When a research archaeologist position recently opened at Missouri State University, Dr. Daniel Pierce jumped at the chance to return home.
Pierce, the newest member of the archaeological research team at the Bernice Warren Center for Archaeological Research (CAR), learned of the position while working at a Florida university.
The timing was perfect, Pierce acknowledged, as he was ready to “move on.”
“Missouri State is a homecoming of sorts,” the St. Louis native said. “I never expected to end up back in my home state. But I am glad to be back.”
From machine shop to the jungles of Guatemala
Pierce came to the archaeology profession in a roundabout way. After graduating with a degree in fine arts, he initially worked in a machine shop.
Upon realizing he was “constantly watching” shows about ancient cultures, Pierce understood that archaeology was his ideal career. He was accepted into the doctoral program at the University of Missouri – Columbia (Mizzou) and earned his PhD in 2017.
“I decided I was going to start fresh and pursue a new field that would be interesting and exciting [where] I could explore the world,” Pierce said.
Hands-on history lessons
Working as an archaeologist has meant connecting to the ancient past in ways Pierce described as “humbling” and “surreal.”
“All of the stories that are hidden in this artifact or place…the conversations that have happened there so long ago,” Pierce said. “The lives of the people that made this artifact way back when…It is all really quite surreal when you think about it.”
“To hold an item in your hand that no human has seen or touched in a thousand years is a humbling and crazy feeling,” he added.
The chance to see the world is another appealing benefit of Pierce’s work.
“One of my favorite things about my work is the amazing places I’ve been and things I have seen,” Pierce explained. “Whether it be in the jungles of Guatemala looking for Mayan ruins, excavating temples in West Mexico, visiting reindeer herding tribes in Mongolia, working with some of Europe’s finest archaeologists in France, or rediscovering the local history of Missouri, I have gotten to see and do things I never would have imagined myself doing back in that machine shop 15 years ago.”
I still feel like a kid playing Indiana Jones sometimes…as if I can’t believe it’s all not just some movie. — Dr. Daniel Pierce
The science behind the history
In addition to traveling to exotic places around the world, Pierce gets to work with some really cool “toys” – state-of-the-art technology, that is.
Most of Pierce’s work employs archaeometry, an analytical subfield of archaeology that applies methods from other disciplines to archaeology to evaluate artifacts.
“For example, I often use geochemistry to determine the origin of artifacts like pottery and stone tools,” Pierce said. “Or we use geospatial analyses (GIS) borrowed from geography to study past landscapes, or petrography from the discipline of geology to analyze pottery.”
Pierce described himself as methodologically aligned with archaeometry.
“I have a very analytically focused mind,” he said. “I like the science of it all. I like having numbers, statistics and data to support my ideas. It is therefore natural for me to be an analytically based archaeologist as well.”
Professional collaboration and publication key to success
Archaeological analysis can be both complex and expensive, Pierce said. For now, he relies on his connections at Mizzou to use its archaeometry laboratory (the University of Missouri Research Reactor or MURR) for some of his research.
“The research reactor at Mizzou is actually one of the biggest in the world, and the archaeometry lab in particular is…world famous,” Pierce said.
Pierce maintains this relationship by working collaboratively on projects, reviewing proposals and serving as a consultant. In exchange, the MURR facility allows Pierce to conduct research at reduced or even pro bono rates.
“Some of the analyses I do, like Neutron Activation Analysis, is simply impossible to do without MURR, as it requires a nuclear reactor and can cost thousands of dollars per project just for the data collection alone,” Pierce said.
Other techniques, such as X-ray fluorescence, can be more cost-efficient, but the equipment — an XRF analyzer — can still cost around $30,000.
CAR does not yet have an XRF analyzer, Pierce explained. “Up until now, there haven’t been any archaeologists on staff at CAR that are as analytically based as I am, so equipment such as this wouldn’t have been particularly useful.”
Research highlights cutting-edge methods
Pierce has already produced numerous publications highlighting his use of cutting-edge technology and methods in his research. Previously, his research focused mostly on Mesoamerica, but with his new position at MSU, Pierce will focus more on Missouri archaeology.
His latest article, “Regional ochre procurement in the prehistoric American Bottom,” recently appeared in the “Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.” This research, Pierce said, analyzed ancient red ochre artifacts from the St. Louis and Phelps County regions in Missouri to determine sources of ochre artifacts. With its natural high iron content, ochre is typically red in color and was used by ancient societies to make axes, weights and paint pigment, Pierce explained.
Pierce, along with his colleague, Rachel S. Popelka-Filcoff, used geochemistry to determine the source of ochre for early peoples in the St. Louis region.
“What is really great about this study is that it is the first archaeological ochre sourcing ever conducted in Missouri,” Pierce said. “And we already have some super interesting results.”
“Previously we all just assumed that ochre was coming from one region of Missouri where there is a lot of natural iron deposits,” Pierce continued. “But our results make that assumption seem really unlikely. Instead, it appears more likely that there were ochre deposits in the St. Louis region. We just haven’t found them yet.”
Technology played an important role in another of Pierce’s recent publications. In the chapter titled “Interaction and exchange in Late Postclassic Xoconochco,” published in “Routes, Interaction and Exchange in the Southern Maya Area,” Pierce and his colleague Janine Gasco traced the production and trade of ancient pottery in Mesoamerica using neutron activation analysis.
A new home and exciting future
Pierce expressed excitement about his future at MSU.
“I already looked forward to joining MSU when I was hired, but since then both the city and the university have far exceeded even my high hopes,” he said. “Here it seems that the university as a whole really cares about the students, faculty and staff. I am really happy to be a part of the MSU community.”
One of Pierce’s long-term goals is to work with the Center’s director, Kevin Cupka Head, and the CAR team to acquire the state-of-the-art technology needed so that CAR can produce its own data at no additional cost. He hopes his own use of cutting-edge methods will draw national and international attention to CAR.
“This may help us secure funding to get our own equipment going forward, plus help the university as a whole. It is my hope, at least,” he said.
In the meantime, Pierce is happy to work with Cupka Head and the CAR team to help the Center grow and prosper.
“He [Cupka Head] is a fantastic director and I know he is taking the Center to great places,” Pierce said. “I am just happy to be a part of that future.”