Becoming Charlie Kolb

Sandra L. López Varela, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Guest Editor


With no apologies to John Malkovich, this is the life story of a remarkable member of the Society for Archaeological Sciences, Dr. Charles C. Kolb, and that I am extremely honored to share with you for this special issue dedicated to his long-standing service as Associate Editor for the SAS Bulletin “Archaeological Ceramics” section, which comes to an end this year, with this last “ceramic chronicle” in 2021. 

Since 1996, he has kept a detailed record of who served with him back then: Carl Heron (Archaeological Chemistry); David Landon and Linda Scott Cummings (Bioarchaeology); Richard Evershed (Biomolecular Archaeology); Michael Glascock (Book Reviews); Donna Kirner and Jack Rink (Dating); and Apostolos Sarris (Remote Sensing and GIS). All of them were recruited as associate editors by Rob Tykot and to join Martha Goodway (Archaeometallurgy) and Sue Mulholland (Meetings Calendar), who continued their long history of Bulletin service. During a quarter century plus of service he has worked with six different Editors: Rob Tykot, Christian Wells, James VanderVeen, Vanessa Murros, Tom Fenn, and Carmen Ting. Over 26 years (1996-2021) he wrote more than 80 columns for the Bulletin, in which he detailed book reviews, designed to aid pedagogy and to enable faculty to prepare syllabi and readings for students. His service, along such distinguished members of our community, not only makes reference to the history of SAS, it is a proxy to learn about the application of science and technology in archaeology to and our evolving research questions to address new concerns in our field of studies. 

In introducing you to Charles Kolb, I hope you will agree with me, he is the “world historian of ceramics studies” (López Varela 2020:6291). Intrigued, I asked “Charlie”, what led him to choose archaeology as his profession. In his answer, you will find commonalities, which will take you back to your own childhood or will open a window to the history of the US during Second World War:

“I was born in 1940 and raised and went to school in Erie, Pennsylvania. In the Spring of 1944, I moved with my family to a rural area of large farms and scattered homes in Millcreek Township, which was destined to eventually become a suburb. As a “farm kid” in the late 1940s, I cared for our kitchen garden, sweet corn and rye plantings, chickens and ducks, and, in season, picked apples and cherries in the orchard and made myself useful while learning to use hand tools for carpentry, plumbing, and electrical work as well as to operate larger equipment such as gang-mowers and tractors and to repair gasoline engines. I became quite good at fixing ignition systems and carburetors. From age 12 to 16, I worked summers as a hired hand at a nearby 300-acre dairy farm. From ages 17 through 19, I was employed as a sales clerk in a Rexall drug store in the West Erie Plaza and then in the Liberty Plaza store in south Erie. We worked 8-10 hours/day, six or seven days a week for nearly three months -- June through August. It was good money, $1.00/hour (the minimum wage was $0.75), great food for lunch and dinner, and camaraderie.” 

I was amazed he had found the time to read so many books after those hard-working tasksenlist, among them, I Led Three Lives: Citizen, Communist, Counterspy (1952) by Herbert A. Philbrick, an American citizen, member of the Communist Party, and anticommunist informant to the Federal Bureau of Investigation on the activities of the Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) in New England. 

“I vividly recall being in a General Science class when we learned that the Russians had successfully launched a medium range, nuclear warhead missile; after that scary event, there was a great deal of pressure to study science or engineering in college as the Cold War “Space Race” had begun. When I enrolled in “College Prep“, English classes were taught by Charles Bickford, who had served as a Captain of Artillery in the European campaigns of World War II.”

Professor Bickford initiated Charlie in the writing of reviews, giving him weekly assignments, alternating with a 500-word essay on a topic of his choice with a critical book review of our choice (with his approval), for which he received either A or F, with no intermediate grade. Buying with his savings Samuel Eliot Morison’s History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, influenced Charlie to write his Senior year thesis at McDowell High School in 1959, on The Naval History of Great Britain (206 pp.). Somehow reading Morison’s volumes did him no good, as he finally decided not to become a military historian and instead undertook chemistry at Penn State that same year. He attempted to enlist in ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) -- which was mandatory for students through World War II and Vietnam eras -- but was thwarted by the Naval cadet requirement for perfect 20/20 eyesight, so instead he joined Air Force ROTC. 

