Archaeologists in Action: Amy Margaris

In this installment of Archaeologists in Action, OAS’s Will Lynch sat down with Professor Amy Margaris to talk about her experiences in the field. An alumna of Oberlin College and the University of Arizona, Margaris is a professor in both Oberlin’s Anthropology Department and Archaeological Studies Program. She teaches a myriad of classes that focus on prehistoric archaeology and cultural materials.

Margaris says that she does not remember a time when she was not interested in archaeology.

“I remember when I was a little kid my mom had a couple of what we used to call arrowheads, what I would now call projectile points… I remember holding them in my hand and feeling electrified at the idea that some human had made these hundreds of years ago, and feeling that connection for them and wanting to learn more”.

When Professor Margaris arrived at Oberlin in 1992, she immediately started taking courses in anthropology, science, and art history. She always had a love for all things archaeology and was happy to take as many courses as she could relating to the field. She was also able to do field work as an undergraduate, which helped her immensely as she further developed her skills as an archaeologist.

Margaris and Alutiiq Museum staff member Jill HH Lipka recording excavation info on Kodiak island in 2009

Her first dig site was an Iroquoian village in upstate New York, near where she grew up. It was a large field school, where she learned the basics of archaeological field work. Next, she accompanied one of her professors to a field project in Southern Germany. There she did a lot of survey work focusing on sites of flint and flint-sourcing. About the experience Margaris says,  “[it] was a nice contrast to the large scale, open excavation strategy that we had used during my field school”. Her last dig of undergrad built upon that experience. Inspired by a guest speaker that came to Oberlin to discuss his archaeological specialty—Vikings!— Margaris expressed interest in his excavation. She learned shortly after that he was no longer working on the Viking project, but she decided to join him anyway in looking for shell mounds in Denmark.

In graduate school, Margaris developed an interest in the Alutiiq people of Alaska. While writing her dissertation she was looking for a museum collection relevant to her studies. The Alutiiq Museum’s bone and antler tool collection fit the parameters of her research. After contacting the museum, she went to Alaska and ended up falling in love with the community and its history. On the subject of the Alutiiq, she says, “[i]t has been amazing to work with a group of folks who are interested in using archaeology to learn about their own past, so much of which has been absorbed through colonialism”. She elaborates,“it just makes it so much more exciting when your results are directly relevant to a group of people today”.


Margaris and team on the Mikt’sqaq Angayuk (“Little Friend”) dig site on Kodiak island in 2009. This Community Archaeology project was sponsored by the Alutiiq Museum. Click here for more info.

Reflecting on her both her field school and dig site experiences, Margaris says that “[t]he thrill of discovery is there no matter what. Whether you are excavating in a cave in Southern Turkey or shell mound in Mesolithic Denmark or the house of an Alutiiq conscripted worker under Russian colonists in Alaska, it’s that moment of connection with people in the past that is so exciting and you can find that anywhere”.

While Margaris spent many years in the field she is currently staying put, leading to new interests. Her current project involves organizing and exploring Oberlin’s ethnographic collections, which it has amassed over the years. These cultural collections were picked up by missionaries associated with Oberlin. The college housed these collections as part of a private museum, but has since scattered them throughout campus. Building on the legacy of her predecessor, Linda Grimm, Margaris is exploring the history of these collections. The materials range from Africa, to Micronesia and East Asia.

Professor Margaris preparing to move objects from Oberlin’s ethnographic collection to their new home in Mudd Library

Also included in these collections is a small, yet significant, group of materials from the Arctic. She finds these particularly interesting, given that the Arctic is the site of most of her archaeological work. Recently, she met with Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, an indigenous Alaskan and expert on Arctic cultural material, who helped her identify the many items that Oberlin had in its collection. On the experience, Margaris recalls, “[w]e took her on what we thought was going to be a ten-minute tour of the Arctic collection and then an hour later she was explaining to us how these collecting baskets were made, fish skin bags, and incredible stuff”. She has since started a blog called Dangling Collections to document the developments in the College’s knowledge into the  collections. The current goal of this, she says, is to let people “peek behind the curtain, letting folks know we have these collections and make them useful again”.

A long-term goal Margaris has for the collections is to make a “mega-database”, so that  students may access the objects Oberlin possesses and compare them across fields. She points out that across departments there are similarities that could be useful to researchers and students. However, Margaris also says that she feels it is not her job to dictate the ultimate position of these artifacts

With accessibility in mind it is not surprising to hear what Margaris has to say on archaeological outreach. As a science, Archaeology is often inaccessible, but she thinks “the lesson to relay is that the Archaeological record is by and large a pretty democratic record of people of all kinds and so it is there for anyone to learn from. It is not just the past of the scientists themselves who are doing the work, which is typically white folks”. She states firmly that, “archaeology has the potential to inform us about all cultures and time periods”. It is this sentiment that seems to drive Amy Margaris as an archaeologist and scholar. Whether it is at the front of a large lecture for Archaeology 101 or working in a small space in Oberlin’s Archaeology Lab Amy Margaris’ passion comes through.  

Students work with materials from the ethnographic collection in Mudd Library

For more information about Professor Margaris’ current projects, consult the Dangling Collections blog and the ethnographic collection’s website, which is in the process of being updated.

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