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Exploring Barnard's Archaeology Curriculum

 Archaeology brings to mind myriad images—action-packed movie sequences, blockbuster museum exhibits of dinosaur bones, scientists unearthing dusty bits of pottery in the hot sun. How then does someone piece together the real work of the archaeologist from these fragments? Professionals combine a sense of adventure with serious academic training, and the Barnard women seeking a career in the field discover this and more in the new concentration offered through Barnard’s department of anthropology.

“Archaeology is anthropology, or it is nothing!” exclaimed this writer’s professor on the first day of “Introduction to Archaeology” more than 10 years ago. She was stressing the indispensible relationship between the two disciplines. The Barnard archaeology concentration highlights the importance of the subject as a critical part of anthropological work. Says the department’s Web site, “Within anthropology, archaeologists specialize in the study of human communities through the material worlds they produce, consume, dwell within, and leave behind.”

From that premise, the archaeology student specializes in the material culture left behind by human communities, especially when archaeological remains provide the only clues to a society’s unwritten past. Severin Fowles, assistant professor of anthropology and a specialist in Native-American and North-American archaeology, acknowledges the disciplinary ambiguity: “Disciplinary boundaries methodologically, empirically, and theoretically overlap, and this should empower   students.” In addition to anthropology, classes in art history, classics, East Asian or Near Eastern studies, and “hard sciences,” count toward the concentration, reflecting the wide range of faculty expertise and student interest.

Before the concentration, Barnard students worked within the anthropology department to design their own majors. “They were constructing projects on a one-to-one basis,” says Fowles, who currently advises all Barnard archaeology students. But, there was a growing interest in an archaeology concentration; the chance to specialize in archaeology fulfills a need to direct questions to faculty and find camaraderie with other students. And students led the initiative for the concentration. “We are responding to them rather than directing them,” says Fowles.

At Barnard—and Columbia—students draw upon the breadth and depth of faculty expertise, from regional archaeology in New York City to sites around the United States and the world. Fowles emphasizes the excitement surrounding the curriculum: “We’re offering courses not offered anywhere else—archaeological theory, the relationships between humans and animals in societies, idolatry, the body—and students are responding wonderfully.” A new course taught by Columbia faculty member Brian Boyd, “Pasts, Presents & Futures: An Introduction to 21st Century Archaeology” (ACLG V2028), explores key questions about the discipline and, according to Fowles, “centralizes what we think.” Students begin with “Interpretation of Cultures” (ANTH V 1002) where they engage with classic anthropological literature, gaining tools and insights to inform their archaeological interests.

In addition, “The Origins of Human Society” (ANTH V 1007) and “The Rise of Civilization” (ANTH V 1008) summarize world archaeology and, says Fowles, “are where we recruit students—where we draw them to the field.” Christina Perry ’09 concurs: “I was introduced to the subject through Professor Fowles’ class ‘Origins of Human Society,’ which is a survey class with a very broad time span. But the course is also really accessible and I think it gets a lot of people thinking about archaeology.” Perry has since done work in the southwestern United States and most recently conducted excavations on an island off the Georgia coast.

These two requirements as well as either Anthropological Theory I or II (ANTH V 3040 or ANTH V 3041) testify to the strong anthropological grounding in the new concentration. Besides exploring the meaning of archaeology and topics across cultures and time periods, students learn about critical issues they will face in the field. Areas of the world rich in archaeological sites are often politically and geographically contested regions where personal safety is a risk. There are complex issues surrounding cultural heritage, looting, and the illicit trade in antiquities. Archaeologists must forge relationships with source communities as well, particularly when confronting debates surrounding repatriation of artifacts. Although the curriculum has yet to include courses on these topics alone, Fowles emphasized that their discussion is pervasive in many courses; students learn there is no choice for archaeologists but to be deeply engaged in the politics of the moment.

The Barnard concentration benefits from its relationship with Columbia through additional faculty and courses as well as through the Columbia Center for Archaeology, which holds numerous events and workshops. The College’s  program has a history of strong relationships with other institutions—many students work as interns or serve on projects through the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as other universities.

Jen Thum ’09 is one such student. For her thesis she has chosen to write about Roman mummy portraits in northern Egypt and has participated in digs across several countries. When asked why archaeology, she says: “It’s a unique marriage of art and history—so tangible, so physical. Art and history are more abstract; with archaeology you have ... physical contact with the object.” Thum also founded “GLAM” (Gotham League of Archaeology Majors) to bring together the Barnard and Columbia archaeology community (as well as that of the corresponding New York community) for professional development and socializing.

Professor Fowles is confident that the concentration trains Barnard women for high achievement across the field, “It provides them with a set of experiences and skills [that will allow them to] be successful working for museums, the government, academia, etc. We guide them through field work, encourage them to take internships, and to present at professional conferences.” Will the number of aspiring archeologists increase? Growth, he insists, will not be fueled by Barnard or Columbia faculty, but by the students themselves.

-by Stephanie Shestakow '98, illustration by Stina Wirsén