Savage Minds Interview: Kristina Killgrove

Kristina Killgrove is a biological anthropologist at the University of West Florida. Her research focuses on theorizing migration in antiquity and on understanding urban development and collapse through the analysis of human skeletal remains. She works primarily in the classical world, attempting to learn about the daily lives of the lower classes in Imperial Rome through osteological and biochemical analyses, but she has also worked on questions of population interaction in the contact-period southeastern U.S. and in Medieval Germany. A strong commitment to interdisciplinary research and teaching help her bridge the sometimes large divide between classics and anthropology.  For more about Killgrove’s work, check out her website or blog, email her (, or follow her on twitter (@DrKillgrove).

Ryan Anderson: What brought you to anthropology?  What made you choose this as your career?

Kristina Killgrove: I’ve written a bit in the past (originally as a response to a Savage Minds post on love letters for anthropology) about how I’m an “accidental anthropologist.”  I never really set out to have a career in anthropology, as I honestly wasn’t entirely sure what anthropology was until maybe my third or fourth year in college.  What eventually brought me to anthropology, though, was a dissatisfaction with the field I’d chosen to major in: classics.

I’ve been interested in the ancient Greeks and Romans since I was a kid, and I would pore through classical archaeology textbooks, looking for deeper insight into how these people lived but realizing these texts were compendia of artifacts and architecture, lazily informed by historical records. Growing up and going to college in Charlottesville, VA (not even a mile from where Thomas Jefferson excavated a Native American burial mound), I knew that archaeology could do more, and I began to delve more deeply into the larger field of anthropology towards the end of my undergraduate studies. After taking a course in human osteology at UVa, I realized that what really bugged me about those classical archaeology textbooks was the lack of analysis of the human remains themselves.  At the time (the late 90s), the number of classical archaeologists who worked with human bones (and wrote in English) could be counted on one hand.  I decided that this lack of osteological information was a huge hole in our understanding of the ancient world and figured that, with my background in the language, art, architecture, and archaeology of the classical world combined with my growing understanding of theoretically-driven US anthropology, I could add new information about a civilization that had already been studied for the better part of two millennia.

So I bounced between graduate programs in anthropology and classics, settling on anthropology for my PhD because of two things: the anthro department at UNC gave me great flexibility to choose the classes I felt were most relevant to my research, and I was more passionate about teaching about monkeys, hominids, and skeletons than Cicero, concrete, and mosaics.  It’s been challenging to combine these two fields that have very different intellectual histories, at least in US academia, but I feel like they’re coming closer together, particularly in light of recent developments in archaeological technology and digital humanities.

RA: What does “public anthropology” mean to you?

KK: The idea of a public anthropology, to me, means proactively reaching out to a variety of audiences using a variety of media to explain the basic tenets and specific research of anthropology.  Anthropology is not a subject taught in grade school like chemistry, English, or mathematics, which means that most people don’t encounter it–if they ever do–until college.  This also means that most people don’t know what anthropologists do or why it’s important.  Much more so than chemists, mathematicians, or writers, we anthropologists have to show what makes our perspective special, interesting, and important.

I also came at public anthropology accidentally, having chosen to start a blog way back in the early days of blogging as a way to practice short-form writing, the medium I’ve always felt most comfortable with.  The current iteration – – started during my dissertation fieldwork and has changed over the years to encompass larger questions within anthropology and academia, along with information about my research and my thoughts on my small, rather insular field of Roman bioarchaeology.

I count myself fortunate to have found a job at the University of West Florida, which communicates very well with the public about local archaeology through the Florida Public Archaeology Network. FPAN is a statewide organization but was founded here by archaeologist Judy Bense, now our university president, and literally everyone I’ve met since moving here last year has something to say or ask about archaeology.  This history of engagement is one of the reasons I conceived of teaching this past spring’s graduate proseminar that I called Presenting Anthropology.  I wanted to create a course for our MA students that let them survey the ecology of anthropology on the web, carry out projects that could form the basis of a job or PhD application portfolio, and discuss strategies for bringing their take on anthropology to the public.

RA: What were some of the highlights of this course?  What did you come away with after teaching this for a semester?  Are you planning on teaching it again?

KK: I based Presenting Anthropology loosely on the TV show Project Runway.  I’ve always been fascinated by the show because the contestants find inspiration for their creations in the oddest places and can whip up some fantastic outfit in a few hours’ time.  But sometimes their vision comes crashing down around them.  It’s really the same with presenting anthropology – inspiration can come from anywhere, and if you don’t try to do something new and different, your audience is going to get bored.  The highlights of the course for me were the students’ projects, particularly the ones aimed at young kids (who are surprisingly under-served in anthropological outreach) and the audio and video projects.  Students who had never thought about using these media to talk about anthropology or their thesis projects submitted really clever presentations.  They learned to work with iMovie and Audacity; they used their latent skills as college radio DJs and art majors to put their own spin on the projects.  We also discussed each project in class and read articles, websites, and other online resources regarding best practices for each medium used.

