Teaching award for CAS hunter and gatherer
by Marion Sawey
CAS Associate Professor of Archaeology Curtis Runnels has received the 1997 award for excellence in undergraduate teaching from the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), the oldest archaeological association in the country and the largest in the world.
Delighted with the accolade, he attributes his teaching success to enthusiasm and intellectual forcefulness. "Students can tell if teachers like their subject and this projection of enthusiasm seems to make a lesson more interesting for them. Also, I think that students respond when they come into contact with a professor who has strong ideas that he or she works to support. They rise to a challenge like that."
Runnels was selected for the recently established honor -- open to undergraduate teachers in both the United States and Canada -- on the basis of nominations from people familiar with his teaching, such as faculty and students. He points out that not long ago the AIA decided to increase its support for the teaching of archaeology and instituted the annual undergraduate teaching award, of which he is the second recipient.
A specialist in the prehistoric archaeology of the eastern Mediterranean, Runnels says that one of the unusual aspects of teaching archaeology is its essential uncertainty. "In almost any other subject, except perhaps astronomy or geology, you can turn to the back of the book to find out the answer. In archaeology you can only provide evidence supporting different explanations for problems -- for example, which hominids are our ancestors? -- to which no one knows the answers. Some students find difficulty with the lack of certainty, but for most it is a wonderful thing because it means that those questions remain there always to be asked and the answers to them pursued."
Almost all archaeology students, he adds, say that the discipline is one they have been interested in for as long as they can remember. "Why? There is something fascinating about the past that attracts me and so many others. You look at old bones or stones or you wander through a historic house looking at the furniture and you wonder how those people lived. There is something peculiarly human about archaeology."
His most recent research, says Runnels, involves the study of Neanderthals, plotting their likely hunting camps and settling grounds in the semiarid regions around the Mediterranean. "I plotted the probable locations of their camps using theory -- for example, selecting sites near water holes or water courses that would have attracted them. Then I went there with my students to find my theory confirmed," he says.
"We looked down at the ground and found stone tools left 100,000 years ago by Neanderthals, and I realized that I was probably the first person since those tools were dropped all that time ago to pick one up and understand what I was seeing. Even though the tools just look like scraps of broken flint, to me they were very exciting. There is a physical pleasure that comes from hunting around and making discoveries like that."
Runnels, who joined the archaeology department in 1987, will be presented with the award at the AIA's annual meeting in Chicago this month.
The AIA, which has more than 10,000 members around the world, was founded by Charles Eliot Norton over a century ago to encourage archaeological research and to protect the world's cultural heritage.