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Research Tea: Megan C. Kassabaum

Picture of Megan C. Kassabaum sitting on a stone.

On December 3, Megan C. Kassabaum will present at the Libraries’ final Research Tea of the semester.

An assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology, Kassabaum also serves as Penn Museum’s Weingarten Assistant Curator for North America. Her wide-ranging research interests include food and feasting, ceramic technology, social organization, and public and museum archaeology. For her Research Tea, Kassabaum will speak about local archaeological sites in a talk titled “Archaeology without a Passport: Mounds in Eastern North America.”

Read more about Kassabaum’s work in the Q&A below and register for her Research Tea here.

You work on mound sites in the American South. What, to date, has been your most significant – or most gratifying – discovery?

I generally dig at sites that date to a time period called “Late Woodland”– about 700 to 1200 AD.  During the 2016 and 2018 seasons at my site, Smith Creek [in the Lower Mississippi River Valley], we unexpectedly discovered a large, circular structure dating to about 200 BC. Given that this extended the occupation history of the site by about 1,000 years, our discovery showed how our work there has the potential to fundamentally change how we understand the history of the region. 

On a less academic note, the remains of this building were rather hard to see and understand because they were layered among remains of later structures and deposits. It was therefore very personally gratifying to have found it and excavated it appropriately, and to have had the opportunity to teach my students to do the same. 

Archaeology is a discipline that requires hands-on technical skills in addition to traditional scholarship. What’s one of the more technically demanding skills required on a given site?

Archaeology is definitely an apprenticeship discipline. I end up teaching many of the essential hands-on skills in the field and in the lab, but hardly ever in the traditional classroom. To me, the hardest skill to teach, and the hardest one to master, is the identification of archaeological features based only on differences in the soil: color, texture, packedness, inclusions, et cetera. No matter how many pictures you show, you can’t really grasp the concept until you see it, try it, fail at it, try it again. 

This is also a skill that you might master at one site and then need to recalibrate at another because different characteristics make soils distinguishable. That’s not to say you’re starting over, though; it’s definitely easier for me to move to another site and do this than it would be for a less experienced archaeologist, which means that figuring out the “essential skills” you need to teach students is complicated but rewarding.

What are your duties as an Assistant Curator at the Penn Museum?

It varies day by day! My overall job is to facilitate the creation of knowledge both about and from our collection. Sometimes that means that I personally work with and research the objects in the American Section; at other times, it means that I facilitate that work by other researchers; at yet other times, it means that I employ our collections in public programs, lectures, classes, and so forth.

Of course, a big part of my job is to curate exhibits, but this work comes and goes, meaning that some semesters I put a huge amount of time into an exhibit while other semesters I’m not actively involved in any exhibit work.

Finally, because I work in Native North America, a big part of my job is to serve on the Repatriation Committee, whose job it is to implement the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

In your tea, you’ll discuss archaeological sites “in our own backyards.” It seems that, in the history of archaeology, citizen-archaeologists have played significant roles — for example, the discovery of the Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira caves. Is this the case even in modern, urban environments?

Absolutely, for better and for worse. Many important archaeological discoveries are made accidentally, and the potential for this happening is there anytime the earth is disturbed — from plowing, renovation work, sewer or pipe installations, erosion, and so on. Archaeologists can’t be everywhere all the time, so we absolutely count on “citizen-archaeologists” to report things when they find them, so that trained individuals may then do what they can to mitigate the impact or perhaps even take on a larger-scale investigation. 

That said, untrained enthusiasts can also do a lot of damage to sites. There’s a fine line between helping and harming, and I think it is incumbent upon archaeologists to do a better job educating the public so that they stay on the right side of this line.

How do libraries support the work of archaeologists?

Archaeologists produce a lot of data. Moreover, because fieldwork and lab work are expensive — in terms of resources, time, energy, et cetera — we also rely heavily on previously amassed data. Some of that data ends up in publications which are, of course, curated in libraries. Having access to that, both here at Penn and through interlibrary loan and online resource systems, is absolutely essential, especially the old reports and “gray literature” that’s not otherwise easy to find. That said, a lot of that data doesn’t end up published, and I think that going forward, the ability of libraries and librarians to help curate that sort of raw data will be absolutely essential.