A pioneer in cave archaeology, archaeological theory, the origins of agriculture, and more, Patty Jo Watson almost missed the boat on her own archaeological career-literally. As a young grad student set to embark as part of Robert Braidwood’s famed interdisciplinary Iraq-Jarmo expedition in 1954, she and Vivian Browman arrived at the dock in New York City just in time (due to bad traffic) to see their ship sailing out of the harbor. Hopping aboard a tugboat, they were able to catch up with the departing ship. Never again was her future as an archaeologist in doubt. With her only dig experience a field school in Arizona, she was put in charge of the site of Banahilk in Iraq: “Braidwood took me up there with a sort of caravan, a couple of cars with all the gear we needed…I was turned loose on this site up in North Iraq with just [dig supervisor] Abdullah and some workmen to keep me on the straight and narrow…I probably wouldn’t have survived without them.”
Born in Nebraska, raised in Iowa, and inspired to become an archaeologist by Agatha Agatha Christie‘s Come, Tell Me How You Live, Pat Watson entered graduate school at the University of Chicago in 1952. She participated in the Oriental Institute’s fieldwork in the Near East, including supervising excavations at Banalhilk during her first season in Iraq. She was also an early practitioner of ethnoarchaeology (what she and Maxine Kleindienst called “action archaeology” when they wrote about it in 1956), conducting research in Iran. She earned her Ph.D. from Chicago in 1959 and was a Research Associate at the Oriental Institute 1964-1970.
While continuing to work in Near Eastern archaeology, Watson’s focus gradually shifted to North American archaeology. Her interest in the origins of agriculture and interdisciplinary collaboration also carried over to the New World. Beginning in 1963, Pat and her philosopher-speleologist husband, Richard “Red” Watson, began exploring the archaeology of Salts and Mammoth caves in Kentucky. These are not rockshelters with wide openings to the sun; these are dark, narrow, twisting caves — the Mammoth Cave system is the longest known cave system in the world. Watson and her colleagues ventured deep into the caves, following the traces of the Native Americans who had explored these caves thousands of years before. Their finds included evidence of prehistoric mining activity, dessicated human bodies intentionally interred within the caves, textile fragments, and plant remains. At least one archaeologist vowed never to enter another cave again after accompanying Pat on a day-long tour through the pitch-black sinuous confines of the caves. But he did promise to get some funding for Watson to continue her archaeological research there.
The evidence for the early use of cultivated plants preserved in human paleofecal specimens from Salts Cave was the inspiration for the Shell Mound Archaeological Project (SMAP), the long term interdisciplinary study of a series of Archaic sites in the Green River area of Kentucky begun in 1972 and directed by Watson and her student, Bill Marquardt. SMAP brought innovative research techniques to southeastern archaeology, and the SMAP- type flotation machine is still used by many archaeologists to process soil samples for plant remains.
In 1968, Pat was hired to teach anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis (Red was already teaching in the philosophy department), where she would remain for the rest of her career. While conducting fieldwork in Turkey in 1968 she “converted” to New or processual archaeology and in 1971, she, Steven Leblanc (her first grad student at Washington University), and Charles Redman (who had introduced her to random sampling and processual archaeology in Turkey) wrote Explanation in Archeology: An Explicitly Scientific Approach, the first book to synthesize this theoretical approach. Over a decade later, the three would update and expand on this with the follow-up book Archeological Explanation:The Scientific Method in Archeology. Watson would later engage with postprocessual archaeology in a series of articles.
Patty Jo Watson retired from Washington University in 2004 as Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology. She and her husband currently live in Montana.
Some of Watson’s major publications include:
1971 Explanation in Archeology: An Explicitly Scientific Approach.
1974 Archaeology of the Mammoth Cave Area. Academic Press, NY.
1979 Archaeological Ethnology in Western Iran. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.
1986 Archeological Explanation: The Scientific Method in Archeology.
2005 University of Florida Press, Gainesville. William H. Marquardt and Patty Jo Watson, eds.
Further Reading and References
SMAP: 1976 In pursuit of prehistoric subsistence: a comparative account of some contemporary flotation techniques. MCJA 1(1):77-100.
1995 Secrets Underground: Archaeology Patty Jo Watson. Discovering Women Series.
1999 From the Hilly Flanks of the Fertile Crescent to the Eastern Woodlands of North America. In Grit-Tempered: Early Women Archaeologists in the Southeastern United States, edited by N.M. White, L.P. Sullivan and R.A. Marrinan. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, pp. 286-297.
2008 Dye, David H., ed. Cave Archaeology of the Eastern Woodlands: Papers in Honor of Patty Jo Watson. University of Tennessee Press.