“My lack of a solid math background in high school turned out to be a serious problem for my engineering studies (these were the days of using a slide rule and I was too slow in performing calculations so I was in trouble). Indicative of this was when I took a course on Boolean Algebra during which I sat next to one of my senior year math teachers from high school.” 

Let’s thank Mike Sporakowski, his roommate, for suggesting Charlie to take an introductory course in Anthropology, after he was unable to get to academic registration in Rec Hall early enough to enroll in a course in American military history that he needed for majoring in history during the Spring semester of 1960; otherwise, I wouldn’t be writing here.

The archaeologist

In 1962, Charlie’s search for his final grades took him to Dr. Maurice A Mook’s office, where Mesoamerican archaeologist Bill Sanders and Paul Baker, a human biologist who was head of the Penn State anthropology program were expecting him and to offer him an NDEA (National Defense Education Act) Title IV Fellowship in Anthropology, with a tuition waiver and a stipend (salary):

“The offer stipulated that I would become the sixth graduate student in the fledgling anthropology program and be assigned to Frederick R. Matson, Assistant Dean of Research, Professor of Archaeology, and Director of the Social Science Research Institute. My duties would be to assist his research on Near Eastern pottery technology (collections from Jarmo, Iraq, excavated by Robert Braidwood) and function as Matson’s teaching assistant in Biblical Archaeology courses. I had never met Matson, a balding, impeccably dressed gentleman who wore three-piece suits and had intimidated students as a professor with an encyclopedic knowledge of ceramics and who was a known stickler for precision in the laboratory. It was a cordial introductory meeting, and he learned that I knew my way around a chemistry lab and that I had taken courses in Asian history. I learned that he was also Professor of Ceramics in the College of Mineral Industries at Penn State. I would serve as his research assistant from 1962 through 1965 and so began a nearly five-decade friendship. One of my jobs in 1964 was to fact check Matson’s edited book Ceramics and Man, published by Wenner-Gren/Aldine the following year. 

Figure 1. Afghanistan collections to the left and Mexican collections behind me in the Penn State Anthropology Laboratory.  

(Photo courtesy of Mike Steffy, Penn State, 1966).

What brought Charlie to Mexico was Penn State’s archaeology field school at Teotihuacan in 1962 (Figure 1). There, he learned excavation and site survey techniques, and was tasked by Sanders to study Teotihuacan Classic period ceramics to develop a typology based upon ceramic petrography that he was learning from Matson: 

“From 1963 to 1966, I also worked with Sanders as his teaching assistant in Mesoamerican archaeology courses while analyzing about four tons of pottery from the Teotihuacan Valley Project (134 Classic period sites with more than 570 chronological components, chronologically Paleo-Indian through the Colonial period). In the Spring of 1964, I took my Master’s examination (a three-day odyssey modelled on Harvard’s written and oral exams) and performed sufficiently well to be advanced to candidacy for my doctorate. The war in Vietnam was heating up, and I had been approached by the Air Force to return to the military part of my life but had refused. My 1964 Masters’ thesis, The Thin Orange Pottery of Central Mexico (107 pp.), was never submitted, but would be published in 1973.” 

From 1966-1969, he became the ninth faculty member in anthropology at Penn State before teaching at Bryn Mawr and Penn State Erie. In 1979, Charlie received a PhD from Penn State, developing relative chronologies in his dissertation, Classic Teotihuacán Period Settlement Patterns in the Teotihuacán Valley, Mexico, 2 vols. (583 pp.), while doing field work at Afghanistan and studying collections of 24,000 sherds from six sites, dating from Middle Paleolithic through Modern periods, while also analyzing the Mesoamerican Classic period materials in the same Penn State lab. 


“During the summers, I was involved in CRM (Cultural Resource Management) field archaeology and literature surveys for Erie and Venango counties, and prepared lengthy reports on the Allegheny National Forest (770 sq. mi.) in northwestern Pennsylvania (US Forest Service contracts), and the Southern Lake Erie Basin, from Detroit to Buffalo (US Department of Energy / Argonne National Laboratory contracts).”

