Patty Jo Watson

Patty Jo Watson, PhD, considered one of the world’s leading experts on cave archaeology and a pioneer in the fields of agricultural origins and ethnoarchaeology, has shaped the way archaeology is conducted. Watson received an honorary doctor of science degree in 2009.

During her distinguished 55-year career, Watson has done groundbreaking fieldwork on agricultural origins in both the Near East and North America.

She is credited with defining and pioneering ethnoarchaeology – the branch of archaeology that studies contemporary societies to aid understanding of archaeological remains left by ancient peoples.

Creating an approach to better understand ancient civilizations

Watson developed a technique for flotation of archaeological remains to create a new method of retrieving charred plant remains from sites studied. The plant evidence collected in this way has revolutionized understanding of the pattern and timing of plant domestication in many parts of the world.

She began her career excavating prehistoric sites in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and then shifted her primary focus to North America, where her work has focused on artifacts left by prehistoric people who explored and mined Salts Cave, Kentucky, a portion of the world’s longest cave system in Mammoth Cave National Park.

Her work in Salts Cave was instrumental in defining pre-maize agriculture for the Woodland period of eastern North America.

In Watson’s more recent studies, she continues to focus on the subsistence, technology and economy of these early people.

Watson earned a master’s degree in 1956 and doctoral degree in 1959, both in anthropology, from the University of Chicago. She joined the WUSTL faculty in 1969 and twice served as chair of the Department of Anthropology.