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February 7 , 2003
Volume 40, No. 7


Picking up the pieces: UI office helps Iowans save history
Teamwork eases presidential switch
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Picking up the pieces: UI office helps Iowans save history

photo of old pottery...some still in pieces, others patched

Gary Dalecky pulls on yellow rubber gloves, grabs a coarse brush, turns on the faucet, and starts to wash the dishes.

It’s hardly a menial chore. He savors each moment that he scrubs and rinses, sorts and dries.

When they’re filthy and broken in dozens of jagged pieces, that’s when he feels most needed. His dishwashing is a history lesson; the dishes reveal a story, and he gets to help tell it and share it with fellow Iowans.

Dalecky, an engineering technician, works in Design and Construction Services for Facilities Services Group. But his weekends this winter are being spent in a lab at the University’s Office of the State Archaeologist, cleaning artifacts from an archaeological dig in Van Buren County.

He is one of many volunteers from around the state spending time learning more about Iowa’s past and helping preserve it for future generations.

“Some people might say all this broken pottery is just garbage. Why would we want to keep that? But these pieces are history, a connection to our past,” Dalecky says. “It’s a fascinating record of who people were, what they did, how they did it, and why.”

Fred Gee sits with five trays of pottery shards.
Fred Gee, a retired minister from Des Moines, sorts through washed artifacts. He participated in the Bonaparte dig last year. Photos by Tom Jorgensen.

The artifacts Dalecky and others are handling during these lab weekends were excavated last summer from the former Bonaparte Pottery Factory site along the Des Moines River in southeast Iowa. Examining the remains offers a glimpse into the lifestyle and technology of the 19th-century Midwest.

For example, volunteers learn from Maria Schroeder, the staff member in charge of the Photo of shard with floral designBonaparte dig, how to differentiate between hand-thrown pottery and the mold-made variety, which in turn may indicate in which decade the pieces were made.

Because the site has been well preserved and is of significant historical note, it has been put on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Bonaparte excavation was one of the hundreds of outreach activities coordinated each year by the Office of the State Archaeologist, one of the University’s organized research units that reports to the vice president for research and external relations. It is located at 700 S. Clinton St.

Jeanne White trys to piece together shards
Jeanne White of Cedar Rapids pieces together shards of pottery.

In addition to the office’s vital research and education roles on campus, its very nature as a state office allows for far-reaching connections.

The office organizes visits to schools, hosts field trips and tours, opens field projects to the public, and sends out experts to speak about archaeology.

It loans pieces from its vast collection to museums and historical societies for exhibits. As the preferred repository for all of Iowa’s archaeological materials, the office has more than four million artifacts on display and in storage on campus.

There are about 30 full-time staff members during the school year and as many as 120 during the summer, which is prime time for field work. They routinely serve as consultants to various agencies and organizations. For example, they may offer guidance when artifacts are unearthed during a building project or when questions arise regarding cultural preservation law.

“This last year, we figured that our staff interacted with more than 20,000 people around the state, and that’s not including any of the presentations or activities we sponsor during Iowa Archaeology Month, which reaches another 20,000,” says Lynn Alex, public archaeology coordinator.

Since its inception in 1993, the annual week and/or month celebrating Iowa archaeology has introduced more than 100,000 Iowans to the office, its work, and the state’s archaeological past.

Another astounding statistic is the number of hits the office gets on its web site, which has become a popular high-tech way to link to the past. In 2002 the site,, recorded about 1,100 visits per day.

Move over Indiana Jones!

The Office of the State Archaeologist maintains records on more than 20,000 archaeological sites in Iowa and curates comprehensive collections from half of these sites.

Come see artifacts and hear about the latest research during a UI Staff Development tour, 12:05-12:55 p.m. Feb. 26, 700 S. Clinton St. To register, send your name, social security number, department, campus address, phone, course title, and date, to 121 USB or go to Registration deadline is Feb. 17.

Iowa’s archaeologists—dedicated professionals and avid amateur volunteers alike—are doing whatever they can to teach as many people as they can about the importance of preservation, notes Beth Pauls, state archaeologist.

The mission of the Office of the State Archaeologist remains much the same as it was when the state created the office in the 1950s: to discover, preserve, and protect Iowa’s archaeological heritage and to educate the public about it.

“We can’t preserve Iowa’s archaeology unless people understand its value and know that it’s worth saving,” Pauls says. “We’re sending our message to people of all ages across the state: we must save archaeological sites and materials because they have great stories to tell.”

Once Iowans have respect for their own heritage, Pauls hopes they can help push preservation efforts globally.

“Otherwise, what keeps people from saying, ‘Why not bulldoze the pyramids in Egypt? You could put a Tastee-Freez there,’ ” Pauls warns, only half joking.

So volunteers like Dalecky will continue to devote their days off to the Office of the State Archaeologist’s mission and to the idea that their bit of scrubbing and sorting is part of a greater good.

Pauls applauds their efforts, adding: “When you’re doing dishes that are a hundred or a thousand years old, it makes doing the dishes a lot more fun, doesn’t it?”

Article by Amy Schoon


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