New anthropology professor kicks off archeology seminar series

New anthropology professor kicks off archeology seminar series
Phyllis Johnson

In fourth grade, Phyllis Johnson was already dreaming about becoming an archeologist.

She grew up in Ohio where the social studies curriculum included an archeology unit. At one time, there were an estimated ten thousand Native American burial mounds in the state, and her fourth grade class visited some of them. When her teacher told her that she could be an archeologist someday, her “mind was blown,” she said

Since 2006, Johnson has been doing research in the lowlands of Guatemala on ancient Mayan civilizations. She was recently hired as the director of the Augustana Archeology Lab, and her expertise in archeology brings a new perspective to Augustana’s growing anthropology program.

On Thursday, Feb. 16, Johnson presented her research findings on obsidian production in the Mayan empire at the first of the anthropology program’s 2023 archeology seminars.

Johnson presented her findings to a group of students, faculty, other archeologists and members of the general public. She believes that presenting archeological findings to the general public as well as archeological professors and students is important because archeology has been restrictive in the past.

“The seminar series that we have is open to the public,” Johnson said, “which is important because there sort of is this traditional gap between academic archeology and the public where a lot of the work we do and the venues it gets disseminated in, journals and books and such, a lot of that doesn’t reach the public. It goes out to other archeologists [and stays there].”

Johnson’s work represents Augustana’s core value of the liberal arts. During her dissertation, she worked with a wide variety of other fields in order to have a fuller understanding of her own research.

“When I was doing my dissertation, I worked with faculty in environmental sciences and faculty in computer science. Archeology is a field that pulls in a lot of the other fields and uses a lot of the knowledge and technology they’ve gathered. My research in particular pertains to geologists and computer scientists,” Johnson said.

Tori Brandt, the co-president of the anthropology club, said she also thinks archeology is important to everyone in the Augustana community — not just anthropology majors.

“The goal of these seminars is to promote the department and to promote knowledge about archeology because I feel like everybody has heard of what archeology is, but they don’t actually know what it is,” Brandt said.

Senior anthropology major Laura Johnson attended the talk on Thursday as well. She said she learned a lot about Central American archeology and the different varieties of obsidian that can be traced back to its place of creation.

“It definitely made me more interested, and I want to learn more alongside these professionals,” Johnson said.

As the anthropology department brings more experts in archeology to Augustana, students, faculty, archeologists and members of the public are invited to be at the forefront of archeological research happening today.

There will be more seminars to come, with one in March and one in April at the very least, but definitive dates and speakers have not yet been announced.