Archaeologists in Action: Heath Patten

In our latest installment of the Archaeologists in Action article series, we interviewed Heath Patten, Oberlin’s Visual Resources Curator. Heath has a variety of fieldwork experiences both locally in Ohio and abroad in countries such as Cyprus and Italy. He shared some incredible stories about his archaeological work and finds, and how he found his career path. 

When asked what Heath loved about archaeology and what it brought to his life, he chuckled and responded that he loved knowing that, as an undergrad in archaeology, he was going to get to spend the summer on a Mediterranean island and wasn’t going to have to pay for it. Since deciding to pursue a career in archaeology, Heath has participated in lots of fieldwork, had an incredibly successful teaching career, and has been on several summer ‘vacations’. 

Heath’s interest in archaeology started from a young age. Heath’s home county in the Northwest corner of Ohio was so rich with archaeological history that while pitching in a baseball game at age 10, Heath discovered an arrowhead next to the pitcher’s mound. His mom studied art history with an interest in Egyptology at Ohio State which meant that growing up Heath constantly had that exposure which helped to grow his interest in archaeology.

Despite his early exposure to archaeology, Heath’s trajectory was not linear. Heath first graduated from Ohio State, with a degree in history and an interest in politics, and worked as a legislative aide for a state senator. After gaining some experience, he realized that was not the career path for him. In 1993 Heath returned to college and earned another BA in anthropology and art history. He received most of his archaeology training through an anthropological lens. 

In 1994 while earning his second BA degree, Heath began working for an archaeological project in Cyprus that was focused on the excavation of an open-air sanctuary, where Heath had the opportunity to focus on his interest in rituals, both secular and religious. Heath would go on to work there for six seasons, becoming the project illustrator, a field supervisor, and a field school instructor. These visits to Cyprus made him fall “head over heels” for the Mediterranean. To Heath, knowing about and having a background in art history is extremely important when studying archaeology. It made him more appreciative of archaeological findings and their context. His interest in rituals and time in Cyprus was continued in his graduate study on processions in Cyprus, specifically looking at terra cotta figures.

One of Heath’s most unique and eye-opening experiences was working in the demilitarized zone in Cyprus. In 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus, where to this day, there are still Turkish forces present. In between forces, a division was drawn, the “Green Line”, and it has remained a demilitarized zone since. Heath spoke a bit about the unique experience of working in a demilitarized zone. He remembered excavating and having UN trucks pass by and seeing the Cypriot Greek and Turkish military watchtowers. At night he remembers watching Turkish machine gun positions smoke their cigarettes. “It was an interesting experience to have that lesson when you’re on an island that was a crossroads… everyone has had a piece of Cyprus at one point or another from the British Empire all the way back to the Phoenicians.”

Trained to excavate slow and steady and to pay attention to detail led the archaeological team to tighten and redefine the stratigraphy in their area of Cyprus. This allowed the team to be able to reconstruct certain vegetation which they were then able to correlate with reports of vineyards from Roman and later times. Heath’s participation in the Cyprus project’s work laid the foundation for much of the fieldwork he would go on to do. 

Heath went on to conduct many digs in Northwest Ohio which led to several publications. His formal work in Williams county, his home county, began back in 2000. He was contacted by their historical society about doing an archaeological project. Heath started a local field school that included people of all ages and backgrounds from elementary schoolers to retirees. They surveyed and excavated the first white/English-speaking settlement in the county. Heath went on to publish these findings on behalf of the historical society in his book entitled Williams County’s First Settlers: Prettyman Settlement Archaeological Project.  In 2002 Heath completed another project in Williams county, this time focused on a known Underground Railroad station which he used as an opportunity to look at the Underground Railroad in Northwestern Ohio.

In 2019 Heath published another book called Williams County Obscura: Volume 1 which highlights folklore and paranormal tales from Williams county. Heath spoke enthusiastically about this project describing his work as a fun little book of ghost tales, local myths, and true crime. Heath had “always loved those old farmer tales and local legends” which prompted him to create this book. Heath continues to be involved in local archaeology and to this day, still receives phone calls from people in Williams county asking “Hey! What is this?” 

Heath has experience in dealing with human remains although he says it’s not his favorite to research. Some of his favorite Cypriot project finds however have been from burials. One such find that the Cyprus project uncovered was a burial oak wreath with acorns, similar to what one might find in Macedonia royal burials. Another fascinating Cyprus find was a skull fragment with a purple stain on it. The project’s research found that it was from a purple burial shroud. Their immediate thoughts were of the Tyrian Phoenician purple, an expensive dye extracted from sea snails. Upon further research, the team discovered that it was actually a knockoff made from insects. Heath laughed while sharing this story and commented about how funny and similar ancient people and modern people are. 

Heath’s incredible amount of excavation experience especially focused in different regions around the world, gives him unique insights into archaeological digs. Although Heath enjoys both dynamics, he notes several differences between sites he has worked at. In Ohio, Heath noted the disconnect between prehistoric times, Indigenous history, and white colonizer history. That divide was hard to break down as he worked hard to try to excite people about the local archaeology while still teaching about it and getting people to respect it. 

On the other hand, the villages in Cyprus, by way of oral tradition, laid claim to the land and built their existing society on that foundation. Community members in Cyprus would ask Heath why he was so interested in their history. The local community took it as a massive compliment, that someone could be so intrigued by their own history. The village now has a community museum displaying many of the objects found outlining the village’s role in Cypriot history since the Bronze Age. 

Heath also noted differences in the types of archaeological finds themselves. In North America, finding a posthole is extremely exciting, while in Cyprus, Heath would find structures leftover from sanctuaries and temples. Heath’s training in a low visible archaeological record has made him much more sensitive to the stratigraphy of objects and more appreciative of the small finds. For example, in Cyprus, Heath and his team found a unique circular feature in the middle of a sanctuary. This feature had a fired clay bottom with sherds, pottery fragments, scattered around. Heath’s group was able to find pieces of ash that had been moved from this circle and had fallen just outside of it. Heath believes that his training in North America contributed to his attention to detail when on site. 

While Heath was completing projects in Cyprus and Ohio, he also kicked off his teaching career. He began teaching in 1998 at The Ohio State University and has continued to teach ever since. Heath then went on to teach at the University of Akron in the Art History Department, and Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, and he is currently at the Cleveland Institute of Art teaching art history. Heath has worked at Oberlin for over 18 years now, starting as the Visual Resources Assistant and for the last 5 years as the Curator.

At Oberlin, Heath has been involved in both object photography, digitization projects, and the creation of online and physical exhibits as the Visual Resources Curator. Heath says that his training as an archaeologist has helped him immensely in this work, especially with learning how to treat and respect objects. He also has experience drawing objects so he knows to look for certain subtleties to try and capture them on film. All of his prior experiences have culminated into an ability to record objects to get the most information out of them. 

The work Heath does at Oberlin extends far outside the local community. “We have a huge responsibility; we need to record as well as we possibly can.” Heath elaborated on this responsibility as an archaeologist, and how with the advancement of technology to identify and record items, these objects don’t have to leave their country of origin. Heath believes that teaching how to photograph objects is a valuable skill and he hopes to pass down his photography and drawing techniques to others at Oberlin. 

“[Heath’s] favorite part about archaeology is getting to intimately know a culture by living with them and just devouring their history. And like [he] said, you don’t know a culture until you eat their food!” All of Heath’s work in the field has been life-changing for him and he wishes that experience on everyone. He says there’s immense value in experiencing being an “other” or an outsider and he hopes that we understand that there are ways for us to explore these experiences on our own. 

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