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A Life Dedicated to Archaeology "John L. Cotter: In Memoriam"
February 22, 1999
Compiled by Mark Rose

Born December 6, 1911, in Denver, Colorado, John L. Cotter attended the University of Denver, receiving a B.A. in anthropology in 1934 and an M.A. in 1935. He excavated at the Paleoindian sites of Lindenmeier, Colorado, and Clovis, New Mexico, in the mid-1930s, then joined the Archaeological Survey of Kentucky in 1938 before moving to the National Park Service in 1940. He married Virginia Wilkins Tomlin in 1941. During the Second World War, Cotter enlisted in the infantry. Wounded at Normandy while he was with the 357th Infantry Regiment, 90th Division, he was awarded the Purple Heart.

After the war he returned to the National Park Service, for which he excavated in Mississippi at Bynum Mounds (a Hopewell site) and Emerald Mound (a thirteenth-century A.D. temple mound) while in charge of the Natchez Trace Parkway archaeological investigation program. From 1950 to 1953 he was head archaeologist at the Colonial National Historical Park and directed excavations at Jamestown, Virginia. He remained with the National Park Service until 1977, retiring as regional archaeologist, Mid-Atlantic Region, and senior archaeologist for the service.

John Cotter had a long association with the University of Pennsylvania, from which he received his Ph.D. in anthropology in 1959. He joined the university's faculty the following year and served until 1979 as adjunct associate professor of American civilization. In 1961 Cotter taught the first course in American historical archaeology ever offered at an American university. (Six years later he helped to found the Society for Historical Archaeology of which he was the first president and editor.) At Penn's University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cotter was curator for American historical archaeology from 1972 to 1980, when he became emeritus (but continued to work at the museum regularly).

Over the years John Cotter received numerous commendations, including the J. Alden Mason Award (Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology, 1974), the Outstanding Service Award (National Park Service, 1977), the David E. Finley Award for Outstanding Achievement (National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1978), and the Jean C. Harrington Medal in Historical Archaeology (Society for Historical Archaeology, 1984). In 1998, the Society for Historical Archaeology created the John L. Cotter Award for people newly entering the field, to be presented for the first time in the year 2000. The decision to name the award after Cotter was "based on his decades of influence as a teacher...and his life-long support for each new generation as it entered the discipline," according to a society press release.

Cotter's major publications include Archeology of Bynum Mounds (with John Corbett) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1952), Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown Virginia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, rev. ed. 1994), The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia (with Daniel G. Roberts and Michael Parrington) (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), and Walnut Street Prison Workshop (Philadelphia: Athenaeum, 1992).

He contributed many articles to ARCHAEOLOGY. Our December 1961 issue was devoted to the theme "Preserving Our Heritage," drawing on papers presented at a symposium organized by Cotter for the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings the previous year. For the issue, Cotter wrote a brief foreword (pp. 230-31) in which he said that archaeological site salvage was the the most urgent requirement for the preservation of heritage throughout the world. "This urgency," he wrote, "results from the disappearance of evidence beneath waters of flood control projects, the wrecking of ancient sites and structures to make room for urban renewal and, in general, the utilization of more and more land for cultivation, for air fields, for roads, factories, car parks, assorted dumps and an infinite variety of other intrusions by populations burgeoning upon the land. The angel of the backward look has to search hard to find a place to light." Those pressures are as strong today as they were when Cotter wrote. He did propose, not a remedy, but at least a way to make the best of things. "Solutions which will save a maximum of historic sites are simple in theory, expensive in practice and often in impractical in fact. Even when limited funds are finally gathered for archaeological salvage, there looms a dearth of trained archaeologists. Many willing groups of amateurs exist who may take pleasure and pride in contributing their services gratis or for essential expenses, but they must be competently led, and the professional is called upon to contribute his services when he is often paid no more than the junior grades of landscape architects, planners and engineers whose services are devoted to altering the landscape. Yet the intelligent cooperation of the amateur archaeologist remains the best hope of nourishing the cause of conservation and reminding elected office-holders of the national duty to preserve the story of the past. The informed and interested layman and the professional archaeologist here join hands in a common effort." Cotter's proposal for broad cooperation remains valid.

In addition, Cotter wrote for us "Historical Archaeology: An Introduction" (May/June 1976, pp. 150-51), "Architecture at Jamestown: Seventeenth Century and Beyond" (May/June 1976, pp. 152-63), "Archaeologists of the Future: High Schools Discover Archaeology" (January/February 1979, pp. 29-35), "Of Warps and Wormholes" (March/April 1989, p. 80), "Freud's Magnificent Obsession" (September/October 1989, p. 84), "Cryptoarchaeolgy" (May/June 1990, p. 80), "Kentucky Memoir: Digging in the Depression" (January/February 1993, pp. 30-35), "The Triumph of Fossil Homo" (January/February 1994, p. 84), "Antique Archaeologists" (January/February 1997, p. 88), "An Unsinkable Story" (May/June 1997, p. 80), and "Remembering 1948" (September/October 1998, p. 100).

Mark Rose is Managing Editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.


© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America