Archaeology between Classics and Anthropology

Kristina Killgrove has a great article over at Eidolon; if you haven’t read it already, you really should. She tells, among other things, her story of moving back between Classics (BA) and Anthropology (MA) and Classics (PhD program) and Anthropology (PhD). It’s not an uncommon story. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I wasn’t sure what path to take. I knew that I was interested in prehistory, especially Aegean prehistory (I had taken a class with John Cherry in the Winter term of 1996), but also Near Eastern prehistory (with Kent Flannery in the Fall of 1995); I wrote an undergraduate thesis on archaeological survey and Bronze Age state formation on Crete that was explicitly and excessively inspired by the New Archaeology: central place theory, gravity models, all that stuff. I was inspired by articles like Vincas Steponaitis‘ “Settlement Hierarchies and Political Complexity in Nonmarket Societies: The Formative Period of the Valley of Mexico,” with their quantification and mathematical formulas. I used an article by Robert Dewar in American Antiquity whose appendix had a Pascal program–and I used it.

I’ve always preferred the anthropological approach to archaeology. It was Colin Renfrew’s Emergence of Civilisation (1972) that convinced me that I wanted to be an archaeologist and Aegean prehistorian. In the spring term of 1996, I took Intensive Latin (with Deborah Ross), and after I was done with my Latin homework, I would drink a coffee and read a chapter of Renfrew. That book was one of the first that I could remember reading that was theory-forward (even if it was systems theory) and empirically rich. That summer I dug at the site of Petras Siteias in east Crete with Metaxia Tsipopoulou. If you’ve ever worked in Crete, you know how magical it can be. I was hooked.

When I sat down with my mentors at Michigan, the advice I was given (or at least what I remember) was clear: don’t get a degree in anthropology if you want to do European prehistory. You won’t get a job, because what anthropology departments prefer are archaeologists who work in the Americas, or Asia and Africa, but definitely not Europe. Focus instead, I was told, on getting a degree in a Classics department, and work on your languages and all that a traditional Classical training entails.

I still wasn’t entirely convinced, and I applied to Michigan’s anthropology program (ridiculous, in retrospect, and I was rejected, I assume summarily), Sheffield’s archaeology Ph.D. and Cambridge’s archaeology M.A. Those programs were decidedly not Classics. I also applied to a number of programs in the US, where I was looking for a mix of a Classics department with prehistorians, survey archaeologists, and a close relationship with anthropology. I ended up deciding that I couldn’t afford graduate school in the UK and going to Texas. It was a hard decision, and I had no idea what I was doing (both in retrospect but also in the moment). I figured that if left to my own devices, I would keep reading archaeological theory and method and I’d audit classes in anthropology, but I probably wouldn’t do the hard work to learn the ancient languages on my own. So Texas seemed like a good decision at the time (and in retrospect too). At Texas, a lot of what I did were languages: by my count, I took 6 archaeology classes, 8 Greek classes, 5 Latin classes, and 5 history/epigraphy classes. Of course plenty of people still told me that I’d never get a job doing archaeology, and especially not prehistory (at a certain point I stopped trying to be nice to people who gave me unsolicited advice of this sort).

My Classics-centric strategy worked. I never in a million years would have gotten my first tenure-track job at Toronto had I not been steeped in the ancient languages, willing and able to teach graduate Greek from day one, and my ability to teach Latin and Greek sustained me when I was on the VAP track (I was lucky to get my PhD in 2006, before the job market’s floor fell out).

I don’t think that it’s a good thing that my strategy worked, though. As I’ve written about before (see here and here), this is no way to produce archaeologists. It’s not good that I did a lot of ad hoc training in the field, or that now that I have a tenured job I’m going about learning things that I should have (or would have liked to have) learned in graduate school. In some ways I’ve never left that spring semester of taking intensive Latin and reading archaeological theory in the afternoons, on my own time.


I was talking to a couple of colleagues in the natural sciences last week, who were saying that they worried that their students were not interested enough in learning and being inspired by work in other disciplines and that their students were too focused on individual research, whereas science is now entirely team-based. I’m worried about the same things when it comes to Classics. It’s too isolated, too committed to a mode of knowledge production that is focused on its own methods and approaches and individuals laboring in isolation. I think the discipline needs to break out of this tired and (in my view) unproductive way of doing things, for if a Kristina Killgrove cannot fit in Classics, and I can, then we are doing something very, very wrong.


4 thoughts on “Archaeology between Classics and Anthropology

  1. ritaroberts

    Hello, How lucky you were to have been able to do all that studying and , I might add, how brave of you. In my day there was no such opportunity to even go to college our parents could not afford it. However, much later in life, in my 30’s to be exact I volunteered at the Herford and Worcester Archaeology and worked there for 12 years I became a ceramicist. I now live in Crete. studying Minoan and Mycenaean pottery and am now doing my final thesis hoping to achieve a BA degree. I am pleased to hear you enjoyed working in Crete. Good luck and thank you for your very interesting post.

  2. Michael Murray

    It’s been really interesting working in Australian commercial archaeology in the year since I graduated. The principal division here is Classical-Archaeology/Colonial-Archaeology/Indigenous-Archaeology. But students in any of the three fields learn their practical archaeology skills as temporary hires on commercial archaeology projects in the city or out in the bush. Granted I got lucky with the current legislative atmosphere in new south wales but on my first job my field director was surprised I hadn’t done any commercial archaeology as an undergrad in the states, he called the heritage industry a training and support system for their archaeology students.
    It tends to push people away from classics as well and more towards classes on indigenous and early-modern archaeology they might not have originally considered as those become marketable skills.

  3. Julie Hruby

    Neither you nor Kristina is wrong, of course. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have had access to graduate education that allowed me to focus on archaeology and bioarchaeology, and to forge a slightly different path in language study (Latin for teaching, Akkadian because it was more useful for research, a little Linear B). There were obvious costs to that approach, not least that at the time, one of the exams to get into the American School as a regular member was in Ancient Greek, so I wasn’t able to attend (and still occasionally get grief for that). But I know how extraordinarily fortunate (and stubborn) I’ve had to be, to make it work.

  4. myomonchoro

    It amazes me that forty (FORTY) years ago my story was much the same. I did anthropology courses as an undergrad, as well a Greek, Latin, history, art history, Italian, and study abroad and excavation before I graduated (Wellesley). I applied to some anthro programs for grad school because I thought that was the way forward for Classial Archaeology. I also applied to some graduate programs in Classical Archaeology (not all I should have for various reasons). I got into Princeton with support and I went. And I did all the exams for an MA in Classics, as required then. I took archaeology seminars every semester and audited one offered by Mayanists Arlen and Diane Chase (now at UNLV and still digging in Belize). That’s where I first read deeply about state formation and related topics, and it led to my work on the Greek Iron Age. I didn’t go to ASCSA as a Regular Member so I didn’t take the exams….but given what I went through at Princeton, I could have done fine I think.

    The biggest gap in my graduate education was learning modern field methods. My teaching career started at Wesleyan where my first year 3 of 4 courses were Greek. The 17 years I was there I taught half my load every year in Greek language. I moved to Duke and taught another 15 years and never any Greek, but mostly courses designed to help the department keep up enrollments. In my very last semester of teaching I finally offered a seminar on Sicily, where I had been doing my research since 1990.

    I had a good career and good life in academia and was incredibly fortunate, but always felt caught between disciplines. I don’t know what the way forward is, but I’m amazed to realize how much my experience maps onto that of much younger people. And, you all are doing great things.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s