Exploring History Through Archaeology
By Emily Frank
With commencement finally arrived, Kaila Akina’s journey with the University of Idaho has come to an end and she will be graduating with a degree in history. It’s a journey, though, that will launch her into the future and provide a sure foundation for her future endeavors.
When she transferred to the University, the Boise, Idaho, native had a different path in mind, but after taking an honors anthropology 101 class, she fell in love with discovering the stories and history behind people in the past.
“I enjoyed learning about the different subfields of anthropology, and I was particularly interested in archaeology when I heard about Mark Warner’s past archaeological research” says Akina. “I wanted to know more about the discipline, so I started taking more classes.”
It wasn’t just the classes that engaged Akina, the McNair Achievement Program provided her with opportunities to put classroom knowledge in real life experience. The program is designed to expand participation of low-income, first generation and underrepresented students in doctoral study through an integrated program of academic and scholarly activities, mentoring, a paid summer research internship, and academic and personal support. This encourages scholars to achieve a well-rounded background necessary for admission to graduate school.
Stacy Camp, assistant professor in historical archaeology, encouraged Akina to further her interest by applying to work with the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates – or NSF-REU – as part of the McNair program, where she was one of nine sent to field school summer of 2011 excavating an African American town in southern Illinois, called New Philadelphia.
“I feel lucky to have been chosen out of so many applicants,” says Akina “It is a distinguished program where students are able to work with experts in the discipline, so a lot of students apply.”
The town site was founded by Frank McWorter, an African American born into slavery, who purchased his freedom. He acquired 42 acres of land in Pike County, Ill., which he divided and sold into lots. With the income, he purchased the freedom of 16 family members.
With the immigration of European families, it later became a multi-cultural town. The excavation crew’s primary goals was to understand the town’s founding, along with its development as a multi-racial town; the difference in household diets, by examining the faunal and botanical remains; and the reconstruction of the townscape using botanical data and archaeological landscape features. The excavation started in 2004, and Akina’s 2011 season focused on the cellar of one of the McWorter’s houses discovered in the 2010 field season.
“We spent a total of 10 weeks working, five in the field and five in the lab examining what we had found and cataloging the artifacts,” says Akina. “Being able to follow the work from field to lab helped me better understand what we were working on.”
Beyond the NSF-REU excavation, the McNair program also helped Akina prepare for graduate school in the application process and by requiring her to complete a research project. She studied ceramic bric-a-brac figurines from the Sandpoint Archaeology Project and what they said about past inhabitants and behavior during the early days of Sandpoint.
With her experience and the support from Camp and Warner, she was able to apply for multiple graduate programs in historical archaeology.
“I’m going right into my PhD, which makes me nervous, but my program is set up for that. Also, Stacey Camp has given me a lot of helpful advice about this next step in my education since she also went into her doctoral studies after her undergraduate career,” says Akina.
She has been accepted into the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis’ doctoral program in anthropology, concentrating in historical archaeology, with five years of guaranteed funding.
“If I hadn’t come to the University of Idaho, I’m sure that my life would be quite different because I would not have found archaeology,” said Akina. “I feel confident that the opportunities and experiences I have taken advantage of here at the University will help me succeed in the future, and I’m very grateful for all of the support that I’ve received from the University faculty.”