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Remembering John L. Cotter "John L. Cotter: In Memoriam"
February 22, 1999
by Glenn Sheehan

John L. Cotter and my father were born within a few weeks of each other in 1911. They both served in the European theater in World War II. They were old men for that war. My father told me that the other men in his company sometimes called him "Pops." John Cotter fought and was wounded on the beaches of Normandy.

Before the war, John's early archaeological experience came thanks to Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, where Loren Eiseley, later professor of anthropology and paleontology at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of his coworkers. They both brought a certain poetry to their work. Several books of Eiseley's poetry were published (see "The Muse Within Us," January/February 1999). John's poetry, however, lay not in his writing but in the way he helped open our eyes to our surroundings. Justine, my ten-year-old daughter, reminds me of John almost every day, even though they met only a few times.

When we see damaged produce at the store, Justine remarks enthusiastically, "Archaeology!" When we see a new coat of paint going on over an old one, Justine says "Archaeology." Ditto for an old house we visit. I'll never be the archaeological proselytizer that John was, but Justine's specially slanted enthusiasm for everything in the world around us comes directly from John's remark to me, as we walked under Penn's Franklin Field stadium seats, that we were surrounded by archaeology. John meant that the history of the stadium was written in the various additions, subtractions, modifications and signs of wear and tear in evidence all around us. John also meant that archaeologists do not have to wait for complete destruction and burial before they can contribute to understanding our modern life.

John was a pioneer in promoting archaeology as a science in which everyone can participate. One of the high school programs that John helped launch yielded several students who worked with me for years. In keeping with John's spirit, a friend of one of those students followed along and later participated in archaeological digs at Eastern State Penitentiary and is now the director of that historic site. John influenced everyone who worked or socialized with him, but these indirect and mostly unrecorded influences on people he never met are worth noting; the evanescent nature of our documentation of them does nothing to lessen their significance.

Over 20 years ago John taught a field school where I was one of his students. The failure of test pits to yield evidence of the particular site we were looking for revealed John at his best. There were stories to be found in the ground, from surface to sterile, and while it would have been nice to find specifically what we were looking for, wasn't it fine that we had found evidence for so many other activities and didn't some of the artifacts have their own fascinating stories to tell? John's approach has held me in good stead in the many testpits that I've since dug and described, only a few of which have actually come down on precisely what I expected or hoped for.

About a dozen years ago, when John worked with my wife Anne Jensen and I and our crew on a project in the Pocono Mountains, John was always the first one up in the morning. As we tried to make coffee and to make sense of the day, John already had it well in hand and was out on the porch doing calisthenics. He was in his mid-seventies at that time.

John was working in his office at Penn as recently as a few weeks ago. I just visited Philadelphia, but missed him by a few days and regret it. I am happy to have had John as a friend and mentor and we are all better off for John's having been with us. One of John's special gifts was to see archaeology everywhere, to be fascinated by everything he saw, and to share his fascination with us all.

Glenn Sheehan, a student of John Cotter, is executive director of the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium.


© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America