An Anthropological Valentine

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."

The Accidental Anthropologist

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 without much money, 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.

Ribcage Heart
(shamelessly stolen from Sue Sheridan's Facebook profile,
but I think she got it from this website)
Biological anthropology – or, even more specifically, Roman bioarchaeology – describes perfectly the research questions that I'm interested in. I ended up in anthropology accidentally, but it is the only discipline that takes a biocultural perspective of humans from the deep past to the present. Anthropology finally gave me a name for what I do. Finding a place within an academic family and finding a term - however neologistic - for my research interests convinced me that what I do is real, what I do is important, and what I do is possible.

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.


Krystal D'Costa said…
This is a fantastic story, KK! It fits perfectly with the fluidity of the discipline.
Marta Zbańska said…
Dear Dr Killgrove,

My name is Marta and I’m an art history graduate student from Poland. I’ve come across your blog few months ago – quite accidentally (or maybe not...) – and since then I’ve been reading it with much, much pleasure. I just read your entry, „The Accidental Anthropologist”.
I truly admire your knowledge and professionalism, and your passion for what you do, for anthropology and for beeing an anthropologist (or, as you wrote, bioarcheologist).
Even though I’m an art historian, anthropology is something that’s realy on my mind. I’ve always been interested in mythology and history, in human culture (both material and spiritual, both modern and past), different languages and also in the various aspects of human biology and nature (I attended sort of a biologicaly profiled high school, but I chose studies in humanities). That is exactly what I loved about anthropology: it combines everything about human being, on scientific, sociological and humanistic level. Unfortunately, we don’t get much, if any, idea about anthropology during school education in Poland, so I just had no idea that something like anthropology even existed. It just happened that I came across some aspects of culture anthropology during my art history studies – but still, it was totally blured, strange and undefined „something”. I just knew I loved reading about those things. And then later it turned out that all I’d been interested in for so long was in fact a part of a wide, fascinating world of anthropology... And I thought: „why have nobody told me about it earlier?”,”why haven’t I realised it earlier?” The problem is also that in polish education system, anthropology is divided into small courses between many academic disciplines: biology, archeology, philosophy, ethnology...
So, in my case, anthropology is something that just was there all the time, but I just couldn’t see it clearly – or perhaps even ignored it, as it was „the great unknown”. Art history is cool, but it has never been enough for me – problem was that for a very long time I didn’t know, what exactly was it, that I felt missing.
Recently, I’ve been trying to „re-educate” myself in anthropology, for now strictly as an amateur, but I’m totally drawn into it; I can only hope to study anthropology „for real” one day. And for the nearest future, I wish to start archeology at one of the universities in my town;)
Best regards,
Anonymous said…

I very much liked your story - reminded me of my own, as I'm just embarking on my first degree to be titled 'Anthropology' even if I've dabbled since freshman year. I also recognized the slight ambivalence - I feel as if anthro always has that slight edge where people tell other researchers that they're not "real" anthropologists, but despite that the discipline seems to manage to stay together somehow!

Thanks, gals, for your excellent comments on my post. I'm always loathe to post these sorts of essays, but I've been asked a lot recently (as I'm on the job market) about my "origin story" as it were.

I'm glad to know that there are others out there who eventually settled down with anthropology, and I'm glad to hear stories from others who found a community among anthropologists and became inspired by anthropological ideas.
Neuroanthropology's roundup of anthro love letters:

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