October 3, 2010

Anthropology professor Dawdy named MacArthur Fellow

In recognition of her years of work in New Orleans and the Caribbean, Anthropology professor Shannon Dawdy received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship this week. Often called a “genius grant,” the fellowship is for $500,000.

A professor at the University since 2004, Dawdy worked with the U.S. and Louisiana governments in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on preserving New Orleans’ historical sites. Her 2009 class on pirates received attention from the national media.

“Through her boundary-crossing scholarship, fieldwork, and efforts to engage the public in uncovering the history of their communities, Dawdy is enriching the arenas of historical archaeology and urban preservation,” the MacArthur Foundation wrote on its web page on Dawdy.

“We’re all thrilled, totally thrilled, the whole department,” said anthropology professor Judith Farquhar, who chairs the department. “A lot of her work is very exceptional.”

Dawdy is a historical archaeologist, a fledgling subfield of anthropology only beginning to be noticed outside of academia, Dawdy said, that focuses on cultures after 1450 about which there is already a historical record.

According to Dawdy, this is the first time a historical archaeologist has been awarded a MacArthur fellowship. “I think this is a win for this little, baby subfield,” she said.

She is also the first University faculty member to receive a MacArthur Fellowship since 2005, when economist Kevin Murphy and medicine professor Funmi Olopade were both awarded grants.

The $500,000 grant is dispersed over five years and recipients can use it for whatever they want. Between 20 and 25 people are named MacArthur fellows every year.

Dawdy began studying New Orleans as a resident, she said, and “got hooked.” The author of Building the Devil’s Empire: French Colonial New Orleans, she is working on the biggest ongoing archaeological dig in New Orleans.

Dawdy and her team are excavating a garden behind St. Louis Cathedral, and she said their findings are revealing relationships not mentioned in the historical record.

“Native Americans and fur trappers were camping and holding market days behind the cathedral,” Dawdy said. “The records don’t speak very much at all about Native American presence in the city. This shows that they were there, they were active, and they were a big part of the colonial economy.”

The dig was only made possible because Hurricane Katrina uprooted deep-lying trees in the garden. Dawdy has other experience with Katrina—she served as a consultant to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office, to help plan emergency response and the long-term recovery, Dawdy said.

“I was actually in the city before the residents were allowed back, which was quite an eerie experience,” she said.

She researched the history of the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit hardest by the hurricane, and provided recommendations for how to repair the neighborhood, but the process was more frustrating than rewarding, according to Dawdy. “I don’t feel like I got much done, because my recommendations were not followed, and because it’s hard to get much done in a large system,” she said.

She added that one aim of her dig at St. Louis Cathedral was restoring it to the open, community-friendly site it was before the hurricane hit, and she would invest some of the MacArthur grant in funding the site.