Author's Note: I originally wrote this last February, in response to a post at Savage Minds calling for anthropology love letters, but thought I'd reprise it today. You should also read the whole series of love letters collected last March by Daniel Lende at Neuroanthropology, and you can even contribute your own love note on today's AAA blog post "For the Love of Anthropology."
I’m an accidental anthropologist. Don't get me wrong, I've always known what I wanted to do when I grew up. But I came at anthropology circuitously, sidewinding my way through three of the four fields before realizing just how deep I was in a field of inquiry I'd never really thought twice about.
My love letter to anthropology, though, starts with a prothalamion to my indivisible bond with the classics. One of my earliest memories is poring through every foreign-language board book I could find in our tiny public library, memorizing Spanish words with absolutely no idea how they sounded, and devouring images of the marble elegance of the ancient Greeks. I desperately longed to experience far-away lands filled with colorful tapestries, musical phonemes, spice-laden food, and history much deeper than my native Virginia. Growing up poor, I knew I’d have to travel to Europe vicariously – through old National Geographics with illustrated Roman history timelines, middle school French classes, and used textbooks on Greek architecture.
I was thrilled to enter 9th grade, the first time that Latin was taught in our public school system. Four years of high school Latin later, as well as a course in classical mythology and one in general humanities, I had enormous respect for my teacher, David Larrick. "Doc" gave us the keys to Rome - Cicero, Caesar, and Catullus shared with me their intimate experiences in an Empire that was massive, socially-stratified, and rife with many of the same problems as our modern world. I continued my classical studies at the University of Virginia, with professors like John Miller and Mac Bell as the Vergils to my Dante. At all times, I carried with me a variety of textbooks on the art, architecture, archaeology, and history of the Graeco-Roman world. Although my tenure at UVa was focused primarily on the classical tradition, at least once a semester I would take a class that pushed me outside my comfort zone - Prehistoric Art, Old English, Linguistic Anthropology - with quirky professors whom I had no idea were so influential to the discipline, like Dell Hymes. Without the funds to travel to the classical world or to excavate there but with a great desire to uncover history beneath layers of soil, I enrolled in an archaeological field project at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and convinced Jim Deetz to sign off on an independent study at James Madison’s Montpelier.
At the back of my mind, though, were images of graves in the Greek and Roman archaeology books I had pored through as a kid. No one was studying the human skeletons found on classical archaeology digs; nowhere in the textbooks was anything reported about the biological remains of classical civilizations. In approaching graduate school, I realized there wasn’t a name for the sort of research I wanted to do: research that combined a deep understanding of human biology with the archaeological and historical context of ancient Rome and anthropological theories of culture. The main problem with combining these lines of evidence was that anthropology and classics are on opposite sides of a structural divide in the American academic tradition, particularly in regard to archaeology.
As a result of this major academic schism, I struggled to find a university at which I could pursue a course of graduate study that I had been steadily working towards for over a decade. East Carolina University offered me a fellowship to pursue an MA in anthropology, which I graciously accepted, in spite of feeling like an impostor with absolutely no background in the subject. But the freedom that I had at ECU to take courses I was interested in, like human anatomy and disease ecology, and to design my own research project made me realize the importance of an anthropological perspective on the past. Armed with this knowledge, I pursued an MA in classical archaeology at the University of North Carolina, in the hopes of one day being able just to study maps of the Kerameikos or epigrams on Roman columbaria. Thankfully, the archaeologists at UNC not only got along across departments but actively engaged in interdisciplinary research. Even better, between Nic Terrenato's connections in Roman archaeology and Dale Hutchinson's breadth of knowledge of the research potential of human skeletal remains, I managed to draw together skeletal biology, Roman archaeology, geochemistry, and cultural theory for my multidisciplinary dissertation research in pursuit of a PhD in anthropology at UNC.
(shamelessly stolen from Sue Sheridan's Facebook profile,
but I think she got it from this website)
Dearest anthropology, it was definitely not love at first sight between us. But we kept running into one another and spending time together, so I got to know your strengths and your foibles. It took a while for us to get to where we are, but every morning I look forward to greeting the day with you.