After short retirement, archaeologist takes museum job

CHEROKEE, Iowa (AP) — Mark Anderson thought he was retired.

He’d spent more than 30 years in the University of Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, tromping through all kinds of conditions to survey highway construction sites for culturally significant artifacts prior to road work beginning.

After retiring to Storm Lake in 2019, it was time to work on personal projects and continue relationships made with members of the Northwest Chapter of the Iowa Archaeology Society.

When the staff archaeologist position at the Sanford Museum and Planetarium in Cherokee opened earlier this year, Director Linda Burkhart approached Anderson to see if he was interested.

Turns out Anderson wasn’t as ready to be retired as he previously believed. He accepted the position, taking over the part-time role in October.

“It was an opportunity of a career, and I’m so flattered to work there,” Anderson told the Sioux City Journal.

He won’t be discovering and unearthing ancient villages and homesteads across Iowa, but he now oversees the museum’s archaeological collection (the fourth-largest in the state), helps researchers use the museum’s artifacts for their studies, does public outreach events and identifies artifacts visitors bring in. And he gets to continue his own research.

“The job at the Sanford is just about everything that I like to do and nothing that I don’t like to do,” Anderson said.

Not that he didn’t mind the field work he did for more than three decades — digging at locations across Iowa in search of bits of history dating back to early Native American inhabitants or the white settlers of the 1800s.

“You’re always one shovel test or excavational unit away from finding something,” the Duluth, Minnesota, native said.

In Anderson, the museum has found something that its three previous archaeologists didn’t have: an abundance of experience. Burkhart said the museum in the past employed archaeologists who were in the early stages of their careers. That’s not a knock on them, she said, but there’s a benefit to having someone on staff who’s spent years in the field and is used to giving presentations.

“We didn’t have to have that learning curve,” Burkhart said. “Being comfortable in public and confident in knowledge, Mark has that.”

Opened in 1951, the museum formed the local chapter of the archaeological society to search for historic sites and collect artifacts throughout the area. It’s resulted in a collection of hundreds of thousands of pieces, including bone and stone tools, arrowheads, ceramics, animal bones, stone tablets and much more. For the past 14 years, the museum has employed an archaeologist to manage the collection and educate visitors about the people who have called this area home as far back as 13,000 years ago.

It allows Anderson to continue in a career he chose while in elementary school, the result of reading coffee table books about ancient Egypt and the Norse history of his Scandanavian heritage.

“It was always presented as an adventuresome career,” Anderson said.

He’s no globe-hopping Nazi antagonist like Indiana Jones, but he’s on many occasions experienced the thrill of unearthing a Native American village and sifting through the scraps left behind by the Midwest’s earliest inhabitants.

“We excavate the garbage people left behind,” he said. “Literally, I am a glorified garbage collector.”

Using soil sampling and a trained eye, he’s helped discover and uncover ancient settlements near Leeds, Correctionville, Anthon and dozens of other sites and a sod farmstead near Sac City dating back to the mid 1800s.

It’s given him a better understanding of how the people of this area lived hundreds to thousands of years ago, and the Sanford collection contains countless items similar to those he’s found himself. He now gets to become more familiar with the collection, one he says is well-regarded across the state, and help others use it to learn more about the past.

“All archaeologists in Iowa know about the Sanford — it’s a jewel,” he said. “People in Northwest Iowa have always been active in archaeology.”

Anderson will be right there with them, whether it be explaining an exhibit or leading the museum’s annual week-long field school in June.

He’ll be back doing what he enjoys, his retirement a relic of the past.

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