I had a lot of fun with this course, but if I teach it again, it will definitely need a bit more structure, especially in terms of the reading.  There’s not a whole lot published in terms of ways to present anthropology to the public, and I didn’t have time to thoroughly dissect the bounty of literature produced by other STEM fields and communications researchers on presenting science in general.  Teaching this class really confirmed for me that most anthropologists don’t talk about the ways they present their work; we don’t have much of a meta-narrative going on in the field about best practices in either teaching or talking about anthropology.  The final assignment for this course was therefore a short seminar paper in which the students discussed their inspiration, choices, and reasoning for three of their favorite projects.  Reading their reflections on their own work was interesting and, I hope, a good exercise in epistemology for them.

RA: Earlier you mentioned the fact that the general public doesn’t really encounter anthropology, and how this makes it all the more necessary for anthropologists to speak out.  In my experience, while there is a lack of knowledge about anthropology these days, there isn’t necessarily a lack of interest among the general public.  While I run into plenty of people who ask me the “what the heck is anthropology?” question, I also meet a lot of people who are really interested in the kinds of things that anthropologists study—human history, culture, language, and so on.  I am intrigued about your mention of FPAN, and how that has served as a way to engage the surrounding community.  Why do you think this network has worked so well?  What are they doing right when it comes to public anthropology?

KK: Loads of people are interested in archaeology; it’s pretty simple to find people who want to talk about local history (or even the ancient Romans) everywhere I go.  But I also still get the “What is anthropology?” question, as the overarching academic field isn’t as well understood.  One of the things that FPAN does well is foster community interest and involvement by dealing primarily with local history and archaeology.  There are eight regional centers around the state, each with its own staff, website, and public-facing programs, and each highlights the archaeology being done in your own town or neighborhood.  Since Florida has a lengthy history of exploration and colonization, there are a number of different time periods and therefore narratives of Florida’s history.  Owing to this history and the fact we’re surrounded by water, we also have a great underwater archaeology tradition in the state. These shipwrecks produce some truly amazing artifacts, but the FPAN staff and university faculty are active in educating the public about how underwater archaeology works, how recreational divers shouldn’t disturb wrecks they find, and how important it is to conserve waterlogged artifacts.  FPAN also has field and lab volunteer opportunities, loads of talks at public libraries and historical buildings, activities like historical tours on foot and by bike, and plenty of kid-friendly things to do and see.  So, really, FPAN is a way of making sure people have basic knowledge of local history and that they know where to go with their burning questions about the stuff they find in the ground or the water. At least, that’s my perspective as still a bit of a newcomer here (and as one of the few faculty and staff who don’t do Florida archaeology). The media and activities that FPAN produces, though, were definitely an inspiration for my Presenting Anthropology course and for my own attempts to engage the public in my Old World-focused research.

RA: So here’s an issue: I think there are a good number of people who equate things like public outreach and public anthropology with a sort of “dumbing down” of the ideas of the discipline.  What’s your response to this kind of argument?

KK: It definitely takes some effort to code-switch, as it were, between talking to colleagues about your research and talking to the public.  But just because you’re using different terminology and a different approach for the public, that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily dumbing down the ideas.  As you mentioned, anthropology is, at its core, about topics many people care deeply about and can relate to – history, culture, and language.  For example, I’ve always been interested in culture contact, in migrants’ experiences in a new situation, and I’ve explored this theme in my work with Native American, Roman, and most recently Medieval German skeletal remains.  Since the U.S. is a big melting pot-slash-salad bowl of cultures, languages, and ethnicities, most of us have a family story of immigration.  Whereas my presentations at conferences will often rest on name-dropping social theorists, my presentations to the public attempt to evoke in the audience those stories or memories of travel, language difficulties, and cultural faux-pas to help them connect with the lives of people who lived two millennia ago and half a world away.

And in all honesty, I prefer giving these public lectures to giving conference presentations.  Not because I can’t “talk the talk” of anthropological theory, but because figuring out how to explain the importance of my work to a general audience is far more interesting than figuring out which latest jargon terms need to be dropped. (I based a public talk a couple years back on the similarities between the ‘We are the 99%’ of the Occupy movement and the socioeconomic structure of ancient Rome; drawing parallels between the audience’s experience and that of “the other” can be a powerful way to reach out.) If we only write for each other, and if we only give presentations for each other, anthropology will become a supremely insular discipline.  With more of us writing blogs and engaging in public outreach, though, we might be able to return to a time when anthropologists like Margaret Mead were called upon as experts in an important field of knowledge.  But both faculty and students need to learn to code-switch, to convey the same information to colleagues and the public alike.

