Gregson Schachner has been a professor of anthropology at UCLA for more than a decade. His scholarship focuses on ancient farming societies and transformations in leadership and social structure within them. Schachner draws inspiration for his research from his own field experiences in the American Southwest, including areas such as including the Cibola, Mesa Verde and Hohokam.
During his career, Schachner has presented his research in several publications, including the “Journal of Archaeological Research,” the “Cambridge Archaeological Journal” and “The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology of the American Southwest.” In July, he was named chair of UCLA’s interdepartmental program in archaeology.
Schachner discussed his appointment and his research with UCLA Newsroom.
What inspired you to pursue a career in archaeology?
I entered the field almost by accident. I was a chemistry major as an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and took an archaeology course to fulfill a general education requirement. The course appealed to my interest in science and history, and I saw archaeology as a way to combine the two and get out of a chemistry lab and into the outdoors. After that I went to an archaeology field school in Arizona. From there, I was hooked on both archaeology and the Southwest.
Your research focuses on how groups exploited specific events, such as migration and climate change, to transform societies. Why do you believe this is an important area to study?
Social scientists have long been interested in the confluence of long-term social trends and short-term historical events that might present opportunities or challenges for substantial change. Archaeology often struggles with the short-term because our chronologies are rarely precise enough to think in terms of historical events, but in some cases we can try.
Obviously, migration and climate change are major areas of interest today, but they have also been linked to substantial changes in human societies in the past as well. Our ability to see short-term events, such as sometimes drastic changes in weather related to volcanic eruptions, has improved tremendously in the last few decades. The challenge for archaeologists is to think about how those events were or were not linked to other changes in the past at multiple spatial and temporal scales.
What do you think distinguishes the archaeology department at UCLA from those of other universities?
Archaeology at UCLA has long been unique among American universities. Students can study archaeology in many departments at UCLA, including anthropology, classics and Near East languages and cultures, among others. The interdepartmental program provides yet another venue that builds on the strengths of those departments through facilitating interdisciplinary interactions across campus. At most American universities, archaeology faculty and students in individual departments might rarely interact. Through the IDP and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, we get the benefit of a wide range of perspectives on archaeology, as well as strong support from the university and an engaged community of volunteers and donors.
What do you hope to accomplish as the chair of the Archaeology IDP?
The IDP does not hold faculty lines, so my charge is really to be an advisor and advocate for our graduate students. I plan to begin my term by seeking their input about how they would like to see the program develop going forward. As with many units on campus, we need to build support for graduate students, both to address the financial challenges of living in Los Angeles and to facilitate their research and development as independent scholars. Our students have also built some exciting programs in public outreach that I would like to help them extend. I am curious and excited to hear their ideas about how the program can develop and grow.