In 1989, Charlie got his “dream job” at the National Endowment of the Humanities (1989-2012), mostly for the Division of Preservation and [Intellectual] Access, in Washington, DC. 

“By 1991 I was advising administrators at colleges and universities, art and archaeology museums, and historical organizations on submitting grant proposals to a variety of categories – most well outside of archaeology and ceramics. Grant applications were, in the main, for the Library and Archival Materials Programs to Stabilize and Preserve Collections through environmental controls and creating digital surrogates in order to increase the availability of resources (books, manuscripts, newspapers, maps, photographs, motion picture film, sound recordings, magnetic media, and objects of material culture), and Research and Development Projects, especially involving audio and still and moving image collections. I also administered two special grant categories, “Recovering Iraq’s Past” (2004-2008, 22 projects) and “Rediscovering Afghanistan” (2005-2010, 19 projects). 

Charles Kolb: the most critical node of the network of ceramic specialists

In the pre-computer days from 1986 through 1994, Charlie prepared abstracts of ceramic articles from the archaeological periodical literature and submitted 20-30 reviews annually to AATA (Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts), the Asian Ceramic Research Organization (ACRO) at the University of Chicago, the journal La Tinaja: A Newsletter of Archaeological Ceramics (1996-2018). Additionally, he served as North American correspondent for The Old Potter's Almanack: Joint Newsletter of the Prehistoric Ceramics Research Group and the Ceramic Petrology Group (British Museum, London) 1993-2004, until the OPA became an in-house publication at the British Museum. 

“In these reviews, I attempted to cover Old and New World archaeometric, archaeological, and historical archaeological publications. I also attempted to evaluate books that were not being (or would never be) reviewed by most archaeological and archaeometric journals, and particularly reviewed monographs and edited works written by younger scholars who were coming up for promotion and/or tenure reviews or were job hunting.”

Charlie’s contributions to ceramic studies have been persistent and indefatigable, becoming ‘the most critical node of the network of ceramic specialists’, as Dean Arnold (2014:1) wrote recently. In 1986, he organized the first Ceramic Ecology symposium at the American Anthropological Association (AAA) meetings, together with the late Louana Lackey† (Kolb and Lackey 1988), to honor Frederick R. Matson who was retiring from Penn State. Over the next 25 years, the symposium, even with its oxymoronic title, has attracted more than 200 scholars and students from at least 13 nations to discuss multiple theoretical and methodological approaches for analyzing ceramics. Who would have imagined that his long-term friendship with Matson, was to influence my own career and that of my dear colleague Kostalena Michelaki, as we continue to organize the symposium at the AAA and welcome everyone interested in ceramics regardless of their field of studies or stage in their professional career. 

Figure 2. (Afghanistan, La Délégation archéologique française en Afghanistan (DAFA). 

(Photo courtesy of Jamie Fraser, University of Sydney, 2014).

In “retirement”, Charlie remains a consultant on ceramic collections for the National Museum of Afghanistan – Oriental Institute Museum Partnership (University of Chicago), in Kabul, Afghanistan and the US (2012-2015) and continues to serve as an expert advisor for Homeland Security Investigations, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, accessing potentially stolen or illicitly trafficked antiquities (Figure 2).


Arnold, D.E. 2014. A professional and personal view of Charles C. Kolb. In Social dynamics of ceramic analysis: New techniques and interpretations, ed. Sandra L. López Varela, 1–3. Oxford: Archaeopress. 

Kolb, C.C. 1973. The thin orange pottery of central Mexico. In Miscellaneous papers in anthropology, Occasional papers in anthropology, ed. W.T. Sanders, vol. 8, 309–377. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University, Department of Anthropology.

Kolb, C.C., and L.M. Lackey. 1988. A pot for all reasons: Ceramic ecology revisited: Papers dedicated to Frederick R. Matson. Philadelphia: Temple University, A Special Publication of Ceramica de Cultura Maya.

López Varela, S. L. (2020). Kolb, Charles C. In C. Smith (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (pp. 6289-6291). New York, NY. Springer.