My name is Dr. Siavash Samei, I am a professor of archaeology and anthropology at the College.
What classes are you teaching right now?
I am teaching Physical Anthropology, which is awesome, it’s studying the story of human evolution from our earliest ancestors with chimpanzees all the way to modern humans. In fact, this is the last week of class, and so we’re talking about our earliest human ancestors. We get to cover about 6-8 million years of evolution which is a lot of fun. I’m also teaching a class called Fundamentals of Zoo Archaeology, and this is a hands-on lab class where students get to learn about animal skeletons and anatomy. You might ask why would an anthropologist want to study animal skeletons; my research studies human/animal relationships in the past, and this is what I’m teaching students — how you can use animal remains from archeological sites to reconstruct human/animal interactions, with animals as pets, animals as food, animals as religious symbols and things like that.
What brought you to Wooster?
I got my Ph.D. at the University of Connecticut and I was there for a few years post-doc, and then I was applying for jobs, and this is one of the jobs that I really wanted. I sort of grew up in the big state school culture and I never felt that I had the kind of one-on-one mentorship relationship that I wanted with my professors. So I’ve always believed in the mission of small liberal arts colleges, like The College of Wooster, and what sets Wooster apart from the rest of them is the Independent Study. These are the things that brought me here.
How have you found living here?
It’s an adjustment. I am originally from Iran, so moving to the U.S. itself was a bit of an adjustment, although it happened when I was much younger, when I was a teenager. I moved to Atlanta, which is a big city, and then I moved to rural Connecticut, which itself was an adjustment, but I got used to it! It was a small town, but somehow Wooster is an even smaller town, so I guess I am just moving to gradually smaller towns in my life! It’s not as diverse culturally and racially as the town I lived in Connecticut, but you find your community, you find the restaurants you like, the foods you like. There’s an incredible amount of hiking around here that I really enjoy. And a lot of swamps to explore! So I love it!
Tell me about your research areas. What are you working on right now?
I’m working on an archaeological site in Armenia and we’re working on a Byzantine site. This site dates to around the 1st century B.C. and it was actually excavated by paleolithic archaeologists who were interested in human-Neanderthal interactions, but it turns out all that cool paleolithic stuff is underneath several feet of Byzantine cemetery. Which, if you’re a paleolithic archaeologist is very annoying, because you can’t just dump it, you have to carefully go through it.I love the Byzantine stuff. It’s a cemetery and we have these huge, almost Megalithic burials and graves, and we have multiple people buried throughout several generations. One thing that is very cool is that interspersed between these graves are these huge, deep pits full of animal bones. I haven’t seen them yet, but my colleagues have told me that it’s mostly cattle. It’s interesting to know what these animal bones are doing here! Some people think it might be remnants of a party that people had after they buried their loved ones, where they celebrated the life of the person that was deceased and they just buried the trash from these feasts and these parties and ceremonies where they buried their loved ones. So, now that international travel is allowed, [I’m hoping] to go to Armenia this summer to start some work.
Has the field of archaeological work been influenced by COVID?
Yes, it has! Most archaeological work that is happening now, especially outside of the US, is international. I work in the Middle East, and you have teams of Middle Eastern archaeologists, North American archaeologists and European archaeologists who are working together, but obviously with travel bans people can’t go anywhere. So, last year there was a complete shutdown of archaeological research, at least as far as international collaboration is concerned. Which was frustrating because that’s what I do during the summer. But on the other hand it was good, because archaeologists love digging, and excavating and finding cool stuff, and they can be lazy about writing and publishing and presenting. So they got bored, and they were like “if I can’t dig I might as well write something and publish it.” This was a good year to study the material they had excavated and write about it and present it at conferences or publish articles and books. So in that sense I think it was a good break for archaeological sites. Archaeological sites are finite resources, so any break we can take from constantly destroying them, and instead focusing on what we’ve found already, is a blessing. We’re just slowing the pace of destruction of the sites.
How did you get into this field or interest?
A lot of people have cool or interesting stories, I really don’t. As an archaeologist you can study anything, you can study human remains, you can study plant remains, you can study animal remains. Why did I become interested in animal remains? When I was in college, I took a zoo archaeology class and I did terrible in it. I did not do well. I got a C- on my final paper and did not do well on the quizzes and I ended up getting a B- in the class. If you want to be a zoo archaeologist, a B- is not what you get. But at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do, all I knew was that this was going to hurt my GPA, and I needed to fix it, and this teacher was also somebody who I looked up to. So I went to her and asked her if she would let me work in the lab, study the material for her, work as an intern and learn, and she said sure. As I began working in the lab, I began enjoying it very much. I liked it and I kept pursuing it as a career. And I think it’s an important learning opportunity because oftentimes students get bogged down by what grade they’re getting in a course, what happens to their GPA, but the reality is that one low grade is not going to destroy your career.
What do you like to do outside of work? Any hobbies?
I am very much a cat person. My wife and I have two cats. Rumi, who is 19 pounds of terror and Patty Jo who is about eight years old and very tiny. Cats are my hobby, I love them to death. My wife and I are also plant people, indoor plant people, we try to propagate plants and give them away. Our house is increasingly looking like a greenhouse. And I like to bake whenever I can.
What have you baked most recently?
Like everybody in the world, I got into sourdough. But unlike people who got into it during the pandemic, I was into sourdough before the pandemic — my dad’s a baker so I learned from him. I bake bread, but I’m also learning how to bake a variety of pies, and croissants and different kinds of bread. Next week I’m going to try to make puff pastry again.