| Greg Anderson
It was a cold and rainy day in early January when I visited the site, a cornfield along the lower Des Moines River in Southeastern Iowa. We didn’t get out of the van because of the weather, but we slowly circled the field, keeping our eyes peeled for artifacts against the dark, saturated soil. Nothing.
It was hard to believe that this ordinary-looking field was the site of a major Ioway Indian village from about the 1760s to the 1820s, known today as Iowaville. Decades of activity by archaeologists and collectors have turned up thousands of artifacts from near the surface of the site, so it was unusual not to see anything.
I began researching various aspects of Iowaville last summer for my combined honors thesis in anthropology and history. As a double major in these disciplines with a special interest in the connections between them, I was looking for a thesis topic that would involve archaeology, cultural anthropology, and history. When I heard that Bill Green—director of the Logan Museum and an anthropology and museum studies professor—was working on an interdisciplinary project about the Ioway, I got involved.
Armed with Bill’s guidance, my previous training in anthropology and history, and a grant from the Mouat and Whiteford Endowed Research Fund, I took two trips to Iowa to inventory private collections of artifacts from the site and look at fur trade records at the Wisconsin State Historical Society Archives in Madison. I also spent quite a bit of time in the library looking at microfilm copies of archival material from Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Winnipeg.
As my research progressed, I began to realize that the question, “What is Iowaville?” has multiple answers, that what Iowaville is depends on the perspective from which it is viewed, and perspectives change across times, places, and cultures, including disciplinary subcultures. This idea gradually became the theme of my thesis.
In my thesis, I present different disciplinary perspectives on Iowaville, looking at artifacts recovered from the site through an archaeological lens and applying historical methods to documents about the village. I also include perspectives of individuals, from 18th century Spanish colonial officials to 19th century fur traders to Ioways from the 1830s to today.
I came to realize that these diverse perspectives couldn’t be mixed into a seamless and homogenous narrative. While the perspectives intersect at certain points—at the very least, they all deal with Iowaville in some way—they rarely speak directly to each other. Rather, they address different aspects of Iowaville because they begin with different assumptions, proceed according to different methods, and accomplish different objectives.
I ended up thinking about my thesis as a collage, a space in which to assemble and arrange discrete perspectives. I try to build up a composite picture of Iowaville by bringing together these multiple viewpoints and even worldviews.
All in all, working on my honors thesis provided a capstone experience to my interdisciplinary studies at Beloit. But at the same time, it raised difficult questions for me about just what interdisciplinarity means in practice. If we admit that disciplinary boundaries are not mere formalities but reflect the existence of deep and perhaps irreconcilable divisions between different microcultures of practices and knowledge, then how do we bring them together in a truly integrative fashion instead of simply alternating between them?
Nurtured by Beloit’s emphasis on interdisciplinary education, my own interdisciplinary background and interests drew me to Iowaville in the first place. And while working on my thesis has left me less sure of exactly what “working across or between disciplines” means, I’m more confident than before in its value.
Saul Schwartz will enter Princeton University’s Ph.D.
program in anthropology this fall and eventually plans to become a professor.