Examining Backdirt: Annual Review of the Cotsen Institute

“Backdirt” might be a great name for a rock band. But in archaeology, it refers to soil removed from excavation units and used to refill them once they are completed. What is found in backdirt provides additional insights into the history of the site. For more than three decades, such insights have been featured in the publication Backdirt, Annual Review of the Cotsen Institute, shining a light on the accomplishments and pursuits of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA.

Members of the Cotsen family are often so focused on their own work that they do not have the time or opportunity to learn about other interesting and valuable research being done worldwide by other Cotsen affiliates. Among other goals, Backdirt aims to fill this gap. Highlighted in the latest issue of Backdirt is research in Easter Island (Rapa Nui), Egypt, Ethiopia, France, Italy, southern Japan, Peru, the Sahara, and several areas of the United States. Titles include “Excavating with Language,” “Harvesting Scent in Beni Suef, Egypt,” and “Ancient Cities as a Blueprint for the Future,” among many others. If you want to catch up with the work being done in some of the many laboratories within the Cotsen Institute, there are articles on the Rock Art Archive, the Armenian Laboratory, the Undocumented Migration Laboratory, and the Experimental and Archaeological Sciences Laboratory.

“An important aspect of academic archaeology is preparing the next generation,” explains Hans Barnard, editor of Backdirt, “which is why we also invite contributions describing particularly noteworthy and exciting classes or laboratory projects.” Of special interest to prospective and current students is a section on “Alumnae Adventures,” in which graduates of the Cotsen Institute describe their paths in the five to ten years since their graduation. “After spending years in close contact with faculty, staff, and students at the Cotsen Institute, those finishing their education go out into the world to engage in bigger and better things,” Barnard states.

The 2019 issue of Backdirt, which recently appeared in print, reflects the evolution of the publication, as well as the growth of the Cotsen Institute. In 1986, Backdirt was established as an in-house newsletter reporting twice a year on the activities of a “handful of professional and amateur enthusiasts of archaeology and few events at UCLA,” according to a 2011 history of the publication. The inspiration for the name Backdirt came from former director of the Institute of Archaeology and professor emeritus Merrick Posnansky. By 2006, Backdirt had developed into a glossy, magazine-style annual review of the extensive achievements of the Cotsen Institute and its affiliates. Rather than the one or two articles in each area originally envisioned, there are now several essays in each area: “The Institute in the News,” “Feature Articles and Field Reports,” “Laboratory Life,” “Alumnae Adventures,” “Community Events,” and “In the Spotlight.”

Today, the eagerly-awaited and celebrated publication has a much-expanded role. Not only does it inform and inspire colleagues, donors, and the general public, it also provides UCLA administration with a report on the activities and accomplishments of the Cotsen Institute. Gathering this information into an accessible and attractive format requires input from all members of the Cotsen family. Barnard, associate adjunct professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures, has been editor of Backdirt since 2015 and starts soliciting material about a year in advance of publication.

Cotsen affiliates who have recently been in the news are also featured, as well as field reports covering some of the many projects in which students and affiliates are active. The publication also includes interviews conducted by one of the graduate students of the Cotsen Institute, who is appointed assistant editor. “This was Kirie Stromberg this year, and in previous years Robyn Price, Rachel Moy, and Benjamin Nigra,” according to Barnard.

Reports from the chairs offer information on the students and events in each of the two Interdepartmental Degree Programs within the Cotsen Institute: archaeology and conservation. As always, the new journal ends with sections on the recent publications of the Cotsen Institute Press, directed by Randi Danforth, which is also responsible for publication of Backdirt. A “Special Thanks” section recognized donors and funders of the Cotsen Institute, its students, and its projects.

“Over the past years, the quality of Backdirt has greatly improved by including reports on ongoing research. We thank all contributors for making this possible and, at the same time, encourage all those who feel an affiliation with the Cotsen Institute to consider submitting what they see fit for our next issue,” Barnard concludes. Inquiries may be directed to nomads@ucla.edu.

Published on March 18, 2020.