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Courtesy of the University of
Pennsylvania Museum

John Lambert Cotter
1911 - 1999

Edward B. Jelk

 

John Lambert Cotter's death on February 5, 1999, in Philadelphia brought an end to an archaeological career spanning more than 65 years. Cotter is survived by his wife, Virginia, their two children, Laurence Cotter and Jean C. Spaans, and three grandchildren.

Jack was born in Denver, Colorado, on December 6, 1911, to John A. and Bertha B. Cotter. After graduating from East Denver High School in 1930, he earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in anthropology at the University of Denver in 1934 and 1935, respectively. He married Virginia Wilkins Tomlin in 1941. In 1959 he completed a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Cotter's initial field experience was at two western Paleoindian sites: the Folsom component at Lindenmeier, Colorado, and the type site of the Clovis complex at Blackwater Draw, New Mexico. The final four decades of his career were devoted to researching English colonial sites in Virginia and Pennsylvania. The years in between were devoted largely to research on Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian cultures in Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

His interest in Paleoindian archaeology began with his work as a member of Frank H. H. Roberts Jr.'s team at Lindenmeier in 1934­1936. Excavations at Blackwater Draw in 1936 and 1937 directed by Cotter, located two Clovis points in geologic association with mammoth bones in a deposit underlying a bed of bison bones that contained Folsom points. This was the first clear evidence that Clovis predated Folsom and was contemporaneous with mammoths. In the next few years Jack pursued this interest and became a widely recognized authority in the Paleoindian field.

From 1938 until he joined the National Park Service (NPS) in April l940, Jack headed the Archeological Survey of Kentucky. After a stint as an infantryman in World War IIduring which he was wounded and awarded the Purple Hearthe rejoined the NPS in January 1946. Between 1947 and 1950, he directed a survey of the Natchez Trace Parkway in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and excavated the Gordon, Bynum, and Emerald mounds in Mississippi. Following completion of the project, he was transferred to Washington where he served as acting chief archaeologist of NPS (1950­1953).

Jack's career underwent a shift in focus when in July 1953 he was assigned to direct explorations at the site of 17th-century Jamestown, Virginia. As assistant director of the Jamestown project, I worked closely with Jack and came to recognize his outstanding abilities both as a field archaeologist and as an ardent and effective public advocate for the unique contributions that archaeology can make to historical research. Developing the site for interpretation to the public, the Jamestown archaeological project continued Jean C. Harrington's pioneering work of the 1930s and 1940s and was a phenomenal success as a showpiece of Jamestown's 35th anniversary celebration in 1957. Cotter's report, "Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia," (1958, Archaeological Research Series No. 4, National Park Service, Washington), was a landmark in the reporting of archaeological investigations at historic sites. Long out of print but still in demand, it was reprinted in 1994 by the Archaeological Society of Virginia.

Cotter's work at Jamestown immersed him deeply into the methods and nuances of the emergent historical archaeology in the 1950s. He became so captivated by it that thereafter he turned his scholarly energies almost entirely to the development of the subdiscipline.

Leaving Jamestown in 1957, Jack was stationed in Philadelphia as regional archaeologist for the NPS Northeast Region until 1970, when he was transferred to the NPS Eastern Service Center in Washington. Although he retired in 1972, he continued to work for the NPS as a rehired annuitant until final retirement in 1977.

Cotter was adjunct professor in the Department of American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania (1960­1979) and curator for American Historical Archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (1972­1980). As curator emeritus he maintained an office at the museum and worked there regularly until 10 days before his death. Cotter authored or coauthored several books and more than 200 journal articles and reviews. His best-known publications are "Archaeological Excavations at Jamestown, Virginia," and The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia (1992, with coauthors D. G. Roberts and M. Parrington, University of Pennsylvania Press). His final book, Clovis Revisited, written with A. T. Boldurian, was in press at the time of his death. It looks back at his early work on Paleoindians and puts it into context with current Paleoindian research.

Cotter received numerous awards, including the J. C. Harrington Medal in Historical Archaeology (Society for Historical Archaeology), and the David E. Finley Award for Outstanding Achievement in Historic Preservation (National Trust for Historic Preservation).

At the University of Pennsylvania, Cotter taught the first university course in historical (nonclassical) archaeology and inspired a generation of students. He was one of the cofounders of the Society for Historical Archaeology, served as its first president, and edited the first volume of its journal, Historical Archaeology. Staunch activist for historic preservation, respected mentor, versatile scholar, and capable Park Service administrator, Jack Cotter will be long remembered for his many contributions to both historic and prehistoric archaeology. ·

Edward B. Jelks is retired and lives in Normal, Illinois.

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