RA: Last question.  So how should anthropology go forward from here?  What’s the best way to push the field toward deeper engagement with wider audiences?

KK: This is a difficult question, and one that people like John Hawks have been trying to answer for a couple years now (see, for example, his amazing “What’s wrong with anthropology?” essay).  In essence, though, I think anthropology needs to be more open in general, rather than clinging to the hoary, closed model of my-data-my-publications-my-truth. This will mean convincing anthropology publishers to offer more open access options, as well as convincing faculty to publish in primarily open-access venues.  It will mean convincing faculty to open their research to wide, immediate critique, and asking them to train their students to do the same.  Academia is slowly but surely moving towards large-scale open access, putting the results of our work up for the critique of our colleagues and the public.  It is potentially paradigm shifting for academia, which has a legacy of massive economic and class privilege issues, this idea of opening up the vaults of knowledge to anyone interested in the topic.

But in addition to opening up our data and publications, we need to do a better job of being open with and to the public.  We need to actively seek out opportunities to talk to the public and engage them in a conversation about anthropology.  Faculty members should take every chance they can to blog, give talks at the local library, and provide an opinion for a science journalist covering a story of anthropological interest.  Talking with the university’s PR person could help faculty hesitant to step out of the ivory tower. And faculty should encourage their students to take the pulse of their real and/or online communities and contribute to them.  The students in my Presenting Anthropology seminar, for example, found fantastic new ways to reach out that I’d never considered – many wrote (and continue to write) on tumblrs instead of longer-form blogs and have cultivated a set of followers, becoming invested in posting interesting information and gauging the reaction of the community. One student created a public archaeology project centered around FPAN and Foursquare; every two weeks, he added new media and new ideas to the project until it was fully formed and launched at the end of the semester.  And another engaged in some gutsy performative anthropology: she covered herself in stripes of paint representing soil layers and stood on the campus quad for a few hours one day with a sign inviting gawkers to talk to her about archaeology and stratigraphy. The reactions these students got from both the campus community and the public have been terrific so far.  Empowering students to engage with the public – and requiring them to engage with the public – is incredibly important in their development as anthropologists in the 21st century.

I strongly feel that by encouraging students and faculty to engage and be open with the public, we’ll have less complacency in the field of anthropology.  We can’t just write for and talk to other anthropologists; we need to dig down to the essence of our work and express those themes to a public that really does want to know what we find out and how it relates to their understanding of the world around them.



Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kentucky.  He is currently in Yucatan, Mexico with his family splitting his time between writing his dissertation and being on baby duty.  He is the editor of the anthropologies project and also blogs at Anthropology in Public.  You can email him at: anthropologies project at gmail dot com, or find him on Twitter (@publicanthro).


Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

8 thoughts on “Savage Minds Interview: Kristina Killgrove

  1. Thanks to Ryan and Dr. Killgrove for a provocative interview which I think raises interesting answers, questions for, and connection to Ryan’s last post on why Anthropology’s problem is not (and yet is) a promotion problem (in the multiple senses of the term ‘promotion).

    I found two things Kristina Killgrove’s comments on family histories of (im)migration and her hope that anthropologists will be seen as experts to be called on of particular interest, especially in relation to the figure of Margaret Mead. I could not help thinking about this constellational of personal and anthropological possibilities and temporalities–individual and collective pasts, presents, and futures–without thinking of Margaret Mead’s and James Baldwin’s Rap on Race and three big new stories to have come out of Florida in the past year-and-a-half: Governor Rick Scott’s comments on anthropology, the Keira Wilmot debacle (certainly a STEM issue, obviously a race/racism issue), and the Trayvon Martin murder and trial. Given the Keira Wilmot and Trayvon Martin cases, especially in light of Rick Scott’s comments, anthropologists–especially in Florida–could and should be speaking to ‘the public’ (including other anthropologists) about the intersections of race/gender/color, culture/power/history, and (im)migration and colonial l histories and legacies (including ideas about ‘law and order’ and crime and punishment in the post-slave-state that is Florida, where many residents do not have a family history of immigration since they instead have a family history of forced migration via the Middle Passage–which no doubt also accounts for some of Florida’s underwater archaeology). In particular, I am thinking about the most recent development of the Zimmerman trial, the (racist-sexist) attack on key prosecution witness Rachel Jeantel, and the synonymization of her appearance (fat, dark-skinned black woman), her background (both her Haitian immigrant background and ‘ghetto’ background), and her speech pattern (Black Vernacular English and Haitian Creole language background) with stupidity. It seems to me that this case is an important ‘teachable moment’ for public anthropology, especially though not only in Florida: a concrete way to push back against Rick Scott’s dismissal of anthropology (and one which could involve ALL four fields of anthropology–archaeology, sociocultural, linguistic, and biological, especially to challenge notions of Jeantel and Martin as little more than quasi-human apes/gorilla-like/violence-prone and less-intelligent Black Animals); a concrete way to address the ‘racial empathy gap’ (which anthropologists are not themselves immune from).

