological sites. Geophysical survey uses sensitive instruments to “see” beneath the ground surface and gather information about what is present. Archaeologists use geophysical methods for both research and management of archaeological resources because it is a noninvasive and nondestructive way to collect a lot of information about a site relatively quickly and over a large area. ISAS owns and operates both a Bartington Grad 601-2 gradiometer, or magnetometer, and a Geonics EM38-MK2 electromagnetic induction (EMI) instrument, as well as having access to a resistivity meter. An example of the value of magnetometry in investigating an archaeological site is the survey of the Noble-Weiting site in McLean County, Illinois, where magnetometry survey across a poorly understood site revealed the entire community pattern of a late precontact multiethnic village.


Legacy Site Reporting

map of Janey B Goode site

Figure 3. Map of the Janey B. Goode site.

Reporting of past archaeological projects conducted by ISAS. Among other projects, the Special Projects Section is currently preparing a report on past work at the Janey B. Goode site, a dense village area near Cahokia that was populated by Native American peoples for about 750 years between 650 and 1400 CE. Deposits at Janey B. Goode included over 6,000 pit features and 500 house structures as well as perishable items that are rarely preserved at archaeological sites in this region, such as pieces of textile from woven bags or baskets, delicate bone artifacts, and dog coprolites.


Current Projects

electromagnetic images

Figure 4. Top row: EMI data from two earthen mounds in central Illinois. Conductivity data (A) clearly shows the limits and orientation of a rectangular Mississippian mound at the Mitchell site. Magnetic susceptibility data from a mound at the Allerton site (B) shows the circular outline of the mound as well as looting damage in the central portion of the mound.
Bottom row: Comparison of gradiometer (C) and EMI (D) data from a 20m x 20m survey block positioned on the surface of a historic cemetery. The large dipolar anomalies in the magnetic data (circled in red) are caused by pieces of ferrous metal. The dipolar anomalies obscure large areas of the survey grid. The anomalies are much smaller (or non-existent) in the EMI data, and numerous probable grave shafts are visible.

Multi-volume report of the Janey B. Goode site.

Comprehensive report of the Mitchell Mounds site, including geophysical survey.

National Parks Service grant for determining best practices for EMI use in assessing earthworks.