We lost a dear friend here in the Southeast Region this week. On Monday, I learned that Dr. John Cottier, Associate Professor of Anthropology at Auburn University died of a heart attack in the Archaeology Lab at Auburn, which he had established. I knew him quite well, and I called him what everyone else did, “Doc.”
Doc was one of my “go tos” for the Alabama/Georgia river region and he had also become a dear friend. He was a great supporter of The Conservancy and served on the Editorial Advisory Board for our magazine. Each time I led the Native Peoples of Alabama tour, he met us at the Alabama Department of Archives and History Museum and gave a wonderful slide presentation on Alabama Archaeology and then took us back into the collections area for a special tour. Any time I asked him for information, maps, or advice, he was more than generous. He was a friend. When my father died, Doc was one of the first people I heard from.
For years, Doc taught the field school at Auburn, and I made a point to visit his excavations each summer. He would give me a tour of the site and then have me tell his students about The Conservancy and what we do. He loved the rivers of Alabama, especially the Tallapoosa, and on one visit, I got to spend a little time kayaking with him and his students. His wife Randy is also an archaeologist and oversees their antiques business. They were a great team, in the field, on the rivers, in museums, or anywhere they went.
I could go on and on about his contribution to archaeology. There are so many. He received over two million dollars in research funds. He worked on numerous historic Creek villages, including the now destroyed Fusihatchee and Hickory Ground, he documented archaeological and cultural sites along the Old Federal Road in Alabama. He documented an antebellum slave cabin complex and excavated at Fort Mitchell (1813-1840), and the Ebert Canebrake site, a prehistoric Mississippian site.
He’d been everywhere and knew everyone. He knew all the sites on private and public land, all the collectors, both good and bad, and he worked with school kids and amateur archaeologists. It was impossible to be around him and not feel his enthusiasm and passion. As soon as I saw him, he’d walk up, give me a big hug and say, “OK” really loud and proceed to tell me what we were about to go see. I was always learning when I was with him, even if we just met for lunch as I was passing through. Teaching was where he was in a class by himself. He was tough, and he pushed his students, he teased them, supported them and encouraged them. He spent more time with them than field school or courses required, because he cared so much, and they loved him for it.
Since his death, former students, have been posting photos and messages on his Facebook page, and the out pouring has been amazing, and his wife Randy has asked that people continue to share their pictures and stories. The stories and pictures are hilarious and the expressions of sadness and appreciation for his influence in their lives is so touching. With the posts he had shared himself and those left by former students since his death, his Facebook page has become a tribute to a life in archaeology and teaching and the wonderful impact he had on so many.
One former student eloquently wrote, “But the fact is, memories are not fixed forever in bodies any more than in buildings or meteors. They exist to fill the vessels we assign to them, and when a man like Dr. Cottier passes, all the memories, all the knowledge, all the soul, for lack of a better word, flows out into the world and fills the vessels of every person he touched. Every sharpie, every shovel, every trowel, every dollar I find because I still look at the ground wherever I walk, every smirk that wrinkles your lips when you hear someone complain about the heat, each of these holds a little piece of that spirit. So, pick it up. Put it in a little ziploc bag. Label it immediately with provenance and file it in a box with all the countless others. Then maybe someday, someone will open a box, sit down and start sorting, trying to understand the whole picture from the parts, the whole, original vessel, from the shards. That’s how he taught us to rebuild the past, isn’t it? How appropriate that we do the same so that we may remember him. Rest in Peace Dr. Cottier, my professor, my mentor, the last American silverback, and beloved friend.”
I feel very fortunate to have known him and like all who knew him, I will miss him dearly.
Jessica Crawford, Southeastern Region Director
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