Anthropologist Uses Archaeology to Study Today’s World
Martin Wobst, left, with Peter Manaburu, the
cultural custodian of the Barunga community in
the Northern Territory in Australia. Manaburu,
now deceased, was a well respected artist.
They are pictured in front of the elementary
school he painted several years ago.
Says Wobst, "I am his 'uncle'."
“Archaeology is the science that makes sense of human material artifacts—of any period,” says Professor H. Martin Wobst, whose main interest lies in theory and method of archaeology, one of the four main branches of anthropology. “In our society that is about as materialistic as any ever was, archaeology is the only field that is really focused on that subject matter. Unfortunately,” Wobst laments, “archaeology in its usual guise is centered almost exclusively on the past. That is not good, since it actually deflects from understanding the present. People look at the past, and then can say, ‘look how weird people were then.’ Archaeology should never be used to justify the present, which is at least as weird as the past. But it can illuminate the present. To help students understand that, I have them do field work right here in Amherst: in their classrooms, in the rest rooms, in the university’s publications and web pages, and so on.”
Wobst is also interested in exposing archaeologists’ ethnocentrism with artifacts from societies other than their own, like the indigenous societies in Australia with whom he has worked. (In fact, he was given kin terms by the cultural custodians of a community in the northern territory.) “Usually those societies have theories of material culture different from ours,” Wobst says. “If we don’t feel our way to those theories in ethnography or when analyzing excavated collections, we do violence to those populations. We kind of colonize them on our terms, and thus fail to build a pan-human theory of material culture.”
If this sounds intriguing, then Wobst’s presentation for the Distinguished Faculty Lecture Series on March 3 at 4 p.m. in the Massachusetts Room of the Mullins Center is a must. “An Archaeological Look at Us” will showcase exactly what he means and give attendees a glimpse of the rich atmosphere he creates for his students.
“I love all components of being a professor,” says Wobst, who continuously aims for a “harmonious blend” of teaching, research, service and outreach. “In and out of class, I try to help students, from beginning undergraduates to PhD candidates, become self-propelled to reach their goals,” Wobst explains. “I encourage them to become producers, rather than consumers, of science, to do original research (to overcome their sense that only Nobel Prize winners do that), and to publish it when they are done. My own research never stops (even in non-university related activities). I’m involved in various administrative tasks for the department and numerous professional organizations. I like helping others succeed and get the work done that needs doing.”
Wobst’s entry into anthropology came through a back door. “My interest in archaeology began early,” he recalls of his youth in Germany. “When I was ten, my uncle handed me Gods, Graves and Scholars by Marek/Ceram, a bestseller about Mediterranean civilization. Not long after that, as is the German way, I had to choose between a natural science high school and a classical high school. Attending the latter, I ended up with nine years of Latin, seven of Ancient Greek, four of English (but for a classics scholar, that was a low-status subject) and four other languages.”
When in 1963 he had to choose next steps, Wobst says he didn’t have much choice. “I wanted to study classical archaeology, but I didn’t want to kill my dad by being a conscientious objector or by refusing to go along with a multi-generational tradition of joining a dueling fraternity (the ones that fight with live sabers without face guards to mark up each other’s faces so they can recognize and support each other later in life). I applied to the University of Berlin—because the draft and fighting fraternities were outlawed under Allied Law—and the University of Michigan because neither was an issue there.”
Wobst chose Michigan, ostensibly to work on his English for a year. The summer before his first class, he participated in a 10-week prehistoric excavation project in the Saginaw Valley. “Totally immersed in English, I probably picked up all the spoken language I ever learned,” Wobst reflects. After one classical archaeology course that fall, he transferred into anthropology and ended up getting all three degrees at Michigan.
It wasn’t easy though. “When I arrived in the States,” Wobst explains, “I didn’t know about tuition. Public education is free in Germany. As an out-of-state student, I had to pay out-of-state tuition. Except for $50 a month from home, I supported myself completely. Working ‘part-time’ between 40 and 70 hours a week in my first two years, I did everything from balalaika lessons to forestry work, babysitting, library work and the like. So hard work definitely is a contributing variable. I will add that I had wonderful teachers all the way through. They gave me the tools to get to where I wanted to be.
“I really wanted to be in an anthropology department at a university on the East Coast,” Wobst says of his arrival at UMass Amherst in 1971. “I was looking for a department with an interest in Europe, particularly eastern Europe, and I wanted to be outside of big cities but within their reach. I sent my CV before an opening was posted—much less one in my specialty. As luck would have it, the department had just been authorized to hire four new faculty. I’m told that, on the basis of my letter, they decided to include “Old World Prehistory” in their ads. I applied formally—and the rest is history." (To read more of Wobst’s achievements in his field, click here. Scroll down to the section on Wobst.)
Reflecting on his thirty-seven years in Amherst, Wobst is enthusiastic, typical of his modus operandi. “My colleagues are top-notch and well-known in the discipline. We are doing important work individually and as a team. Even though we’re a relatively young department, our alumni are establishing themselves in important academic and nonacademic contexts that allow them to significantly impact their surroundings. Our mentoring seems to work well. We try to listen to and help each other, and we like teaching and working with students.”
February 11, 2008