History of the Department

The Archaeology Department at Boston University is unique in the United States in that it is a department of archaeologists and specialists who apply their skill to archaeological problems, rather than being a sub-discipline within another department. We believe that archaeology is a discipline in its own right, closely related to, but separate from anthropology, classics, art history or history. We encourage, and in some cases require our students to take courses in these areas, among others, but their degrees are in archaeology and the majority of their courses are taken within this department. Our faculty members come from diverse backgrounds with degrees in classics, anthropology, and geology so that within our own teaching we bring this diversity and breadth to the classroom. In turn, our alumni have gone into a variety of academic and related positions upon graduation. It is the nature of Archaeology today that it is an interdisciplinary study and we strive to instill this breadth into our students’ education.

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Field school students working at Airigh Mhuillin, a domestic site on South Uist in the Outer Hebrides

The first major step in the evolution of archaeology at Boston University was the founding of the Journal of Field Archaeology (JFA), which the University has published since 1974, first for the Association for Field Archaeology. The founding Editor, Professor James R. Wiseman, and his successor, Professor Creighton Gabel, took the lead in developing an archaeological program at Boston University, that has espoused since its inception an holistic view of archaeology as a discipline, and of archaeological research as a highly inter-disciplinary activity, drawing upon the natural and social sciences and the humanities.

The first interdepartmental courses in archaeology, sponsored by the Departments of Classical Studies and Anthropology, were offered in 1974/75. The College of Liberal Arts and the Graduate School, with the approval of the University, instituted an inter-departmental Archaeological Studies Program in January 1979, with faculty drawn from the Departments of Anthropology, Art History, Classical Studies, and Religion. The Program offered the BA, MA and PhD in Archaeological Studies, and formed the basis for the current academic programs, aided by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In November 1980 the Center for Archaeological Studies was established to develop and coordinate the growing number of academic programs in archaeology, faculty research, publications, contract work, and public education programs. The Center’s Office of Public Archaeology (OPA), 1981-1995, conducted archaeological investigations under contract with municipal, state, and federal agencies, and with private corporations. In October

Professor Curtis Runnels in the field, pointing to a hand axe

Professor Curtis Runnels in the field, pointing a hand axe sitting in situ

1981 the Center’s newsletter, Context, first appeared; and grew to have an international circulation. The Center annually sponsored workshops, seminars, field trips, tours, and lectures for the public.

In the fall of 1981 the faculty of the interdepartmental program proposed that a Department of Archaeology be established in the College of Liberal Arts (now the College of Arts and Sciences) and the Graduate School. The college faculty voted overwhelmingly in favor of creating the new department, and their action was followed by administrative and trustee approval in July 1982.

In July 1983 the Central Office of the Archaeological Institute of America, the largest and oldest archaeological organization in North America, moved to Boston University and was followed a year later by the editorial office of its prestigious quarterly, The American Journal of Archaeology. The close association of the Institute and the Department of Archaeology has led to the sharing of some facilities and the co-sponsoring of archaeological events, including lectures and exhibitions.

In 1985 the Department of Archaeology joined the Departments of Earth Sciences and Geography in founding the Center for Remote Sensing (CRS). The new center provides facilities for interdisciplinary, computer-assisted research that uses data gathered by remote sensors, including geophysical prospecting equipment and sophisticated scanners mounted on aircraft and spacecraft. It is the only such center in the world that emphasizes archaeological applications.

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Professor James R. Wiseman lecturing to field school students at the museum at the Roman site of Sanisera, Menorca. Summer 2009

Over the past few years members of the faculty and staff have conducted archaeological field work on five continents, including projects in various parts of New England and the western United States, and in Spain, China, Turkey, Mexico, Belize, Greece, Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Ethiopia, Botswana, Portugal, Ireland, Scotland, and Albania. Participation by students, both graduate and undergraduate, has been an important part of the faculty’s research programs, and the Department regularly offers field schools in various parts of the world.

Facilities of the Department include a computer lab, GIS computer facility, visual resource center, and five scientific research and instructional labs. Special collections of archaeological books, maps, photos, and archives are housed in the Stone Science Library in the same building as the Department.

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Interior view of the Gabel Museum