A 'Thank You' note to a precious mentor: Charlie C. Kolb

By Kostalena Michelaki

I first met Dr. Charles C. Kolb in 2000, in San Francisco, when I participated for the first time in the ‘Ceramic Ecology’ session he and Dr. Louana Lackey had organized as part of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings. The session had already been going strong for fourteen years by that time and was famous to anyone interested in archaeological ceramics, be they in the US or abroad. At other large scientific meetings, one had to run around in an attempt to find the ceramics-related presentations, scattered as they were, across a variety of general or region-specific sessions. At the AAA meetings, however, you could attend the Ceramic Ecology session and put your finger right on the pulse of ceramic research in the Americas and often across the world. Kolb’s and Lackey’s edited volume, ‘A Pot for All Reasons: Ceramic Ecology Revisited’ in honor of Fred Matson, had been among the first books I’d read about ceramics that gave me a historical context of ceramic research beyond simple descriptions, and helped introduced me to scholars whose work became the foundation upon which my own would stand. I had only finished my PhD a year earlier and was looking for a job, especially as the deadline of my student visa was looming. To have my paper accepted to Ceramic Ecology, where the audience was full of ceramic experts, was absolutely exhilarating and terrifying. I was stressed and felt the weight of having to ‘perform’ in front of these people.

And yet, from the moment I showed up in the room, the atmosphere felt inclusive and supportive. A bearded man with a broad smile shook my hand and introduced himself as Charlie (not Dr. Kolb!), telling me how excited he was to hear about my work on Bronze age Hungarian ceramics. It took me a few seconds to realise that this welcoming person, who remembered what my research was on without having ever met me before, was the famous scholar whose work I was intimately familiar with. The session included a mixture of scholars from universities, research institutes, and community colleges alike, with expertise that ranged across the social and natural sciences, humanities, and the arts alike. Charlie’s warmth, welcoming nature, and inclusivity made the need to ‘perform’ dissolve away and filled me with a genuine desire to communicate and learn.

When the session was over, Charlie had taken care to make a dinner reservation for all Ceramic Ecology session participants (past and present) and friends, including everyone’s families, if they were at the meetings. People whose work I had read, but whom I’d never dreamt of meeting, sat around the same long table, talking about matters professional and personal – from the papers we had just given and our broader projects to job prospects, letter-writing tips, managing fieldwork and childcare, and visa worries. Charlie went around speaking to everyone, making sure newcomers were introduced and integrated. He bought the discussant dinner and even covered drinks! 

I left feeling that my social network had expanded as much as my research horizons. Most critically for a young, female, non-US citizen scholar, without a job, and with interests that precariously straddled the fence across the humanities, social, and natural sciences, I left feeling there was space for me in academia. And that was Charlie’s doing.

Thus started my twenty year-old connection and, ultimately, deep friendship with Charlie. Through these years, Charlie has exemplified for me what it means to be a true scholar. It is not just about having a CV as thick as a book (which he does), or about writing and editing monographs and books, or publishing peer reviewed articles, book chapters, reports, reviews and the like, all of which he has done in a prolific way. It is not just about engaging in scholarship in the widest possible way so that you are in command of what is happening in your discipline and beyond and can accurately synthesize it in innovative ways, all of which he continues to do meticulously. It is not just about serving your discipline by participating in societies, reviewing grants, papers, and books. All this is expected of all of us and, ultimately, is what makes us look good ‘on paper.’ 

Charlie showed me that to be a true scholar you must mobilize all this knowledge, connections, and power you gain by being prominent, to support the young and the marginalized, to provide opportunities for their voices to be heard, space for them to work out their early thoughts, to make mistakes and learn from them in a context that supports and challenges at the same time. To be a true scholar you must spend time writing reviews of books of scholars you know are looking for a job, or are going up for tenure, to write tenure and promotion letters, to constantly urge the people you know to send their students to your session to give their first paper. It means maintaining a session for an astonishing thirty-four years that welcomes all approaches and ways of thinking about ceramics, not falling prey to the latest theoretical flavor or en vogue technical trend, but making room for old and new to stand side by side, and then inviting everyone around the dinner table to discuss, dissect, and argue about them. To be a true scholar means to be authentic; to care about your discipline as much as you care about those who perform it; to listen to their voices, as much as you want your voice to be heard.

Starting in 2012, Charlie entrusted Ceramic Ecology to Sandra Lopez Varela and myself, forever mentoring us on how to perpetuate its positive impact in our field of ceramic research. It is because of our close collaboration around this unique session that I have focused solely on it in this brief tribute to Charlie. One can take the briefest look at his CV and write a tribute about his scholarly work, or his work at the NEH, or his heritage work in Afghanistan, among others. But for me, it is not in the glitzy stuff that shines off of his CV, where Charlie’s stature as a true scholar shines the most. It is in his quiet, humble work to build and grow the supportive network of ceramic scholars that have sustained the Ceramic Ecology session into its fourth decade.

Thank you, Charlie, for your mentorship, for your friendship, and for your vision of inclusivity and service. I would consider it a triumph in my career if your impact, and that of the intellectual and social network you built, shows itself in everything I do as an academic.


Kolb, C.C. and Lackey, L.M. 1988. A pot for all reasons: Ceramic ecology revisited. Ceramica de cultural Maya, Temple University, Philadelphia.