    Not being a linear thinker or a conventionally anthropological one, Dr. Killgrove’s interview and mention of Margaret Mead made me think about her ‘rap on race’ with James Baldwin, especially in relation to this NY Times review of the eponymous book:

    “Rather smugly, the anthropologist has said she could not possibly be a racist because of her impeccable upbringing and because she had once or twice coddled babies in Africa, Samoa, West Irian. Baldwin countered by asking how could he be an anti-Semite since one of his best friends was Jewish. [Today one still hears I can’t be racist because I’m an anthropologist, along with ‘I can’t be racist because I have a black friend’, ‘I can’t be racist because I voted for Obama’ (or am on his cultural advisory committee), and George Zimmerman’s, ‘I can’t be racist because I’m Jewish and Latino. Apparently, this is progress.]

    I couldn’t help wondering if the very concept of anthropology wasn’t, au fond, racist in that the West Irians seemed to have little or no interest until recent times in sending people here to study our quaint marriage and divorce customs.”

    We think ‘so much has changed’, or so one often hears (from the Supreme Court in the VRA decision, or from some Savage Minds respondents), and yet so much also hasn’t changed–especially in and for anthropology. Much of what changed for anthropology since the Mead/Baldwin 1971 ‘rap’ helped make it seem less ‘publicly relevant’ (yes, cue Florida Governor Rick Scott) and left us with no anthropologist of Margaret Mead’s stature–after all, and has been much discussed recently in the anthropology blogosphere/Twitterverse, Jared Diamond is not an anthropologist, even if the ‘general public’ thinks he is.

    The things that haven’t changed in and for anthropology since this early-1970’s ‘rap’ are the same ‘white public space’ issues observed by AAA not to have changed much since AAA’s 1973 report on the status of minority anthropologists. And so, yes, the NY Times quote above caught my attention, as I wondered what it would really mean, in result and differential opportunities to speak, to aspire to have a New Margaret Mead. What kind of anthropologist, saying and studying whom and what, could rise to such a position of media prominence and dominance? And how would such visibility be received by other anthropologists? (Let’s be honest about the pettiness and resentment in the academy, as well as the bias informing academic (re)actions.) What would be the response of the institutional gatekeepers who feel they own anthropology and feel they should be the arbiters of who gets to be, should be seen as “a legitimate member of the community”?

    I think about all of this relationally and *intersectionally*, as I always do, in relation to the following Savage Minds posts:

    (1) in relation to the most recent post on writing non-ethnographic non-fiction, and the question of what writing forms are best suited to Public Anthropology; and this latter question is directly related to the question of open access (journals) as well as the issue of why anthropological writing is now so insular and so often abstruse (and I think about this last problem in relation to Rex’s de facto embrace of academic celebrity and the ‘prestige treadmill’ in his most recent post on the latest issue of HAU; look at all the Big Names, right?; and what kind of writing–about whom and what, by whom–is rewarded so as to propel one to contemporary Important Anthropologist status?

    (2) in relation to recent posts on re-cognizing the Master’s in and off anthropology, and posts on the adjunct crisis and academic precarity; could the New Margaret Mead be someone who is not a TT professor? And what would it mean if such a person emerged from the ranks of the adjuncts or those with ‘only’ a master’s degree? What would the response of more institutionally/academically validated anthropology be? Here I think about what Sarah Kendzior has written about how her recent high profile and journalistic success has been received by her former department, which didn’t care about her when she was ‘only’ one of the many unemployed anthro PhDs unable to secure a TT job.

    My orthogonal response to a most thought-provoking interview.

  2. (1) Ryan, can you please contact me via email about adding links to my response, such as the Slate article on the racial empathy gap. Didn’t want the comment to get stick in moderation due to too many links.

    And apologies to all for typos. I quickly responded, as I generally do, from the small screen of my iPhone.

