Archaeology is the study of the human past through material remains. It is the principal way to learn about humanity’s ancient past. In Iowa, archaeologists discover and study the sites, artifacts, and physical remains that make up the past 13,000 years of human settlement.
Founded in 1959, the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) is a nationally recognized research laboratory, repository, and public facility. Our staff members have special expertise in archaeology and history, architectural history, bioarchaeology, cultural resources management investigations, curation, and public engagement. OSA works closely with federal, state, and local partners, and is a leader in promoting cooperative work between archaeologists and American Indians. The OSA is directed by State Archaeologist, John Doershuk, and is a unit of the UI Office of the Vice President for Research.
The OSA mission is to develop, disseminate, and preserve knowledge of Iowa's human past through Midwestern and Plains archaeological research, scientific discovery, public stewardship, service, and education.
OSA is often mislabeled or misrepresented in news articles, social media, and correspondence. Although we frequently partner with the below entities, we are separate and independent.
- UI Department of Anthropology
- UI Museum of Natural History
- Iowa Archeological Society
Official name and acronym:
University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA)
When crediting or referring to the OSA, use the official name above, then the subsequent acronym. Do not use the examples below or other configurations:
- State Archaeologist Office
- Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist Office
- Office of the State Archaeology, University of Iowa
Staff and Titles
It is a common error to refer to any OSA staff member as "State Archaeologist". Only the Director is appointed by the Board of Regents as the State Archaeologist, according to state law (Chapter 263B). See the Staff Directory for accurate names and titles for OSA employees.
Archaeology or Archeology?
Both archaeology (using the diphthong "ae") and archeology (without the second "a") are accurate spellings of the word in the English language. The variant "e" spelling became widely used by printing presses in the late 19th century, resulting from a decision by the U.S. Government Printing Office to economize printing. The National Park Service and various state governments adopted this version.
OSA uses the traditional diphthong when spelling archaeology and its derivatives. The formal name for the Iowa Archeological Society, however, does not use the diphthong.
Negative Connotations of the term "Prehistoric"
Archaeologists who study the ancient Native American past are moving away from using the term prehistoric. Many of OSA's Tribal partners and Indigenous communities across North America feel that this term expresses "before history" and implies that anything before the arrival of Europeans is not "history". For this reason, OSA is shifting to the terms "precontact" and "ancestral Native American," with the latter reinforcing the connectedness of these ancient people with modern Native Americans. One exception in Iowa is the archaeological time period designation, "Late Prehistoric," which has been used as an official term for decades and is embedded in the literature.
Time Period and Archaeological Culture Designations
The following terms were not created or used by Native Americans descendant to Iowa to refer to their ancestors: Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, Late Prehistoric, Great Oasis, Glenwood, Mill Creek, Oneota. They should be applied to a time period or archaeological culture and not as names for a group of people. OSA has not always done this in the past, but revisions and newly created content will not refer to people as time periods, e.g. "the Paleoindian people" or "Oneota people." Alternatives could include, "People during the Paleoindian time period" or "The Oneota cultural tradition."
The term “Late Prehistoric” refers to a time period designation created by archaeologists to help define the chronology of Iowa’s archaeological past. This archaeological time period begins approximately A.D. 900-1000 and ends with the arrival of Europeans. The Late Prehistoric time period is characterized by significant Indigenous technological innovations and adaptations such as large-scale agriculture focused on corn, year-round villages and settlements, use of the bow and arrow, and increased social and economic complexity.
Mill Creek, Glenwood, Oneota, and Late Great Oasis are archaeological terms for cultural designations based on material evidence for regional/geographical, temporal, and technological patterns. Regionally, Mill Creek sites are found in northwest Iowa, Glenwood sites in far southwest Iowa, Great Oasis sites mostly in central to northwest Iowa, and Oneota sites across the state and beyond. We have learned from archaeological research and through Indigenous oral histories shared with us that the people in the cultural tradition that archaeologists refer to as Oneota are direct ancestors of today’s Iowa (Ioway), Ho-Chunk (Winnebago), Oto, Missouria, Ponca, and Omaha tribes while the Mill Creek archaeological culture is ancestral to today’s Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa), among others. The Glenwood archaeological culture is likely ancestral to many Tribes historically known from the Plains.
OSA does not share photographs of human skeletal materials, burials, or funerary and sacred objects out of respect for our Tribal partners and Indigenous communities. This ethical practice is gradually being adopted by individuals, agencies, organizations, and institutions across the U.S. and beyond. Illustrations of skeletal remains are sometimes used as alternative imagery, after consultation with our Tribal partners.
OSA continues to review our public materials to redact these images when possible.
Active Archaeological Projects
Much of OSA archaeological field work is done under contract. For some projects, our clients institute their own photo policies, and we defer to those policies. Additionally, there may be issues of sensitivity or confidentiality. If you encounter OSA staff on an archaeological field work project, ask for the Project Manager to inquire about permissions before taking and sharing photos.
Typically when interacting with the public, OSA ensures that the artifacts we showcase are not culturally sensitive. When interacting with archaeologists at a public event we typically encourage event and object photographs; however it is courteous to ask for permission first.
Many children attend our public events. Regarding social media, be aware of privacy and safety issues for minors. If you don't have permission from parents or guardians, do not publicly post images of children.
If visiting our office for a tour, interview, or conversation, photos or videos of staff, students, volunteers, and visitors require documented consent to a) take their image and b) publicly distribute their image (including on social media). OSA staff will ask for consent prior to taking any photos or videos of people and respect anyone's decision to opt out. We can provide forms if needed.
OSA has several popular social media channels: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. When possible, please tag our institutional pages in your posts and shares. We appreciate a tag or credit when our original content is circulated. It is common for people to either plagiarize or copy/paste OSA web content and share images without providing credit. Much of the time, this is unintentional. We enjoy sharing this content with the public and want to be able to answer questions when they arise or provide additional resources to those who are interested.
Out of individual concerns for privacy, please do not tag an OSA staff member's personal accounts without their permission.
Please consult with us on the appropriate use of our logos for your social media or print posts and flyers. The University of Iowa recently changed their branding, and we can provide you with updated and high quality versions with or without transparent backgrounds.