Dr. Margaret Cohen ‘92: International Archaeologist

For Dr. Margaret Cohen ‘92, archeology is more than dirt and digging. For her, it is the bridge between teaching, language, history, religion, and anthropology.

“Archaeology is a funny discipline – some archaeologists think of themselves as anthropologists. Some would say scientists. And some consider themselves historians,” Dr. Cohen said.

A graduate of Swarthmore College (‘96), Yale Divinity School (‘98), and Pennsylvania State University (‘13), Dr. Cohen currently lives in Jerusalem, Israel, as a fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research. Her career previously brought her to Egypt and Jordan.

“Archaeology is almost never glamorous. It is slow, methodical, even boring some days. It requires enormous amounts of record keeping and precise data collection,” noted Dr. Cohen. “For every ‘amazing’ museum quality item, there are thousands of hours of work in the field and in the lab with scraps of various artifacts and ecofacts.”

Beginning with Latin during her time at St. Anne’s-Belfield, Dr. Cohen moved on to studying Greek, ancient Hebrew, Akkadian, and other languages in college. Her language studies led to a shift of focus toward studying ancient cultures and eventually archeology.

“I am an academic at heart, so I think I always planned to stay in that world, it was only a matter of narrowing down a field on which to focus,” said Dr. Cohen. “I suppose it was through much of the classical literature we read in advanced Latin courses with Ms. Ann Holland and Mr. Dan Breen that I first really confronted the study of ancient history. In fact, some of my work now, many years later, deals with the intersection of literary works and the concept of historiography in the ancient imagination.”

Now, nearly two decades later, she shares her various loves with her students and the next generation of excavators.

“I love teaching. Because the excavations I work on are field schools, I get to do a lot of teaching in unconventional settings,” Dr. Cohen said of her favorite part of her work. “We can and do teach and study archaeology, history, and anthropology in the classroom, but this pales in comparison to the intense, daily education a student receives while doing field work.”

Archeology has also made its way on campus in the form of the annual grade one “Ancient Pueblo” dig. Each fall, first graders dig in the sandboxes outside the Learning Village, discovering artifacts like deer bones, corn, stones, and more. They also were responsible for logging and drawing each of their finds, learning the discipline that comes along with the task. For Dr. Cohen, it’s important to start such teaching this young.

“I think it is a great model to offer young students … Archaeological endeavor requires careful and critical thinking; the ability to hold in one's head many, often conflicting, ideas simultaneously to solve a problem; and collaborative planning and execution – no one digs a site alone,” noted Dr. Cohen. “Excavation exercises the body and also exercises spatial thinking and logical reasoning. And it's fun.”

For any inspiring archeologists out there, Dr. Cohen offers this advice:

“For young people who think about archaeology as a future area of study or employment, I encourage them to be immersed in an array of diverse topics — to study history and language, to study anthropology and the physical sciences. To gain computer and technical skills. To learn modern languages of places they might travel. To travel. To learn to make a budget. To learn to cook. To watch the world around them. How buildings grow and collapse. How cities organize themselves. We are not so different from our ancient ancestors, and these are the same processes that archaeology seeks to recover from the past.”


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