    (2) I would add that Dr. Killgrove’s comments on her ancient Roman work relating to contemporary issues like Occupy can be expanded even further. Again, her residence in Florida, a post-slave state is not inconsequential given the role slavery, and the inequality it produced, played in Ancient Rome. Similarly, our widening economic inequality and the role the richest 1% play in electoral politics is reminiscent of a patrician/plebeian divide. I am very much appreciate Dr. Killgrove raising the initial connection. Really interesting.

  3. @DWP:

    “And so, yes, the NY Times quote above caught my attention, as I wondered what it would really mean, in result and differential opportunities to speak, to aspire to have a New Margaret Mead. What kind of anthropologist, saying and studying whom and what, could rise to such a position of media prominence and dominance? And how would such visibility be received by other anthropologists?”

    That’s an interesting question–who or what could be the so-called “new Margaret Mead”? Maybe this will indeed be from the ranks of the adjuncts, or someone outside the academy…or some group of anonymous undergrads pumping out anthro-tracts from the basement of some community college. Who knows? I highly doubt the new MM will look anything like the old one though. And that’s probably a good thing.

    Oh, and for the links, might be easiest for you to just post them below or something. I have really, really limited internet access and will be offline for another 7 days or so after mid day today!

  4. I think it’s an unfortunate commentary on the state of academia today that you both assume that the next “face of anthropology” couldn’t come from faculty. It does seem true, though, that the people who are blogging, talking to journalists, and writing op-eds are disproportionately from the disenfranchised edge of the discipline (e.g., students and adjuncts, like Sarah Kendzior).

    On the other end of the spectrum, though, there are a few tenured profs who are engaging the public. Take Rosemary Joyce’s op-ed in the LA Times last week on gay marriage (and her regular column at Psychology Today) or John Hawks’ blog. Both are outspoken about anthropology, but both have tenure. It’s still a bit precarious for most assistant profs to buck the system. I try not to buy into this fear, though. It’s a crappy way to spend the majority of your early career as an anthropologist.

    But a reason I think the next face of anthropology could come from faculty is that we’re used to explaining to a large group of people from diverse backgrounds about rather controversial topics. The most common comment I received in evaluations of my intro to biological anthropology course this year was that the student learned the facts behind human evolution and no longer understood how his or her parents/teachers/pastor could be against the idea. It’s intensely gratifying to know that I’ve connected in some small way with these students, and that they’re leaving my class as better-rounded individuals. Most of those students will not major in anthropology, but the discipline is still key to their intellectual growth and development.

    So, yes, a major problem in Florida is our governor’s insistence that majors be tied directly to jobs. There are jobs for anthropologists, but most of those jobs do not fall under the title “anthropologist.” By reaching out to the public and showing that the questions we ask, the topics we cover, are relevant to everyday lives, I think we will be well-served.

    Becoming more public-facing, though, does raise the question: Will the next face of anthropology be as widely critiqued by his or her peers as Carl Sagan seems to have been (e.g., the ““Sagan effect“)? What does it mean to “popularize” anthropology, and is this different from making it public?

  5. Especially given my comments about antiblack racism and the racial empathy gap (and here, belatedly, is the link:, I am troubled that Rosemary Joyce would be held up as a person who should be the face of public anthropology. Those documented to have made shockingly racist, antiblack statements so as to cover up the public email bullying (and other racist and sexist bullying which occurred during their tenure as department chair) and have engaged in the very practices of exclusion, discrimination, and race avoidance discussed in “Anthropology as White Public Space?” should not be held up as examples of what anthropology should strive to be going forward, especially in light of the AAA’s zero tolerance for sexual harassment statement/policy and given that anthropology, at least in the US per the AAA race statement is supposed to be an antiracist discipline–not one which encourages racist bullying and racial terrorism to cover it up.

    Dr. Killgrove, I hope you will take this comment seriously, especially in light of why Gloria Allred is suing Berkeley, and given why UNC is being investigated for retaliation against a female student who spoke out against the university covering up sexual assaults in campus.

    Anthropologists should not be so committed to advancing their careers and public profiles so as to be high-profile Public Anthropologists that they behave in unethical and abusive ways, and encourage others to do the same.

  6. Please follow-up on the questions asked to Kristina Killgrove (which was not really answered by Dr. Killgrove, especially in relation to race/Florida/anthropology) as they are now quite prescient in light of this Salon piece:

    Additionally, what does the larger anthropological inattention to the Trayvon Martin case say about what public anthropology currently is, and what it should be? Perhaps there could be a follow-up post to this effect, especially as it also relates to the question of who owns anthropology which was also previously raised and also relates to the question of public anthropology and who gets to be a ‘public anthropologist’–and will ‘legitimately’ be regarded as such.

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