National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: John Cherry

Affiliation: Joukowsky Institute, Brown University

John F. Cherry is the Joukowsky Family Professor of Archaeology with the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University.  He holds his degrees from the University of Southampton (Ph.D.), the University of Texas at Austin (M.A.), the University of Cambridge (M.A), Brown University (M.A.), and the University of Bristol.  His areas of specialization include Aegean and Mediterranean prehistory, Caribbean Archaeology, archaeology of the southern Caucasus, island archaeology, and state formation.  He has been Co-director of the Archaeology in Montserrat project since 2009, and has also been project member with the Mazi Archaeological Project and the Southern Cyclades Islands Project (both in Greece).  Serving as Director of Graduate Studies at the Joukowsky Institute for ten years, he was recently the recipient of Brown University’s 2019 Faculty Advising and Mentoring Award.  Professor Cherry is a 2019/2020 Norton Lecturer for the AIA.


Until quite recently, archaeologists have supposed that the seas and oceans represented a barrier to human dispersal, and that islands were among the last places on earth to be colonized by people, only fairly recently, as part of the worldwide spread of modern humans. But is that picture still correct? Startling new data have come to light just in the last few years, in parts of the Mediterranean and in island Southeast Asia, that have been claimed as evidence for a far longer antiquity for seafaring, reaching back hundreds of thousands, and perhaps as much as a million years. Naturally, these claims have attracted widespread attention and much discussion — and not only among archaeologists. This lecture outlines what we know, with reasonable certainty, about patterns of global maritime dispersal in the past few tens of thousands of years, before turning to present the new evidence and its strengths and weaknesses. In trying to understand it, we will need to consider information (amongst other things) from ethnographic analogy, experimental seafaring, and our current knowledge of the relative configurations of land and sea over the course of the Pleistocene era. Some of the bold assertions made in the past few years require more supporting data before they can be accepted. That cautious conclusion does not detract from the excitement and importance of this fast-moving field of research in archaeology.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

Two short popular articles, from Science and New Scientist, outline the debates:

Montserrat is a mere speck of an island, halfway along the volcanic chain of the Lesser Antilles in the eastern Caribbean. It has suffered greatly in recent decades, first from the devastations of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and since 1995 from the ongoing eruption of the Soufrière Hills volcano that has caused half the island’s population to emigrate, leaving the southern half of the island a dangerous no-go zone. Archaeology on Montserrat began only in the late 1970s, but the work of the Survey and Landscape Archeaology on Montserrat project (SLAM) since 2010 has made many significant advances. This lecture charts the 5,000-year history of human activity on Montserrat, by focusing on about a dozen sites or artifact types that speak powerfully to the ways in which this island, despite its small size and seeming irrelevance, has in fact always been networked into regional and international systems of connectivity.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

The Facebook page “Archaeology on Montserrat” has news and photos from the SLAM project.

For the earliest evidence from Montserrat, see

Those with access to or ResearchGate might enjoy J.F. Cherry et al., ‘ “A kind of sacred place”: the rock and roll ruins of AIR Studios, Montserrat,’ in M.C. Beaudry and T.G. Parno (eds.), Archaeologies of Mobility and Movement, 181-98 (New York 2013).

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