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Archaeologist Achieves UNLV's Highest Honor

Alan Simmons' fieldwork across the globe offers insights on early human development.
People  |  Jun 4, 2010  |  By Diane Russell

Archaeologist Alan Simmons recently was named a UNLV distinguished professor. It is the highest honor the university bestows upon a faculty member and is given only when a special committee deems a professor worthy. Simmons came to UNLV in 1993. His research interests include Near Eastern prehistory (particularly the Levant and eastern Mediterranean) and archaeology in the Southwest and Great Basin.

When did you know you wanted to be an archaeologist? Being an Air Force brat gave me that wanderlust. We lived in different parts of the world, including Germany and the Philippines. Also, my mother was from Belgium. As a child I visited so many interesting places. Those experiences gave me a fascination with exploring the world.

Was archaeology what you expected? It was exactly what I expected. My first field project came when I was a freshman in college. I was able to participate in a University of Calgary dig at an early Native American site in Canada. I liked the combination of the academic side of archaeology and the fieldwork at the site.

How did you become interested in the Near East? In college I read The Source by James Michener. Also, when I was a freshman at the University of Colorado, my roommate happened to be from Libya. Then I spent a junior semester abroad in Jerusalem. While taking classes I was able to connect with some local archaeologists and work on some digs near the Dead Sea. That made me fall in love with the area despite the political problems.

Tell us about some of your fieldwork. One of the more interesting digs was at 'Ain Ghazal, a huge Neolithic village in Jordan that we excavated during the 1980s. One day as we were excavating, a colleague commented that the piece of plaster she was scraping looked like a butt. "No, really," she said. "A butt." Well, it was. We found plaster statues of humans that were emerging for the first time in 9,000 years. It was phenomenal -- an unprecedented find. It made the April 1, 1998, cover of Science.

I've also worked at a site in Cyprus known as Akrotiri Aetokremnos, or "Vulture Cliff," which turned out to be the oldest site in Cyprus -- about 10,000 B.C. We uncovered more than 500 pygmy hippos there and our work suggested that people were at least partially responsible for the extinction of these animals, which were smaller than the endangered pygmy hippos that exist in Africa today. This was extremely significant since these endemic animals had never before been associated with humans, and were thought to have gone extinct before people were in Cyprus.

What kind of fieldwork are you doing now? I have graduated from hippos to cows. We're now working on a very early Neolithic site in Cyprus. It dates back to approximately 8,000 B.C. It has small amounts of cattle, which previously had not been found in Cyprus until much later. That means people brought cows to Cyprus much earlier than we had thought. We don't know why the cattle didn't last there for very long. Maybe the ecology of the island wasn't suitable.

What about the teaching? I began teaching later in my career. When I first was out of college, there just were no academic jobs available, so I spent a number of years working in the cultural resource management field. Now I can't imagine not teaching. I like the introductory classes because you get people who don't know anything about the field and are able to help them see some of the excitement. I equally enjoy the graduate component and taking students into the field.

Debra Martin, chair of the anthropology department, nominated Simmons as a UNLV distinguished professor, saying: "At every level, Dr. Simmons has a record of achievement, engagement, and momentum that suggests strong contributions to building UNLV in important ways."

She describes Simmons as an international expert in his field and notes he is often is called upon to review manuscripts and grants. She also describes Simmons as an "engaging and creative teacher" who has consistently taken both undergraduate and graduate students into the field with him. And she points to his well-reviewed books. The latest, The Neolithic Revolution in the Near East: Transforming the Human Landscape (2007), garnered Simmons the American Schools of Oriental Research G. Ernest Wright book award.