Ally Mitchem is an archaeobotanist who studies the connections between botanical science, natural history, and ecological change in late-18th and early-19th century Philadelphia. In her dissertation, she examines Bartram’s Garden, the most prominent botanical garden in North America during this time period. Based at the McNeil Center as a 2022-2023 Friends of the MCEAS Dissertation Fellow, Mitchem spoke with us about her research interests and her love of archaeological fieldwork.
Q: What drew you to the study of early America?
Mitchem: I actually thought I might be studying much earlier American history and archaeology. My undergraduate thesis was on pre-contact Indigenous sites in the Lower Mississippi Valley which got me interested in many of the themes I still study today. I think I eventually ended up in the 18th and 19th centuries for my dissertation because I wanted to do both intellectual history and environmental history and archaeology and studying Natural History provides a really generative space to do that.
Q: Who is an influential historian/author that the world should know more about?
Mitchem: I was TAing for an archaeology class a few years ago, and for the lecture on plant domestication and agriculture the professor had everyone read some of the traditional sources (early archaeologists theorizing about the rise of "civilization") but also a chapter from Robin Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. It was such a wonderful counterpoint to the often only economic way we think about plant use in the past. After that, I listened to the whole book on tape in the lab. It helped me to think about the plants I was finding not as individual specimens but as part of larger landscapes, environments, and social worlds.
Q: If you could see or visit a particular historical artifact, what would it be and why?
Mitchem: I love this question because as an archaeologist I do get to see a lot of historical artifacts, just completely removed from their original context! While working on the dissertation I would love to go stand in Bartram's Garden in the late 18th century, both to answer some outstanding questions I have and also because I'm so interested in what it looked, smelled, and sounded like. What did it mean, sensorially, to be in that place? What kinds of embodied experiences did the garden present?
Q: What is a fun fact about you?
Mitchem: I've been lucky enough over the course of my career to excavate on three different continents (North America, Europe, and Africa). I'm not sure there's much archaeology on Antarctica, so that just leaves Australia, South America, and Asia. If you have a project and need an archaeobotanist, call me!
Q: What do you find most enjoyable/rewarding about the research process?
Mitchem: I love the actual process of doing archaeological fieldwork. It's so tactile, which is a nice counterpart to all the solely intellectual work we do. Since it's normally such a collaborative process as well, I really enjoy the sense of community it brings. Some of my closest friends in academia are people I have excavated with for a summer or two and kept in touch with for years now.
Q: What are you most enjoying about your Fellowship at the McNeil Center?
Mitchem: I have been really excited to be a part of this intellectual community. Not just the folks who come speak at the Center, but having a fellowship cohort of peers. We have a works-in-progress group and everyone’s feedback is always so productive and thoughtful.
Alexandria Mitchem is a Friends of the MCEAS Fellow at the McNeil Center and a doctoral candidate at Columbia University. To learn more about Mitchem's work, view her dissertation summary.