Director's Message

Jason De LeónI have vivid memories of sitting in Richard Leventhal’s office in A207 Fowler sometime around 1998. I was a twenty-one-year-old anthropology major who was there to talk to the then Director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology about whether he would consider supervising an independent research project I was developing on the material evidence for shamanism in ancient West Mexican funerary deposits. At that time, I was also a work-study student in Jeanne Arnold’s Channel Islands Lab where I sorted seashells with tweezers for hours on end until it got to the point that I was having dreams about Olivella beads. Despite the fact that I would sometimes close my eyes and see seashells, working with Jeanne cemented my love of archaeology. It was also her early mentorship that made me feel welcome in the Cotsen and in the field of archaeology more generally. Her approach to supporting students is something I draw upon often when I now meet with my own eager undergraduates in that same lab space where I found my calling so many years ago. 

My time as a student in the Cotsen comprises some of my fondest undergraduate academic memories. This includes the many adventures I had with Richard Lesure driving to and from Mexico City in the institute’s now long-gone Ford Bronco and the quarter I spent with Tom Wake learning how to do archaeology out at Stunt Ranch while watching him pick up every wild animal that he could get his hands on so that he could teach me about California ecology. 

All this being said, it feels a bit surreal to be writing this first Director’s letter from my office, A207, where for the last three months I have been trying to get my bearings while appreciating the full circle nature of my career trajectory. To say that I am incredibly honored and humbled to be the new Director of the Cotsen is an understatement of epic proportions. I don’t know if I have enough words to express my excitement and gratitude for being responsible for an institute that literally changed my life. What I do know is that I come to this job with a serious commitment to honoring the legacy of this place while building on the work of my wonderful predecessors, many of whom I have called friends and mentors for years.  

As I get settled into this new role, I am happy to share that I am dedicated to strengthening our existing labs and programs including our Conservation Program that celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. I am also committed to developing new initiatives including expanding support for staff who work tirelessly to keep our ship afloat, helping our nascent Waystation Program thrive, and fostering new projects focused on expanding our institute’s engagement with the general public. The latter involves helping our students and faculty think of new ways to translate their groundbreaking research for different audiences around the globe and across various mediums, creating new and formalized relationships with underserved K-12 schools across Southern California to get young students excited about archaeology, and working with our in-house press to think about new publication approaches that can help expand our readership and the role that archaeology can play for helping us understand our past, our present, and our future. I am also working diligently to formally make karaoke a part of all institute holiday and end of year celebrations.  

As a first generation student, I struggled for many years to find my place in college. I dropped out of UCLA numerous times and on more than one occasion questioned whether I should even attempt to finish my degree. The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and the brilliant and kind people that it attracts served as my academic oasis and my social lifeline during my sometimes tumultuous college years. Every day that I walk into our building I am reminded of how important this space is for our staff, students, faculty, and visitors who get excited and inspired by this thing we call archaeology and all that it has to offer. In the years to come, I look forward to continue growing alongside this wonderful place that has given me so much.


Jason De León
Director, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology 
February 8th, 2024