In this installation of Archaeologists in Action, OAS’ former member Bryton A. Smith sat down with Professor Drew Wilburn to discuss his fieldwork and research interests. Professor Wilburn attended Randolph-Macon College as an undergraduate and later attended the University of Maryland and the University of Michigan as a graduate student. As an Oberlin professor, he is affiliated with both the Classics Department and the Archaeological Studies Program.
Professor Wilburn had an early interest in paleobiology, specifically liking “dinosaurs originally,” but came to develop a passion for the ancient Greco-Roman world and classical archaeology during and after his undergraduate years. As a child, he lived in the Yorktown, Virginia area in close proximity to colonial archaeological sites, and he cited the proximity of such sites as the reason behind his initial archaeological interest. In his final year at Randolph-Macon, Professor Wilburn studied abroad in Italy, which introduced him to material culture. His experience with material culture in Rome complemented his previous textually-based studies and made a strong impression on him, and also inspired him further to pursue archaeology. After college, on the recommendation of a professor he met in Rome, Professor Wilburn participated in an excavation in the Athens agora. The agora, which he described as “a great training dig,” has been excavated for over a century, and Professor Wilburn remarked that he “hadn’t really spent any time in Greece, so it seemed like a great place to go.” His experience there both greatly enhanced his archaeological knowledge and led to friendships that he has maintained to the present.
Of the ancient civilizations that have existed, Roman civilization is Professor Wilburn’s favorite. He is primarily interested in the Romans’ interactions and cultural exchange with cultures foreign to them such as those of India and Britain. In this regard, the border regions of the Roman Empire as opposed to Rome itself are of greater geographic interest to Professor Wilburn. As for his research foci, variation is essential. From a chronological perspective, Professor Wilburn is mainly interested in diachronic questions such as how residences and materials in such domestic contexts differed in various eras. Geographically, Professor Wilburn finds differences, including those related to domestic spaces, in different locations fascinating.
Therefore, Professor Wilburn’s fieldwork has taken him to the Middle East in addition to Europe. In Israel, he has participated in two excavations: Caesarea and Tel Kedesh. As a one-season assistant trench supervisor in the Caesarea excavation in the mid to late nineties, he helped to excavate the foundations of the temple. Tel Kedesh is in northern Israel close to the Israel-Lebanon border, and he characterized the Israeli site with a view of Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan as “really amazing.” During his two seasons at Tel Kedesh, which were the 1999 and 2000 excavation seasons, Professor Wilburn had a role in excavating drains in a building dating to the Hellenistic period. More specifically, the building served as an administrative center in the region.
Furthermore, Karanis, Egypt and Cyprus are two places outside of Israel where Professor Wilburn has conducted fieldwork, research, or both. It is clear Karanis is a special place for Professor Wilburn: “I’d go back to Karanis,” was his answer to the question where he would go if he could dig anywhere. Karanis, Professor Wilburn explained, is in Egypt’s Fayyum region and dates to the Greco-Roman era. University of Michigan archaeologists thoroughly excavated the site during the 1920s and 1930s, but the site still holds archaeological interest for Professor Wilburn.
In addition to Egypt, Professor Wilburn carried out research in Cyprus as a Fulbright recipient. In two digs in Nicosia, the capital of Cyprus, he volunteered to participate in fieldwork. In Amathous, Professor Wilburn did not excavate but conducted research with a focus on the Hellenistic and Roman time periods. His research in Amathous related to curse tablets excavated there that are currently in the British Museum.
Most readers will find it intriguing that ancient magic is a major research focus across time periods for Professor Wilburn. In his view, ancient magic was a form of “self-help, or it’s how people on their own initiative deal with their problems.” Within this research focus, Professor Wilburn’s sub-interests include the materials utilized in ancient magical practices, ancient understandings of the processes through which ancient magic operated, and problems ancients strove to resolve via magic. He sees ancient magic as continuous with ancient religion and superstition, and with regards to his research on ancient magic, he feels that his work is somewhat similar to the work conducted by his Oberlin College Religion Department colleagues.
Toward the end of the interview, Professor Wilburn shared his favorite archaeological experience. When he was excavating at Abydos, Egypt, he and the team excavating with him were focusing on “backfill” resulting from the 1800s excavation of the cemetery by an archaeologist from France named Auguste Mariette. Professor Wilburn explained that Mariette was irresponsible in his methodology, neglecting to record stratigraphy and simply digging a large trench in the cemetery in hopes of uncovering antiquities. At this site, Professor Wilburn found natron-containing linen balls that were once in the mummy of a Middle Kingdom administrator named Weni, from ca. 2300 B.C.E. Professor Wilburn recalled vividly that the natron balls “smelled terrible!,” elaborating that “we’re talking about 4,000 year-old salt balls that still smell like a dead guy.” As for how the natron balls were separated from the mummy, Professor Wilburn elaborated, “when Mariette found his [Weni’s] mummy, he basically ripped it apart to find all the objects…and scattered bits of Weni everywhere.” He sees how the natron balls are valuable both for understanding Weni as a historical Egyptian figure and for understanding late 1800s archaeological methodology.
Professor Wilburn, with his specific interests such as ancient magic and in his geographically-diverse excavation experiences, is an excellent model of expansive subject and geographic scopes possible for members of the archaeological community, both students and professionals.
For more information about Professor Wilburn’s teaching, publications, and research, see his faculty page: https://www.oberlin.edu/drew-wilburn.