Sidebar 2: James J. F. Deetz, 1930-2000 - Lu Ann De Cunzo

The author discusses the discovery of two smoking pipe fragments at a Shaker

John L. Cotter developed his interest in archaeology at the University of Denver, where he earned his B.A. in 1934. During his entire career, he lived an archaeologist’s dream, excavating at some of the most important sites in the United States. In the 1930s, he worked at Clovis and Lindenmeier, sites left by some of the first Americans—whom archaeologists call the Paleo-Indians—who arrived here eleven thousand years ago. In 1940, Cotter joined the National Park Service. World War II interrupted his career, as it did those of so many other young men. Cotter served proudly in the Army infantry, and was wounded at Normandy. After the War, he became the Chief Archaeologist at Jamestown, Virginia, the oldest permanent British settlement in North America, overseeing excavations in preparation for its 350th anniversary in 1957 (see Environment: Jamestown). Later that year he was named Regional Archaeologist of the Northeast Region, and moved to Philadelphia, where the nation was born. During his twenty-year tenure in this post, he worked at Independence National Historical Park and throughout the core of colonial Philadelphia, as well as at Valley Forge and other historical parks throughout the region.

In 1959 Cotter completed his Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the following year introduced the first course devoted to North American historical archaeology there. A founding member and first president of the Society for Historical Archaeology (SHA), Cotter also held the positions of Adjunct Associate Professor and Curator in American Historical Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1984, he received the SHA’s J. C. Harrington Medal in recognition of his lifelong contributions to the field. The SHA later named the John L. Cotter Award to recognize outstanding contributions by historical archaeologists at the start of their professional careers. Of his contributions to archaeology, Cotter said with characteristic humility, “I’ve simply tried to say what is there, but in doing so, I couldn’t help but observe and comment just a little bit, and if that involves a certain amount of wit, I’m happy about it because I see things as being awfully funny very often.”

Old archaeologists don’t fade away like some old generals I can recall, by golfing and garnering big bucks on the lecture circuit. Nor do they fade away like most politicians I’ve read about, men of high office who endow presidential libraries while enriching themselves with fat consultant fees, unless detoured by jail. Old archaeologists don’t seem to fade away at all. Many of us would rather publish than perish.

From “Antique Archaeologists,” by John L. Cotter, Archaeology Jan./Feb. 1997