Sylvia Cheever has been checking off boxes to become the next Indiana Jones for years. First thing she did was get in to the University of Chicago. Now freshly graduated with a degree in Anthropology, she’s taking a year to do research before getting her PhD, and she’s doing an internship.
Sylvia shares her best advice for students interested in doing research, how she likes doing archeology in the field, and why she’s ready to come back for more! Before you know it, she could be off searching for the Lost Ark!
Name: Sylvia Cheever
Job Title: Archaeological Research Assistant for the Center for American Archeology
Location: Kampsville, IL. Population: 328
College: University of Chicago
Year: Just graduated!
Major: Anthropology, focus in Archaeology (Minor: Biology)
What are you doing this summer?
I am doing archaeological research for the CAA, working with some of their specialized archaeological collections relating to prehistoric mound-building cultures from the Middle and Late Woodland periods. It’s a lot of laboratory work with very old collections that were excavated in the 1970s and haven’t been analyzed thoroughly since, so a lot of the work I do involves digitization and updating methodology so that we have information that was collected using the most current methods and research technology!
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I want to be a bioarchaeologist, which means I want to study ancient cultures and lifeways through the analysis of human remains within their archaeological context. This means that beyond being just an osteologist (someone who studies bones) I must also be an archaeologist! For me this is a perfect union of the two things that I love most: biology and archaeology! I like taking harder science and applying it in anthropological and social science contexts.
How did you get your internship?
I did a bioarchaeological field school and independent research for my honors thesis with Dr. Buikstra at the CAA in the summer of 2017. She invited me to return to be their paid research assistant for the 2018 field season!
What do you wish you had known during your internship search?
If you want to do research/academic work, NETWORKING is key. A lot of research internships aren’t even posted on official job platforms, professors and academics just offer them to students they already know and trust to do good work. In that vein, treat every class/workshop/program you do like a job interview or trial period! You never know who is paying attention, and on the off chance it’s someone who can offer you an opportunity later, you want to be sure you impress them by putting your best foot forward. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to academics who inspire you! Mentorships don’t build themselves.
What does a day in the life look like?
I get up at 6:15 AM, shower and drink some coffee. I wear casual clothing, mostly practical stuff that I’d wear at or around a dig site because I’m going to excavate in Peru right after I leave Kampsville, and I could only pack one backpack (the hiking/backpacking kind), so everything had to be something I could wear and use in both contexts. I walk to the lab at 6:45 to arrive before 7:00AM, I do this because the light is nice in the morning and since I’m in the lab most of the day I like to get some fresh air. The excavation archaeologists, field school students, and laboratory archaeologists all eat breakfast together at the laboratory (a converted elementary school building) at 7:00AM then all those excavating head out to their sites, and the lab people go to their lab rooms.
From 7:30am to 12:00pm I am in the lab working/researching. I actually work by myself for most of the day, but I’m in the same room as my supervisor, Dr. Jane Buikstra who is the president of the CAA and also runs the laboratory. Sometimes I help her edit papers or books she’s writing to take a break from my work. The laboratory field school is run by three of my coworkers (Jess, Sam, and Mark) they are pretty busy teaching students, so while I see them come in and out, I don’t have much interaction with them until work is done for the day.
Right now I’m working with the collections from a Late Woodland site called Helton Mounds. It’s a lot of detail-based work looking through old records (frequently written on a typewriter they’re so old) and digitizing them, followed by new observational and quantitative analysis. It’s a lot of sitting, looking closely, and carefully recording what I find. I work with pretty sensitive and specialized collections, so I can’t go into too much detail about what exactly the procedures I’m using are or what they tell me.
I take a half an hour break for lunch from 12-12:30, then back to work in the lab until 5:00pm, when I take a half hour for dinner with the rest of the CAA staff and students (excavation teams, field school students, and laboratory staff). Sometimes I take a break from work in the morning or afternoon to walk Dr. Buikstra’s dog, Mocha.
From 5:30-7pm, I have an hour and a half break, I usually take this to catch up on reading, nap, or watch an episode of TV. Then I go back to work in the lab from 7-9pm. Sometimes we have staff or visiting lecturers come to the CAA to present their research in that 7-9pm window, and those evenings are always very interesting.
After 9pm I catch a ride home in the bed of one of the CAA pickup trucks, and do a little more reading or movie watching before I go to sleep and do it all again the next day.
How has this job changed what you see yourself doing in the future?
This job has really just helped me to confirm that this is the work that I want to be doing for the rest of my life. I love archaeology and bioarchaeology and I want to go into academia so that I can do this kind of research full time. I plan to apply to PhD programs this fall so that I can follow my dreams!