An Interview with Jason De León

When Jason De León stops moving, he likes to look forward. Beginning November 1, he will have a new vantage point as Director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA (CIoA). The professor of anthropology and Chicana, Chicano, and Central American Studies at UCLA is an experienced member of the core faculty of the CIoA who hopes to find new ways to support undergraduate and graduate students and to get them excited about archaeology at UCLA.

De León says that when he accepted the appointment, he had to think seriously about the “balancing act” it would take to chair the institution, maintain his own research, manage his students, and run a nonprofit as part of his research. “At the end of the day, it just felt like a wonderful opportunity to give back to an institute that really shaped my entire career,” he decided.

On November 1, he will be succeeding outgoing chair Willeke Wendrich, who he credits with leaving him “great staff.” He describes the positive working space that he is entering as supportive and excited, and he hopes to expand that energy. He was especially enthusiastic about the Waystation Initiative, one of the first efforts by a university in the United States to facilitate the ethical return of international cultural objects to their nations of origin or the communities from which they came.

In the past, De León notes, “I think a lot of people didn’t want to deal with those issues because it is just so challenging and potentially so messy. But I don’t want to pass the buck to someone else. This is an issue we are going to have to deal with forever. I would rather just do the hard work now in the hopes that I leave the situation a little better than when I got here. I think that holds true, as well, for archaeology in general.”

One of his biggest initiatives will involve public engagement, he said. “I came to public engagement after I’d already finished my PhD, and it was sort of added to an already full plate. But I wish I had been thinking about it much earlier, because it would have helped me in so many different ways. We have such exciting research happening in the institute. But there’s oftentimes not a good infrastructure to help those faculty and principal investigators really bring that research to the public in different ways.

“I think that unless you already have a foothold in those worlds or, if you are like me and sometimes burning the candle at both ends, it is really challenging.  I would love to see more ways for the work of the faculty to reach a broader public; to share with the public. Whether that’s through exhibitions or other projects that are potentially easier to digest for the public, compared to a journal article or a book manuscript,” he continued.

De León understands that people may not know how to provide exposure for their research. “I would tell them to find a curator or an artist who can visualize the data; who can help you think about translating this information into different kinds of media. A lot of what I’ve done over the years is look at archaeological or ethnographic data and figure out how to translate it for someone who isn’t going to read a book. What kind of mechanism would I use? Is it an exhibition or some sort of participatory activity?

“I have been very lucky to have worked early on with curators who really helped me think about taking my work and putting it into an art space or an ethnographic museum in ways that I had never anticipated. I would love to see more of those kinds of partnerships because I got really excited about the possibilities. I learned a lot and it helped me think more about how to put the work out there,” he explained. “I enjoy collaborating with artists, filmmakers, tech people and those in digital humanities because it pushes me to think about new possibilities. Is it VR? Is it internet web interfaces? What can I do to build on the work that I’m already doing?

“I also want to strengthen our relationship with the Fowler Museum at UCLA. I think there is a lot of potential for new partnerships and initiatives with a wonderful museum that we share a building with. It could be something as simple as a Cotsen archaeology exhibition that was completely collaborative with the Fowler and highlighted all of our faculty,” he added.

De León is also very interested in providing students more hands-on working opportunities; finding more ways to get undergraduates involved in archaeology both in the lab and in the field; and creating more lab space. “I’m currently on the Undergraduate Research Council, and that’s helped me to understand the different ways in which we can support undergrads. 

“But I would love to create some kind of program where archaeologists from any major can participate. This could be as simple as more sources of funding for fieldwork or conferences, but also reaching out to students in places like History, Ethnic Studies and other majors who are interested in getting more involved in archaeology. These are some relatively simple things that I think could be really life-changing,” he emphasized. 

“We could also do a better job at getting undergrads to know what it is we actually do at the Cotsen Institute. For example, I’m teaching a course in the winter called ‘Archaeology of the Apocalypse’ to stimulate thinking about collapses and different catastrophes over time and space. I want to get students thinking about how archaeology can be an important tool to understand lessons about things like climate change and migration,” he explained. “What if we could look at the future archaeologically and take lessons from the past to better prepare for potential major changes that might happen?”

De León is also interested in creating new classes, such as ones that would focus on the history and archaeology of Los Angeles including his ongoing fascination with Chavez Ravine amnd Dodger Stadium; classes that would get students thinking about issues of displacement and gentrification both now and in the past.  

In addition, he has some specific goals for his lab, the Undocumented Migration Project Lab. “We have about 7000 artifacts from the Arizona desert that migrants have left behind over the past ten years. We’re doing a re-inventory this year. Since we’ve moved from Michigan, we’ve had a lot of exhibitions, and the collection really needs to be tidied up. I moved to UCLA in 2019, and then the pandemic shut us down. This will be the first time since then that I’ve been able to have nine or ten students actively working in there and hoping to get it back to what it used to be.

“I currently have a mix of paid and volunteer students, as well as some who are doing independent research. I’m also hoping to run an archaeological field school in Arizona in 2025, and we’ll be prepping for that.”

Bringing in new faculty is another major goal for De León. “We’ve had a lot of retirements, as well as people who have left and have not been replaced over the years. Part of my job now is to figure what vacancies we need to fill and how we can fill them,” he continued. “I would love to hire a California archaeologist and someone who works in the Maya world. Those are some of the things I am thinking about lately as we plan for potential faculty growth.”

Published on October 12, 2023.