Philip L. Kohl, professor of anthropology and Kathryn Wasserman Davis Professor of Slavic Studies emeritus, died on May 12. He served on the Wellesley faculty for 42 years before retiring in 2016. Along with professors Annemarie Shimony and Sally Merry, he was a founding member of the College’s anthropology department.
Over his years of service, including for more than a decade as chair, Phil helped establish a vision of the anthropology department as the most broadly conceived of social sciences, stretching from the ancient past to our imagined collective future. Passionate about engaging students in fieldwork, Phil gave many students and future scholars their first exposure to the field.
Phil received his B.A. in Greek and Latin from Columbia University in 1969 before receiving his Ph.D. in anthropology with a focus on archaeology from Harvard in 1974. Phil’s research expertise lay in the archaeology of Bronze Age Eurasia, grounded in extensive fieldwork collaborations across broad swaths of the former Soviet Union and the Middle East. In seven authored and edited books, as well as more than 100 articles, Phil presented evidence that the transformation of Bronze Age cultures was not the product of isolated cultural change or a deterministic environmental outcome, but rather the result of complex webs of social connectivity.
He was a generous scholar whose research highlighted and helped support the work of colleagues in places like Dagestan, Georgia, and Iran. In addition to the important connections in the ancient past that his work identified, Phil produced foundational work on the ways in which knowledge of the past gets recirculated to serve political and nationalistic aims in the present. His work was supported by multiple grants from both the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities as well as by many other foundations, and he held visiting fellowships at universities in France and Argentina as well as at the New School for Social Research.
At Wellesley, Phil was the inaugural holder of our prestigious Whitehead Associate Professorship of Critical Thought before being appointed in 1999 to the Kathryn Wasserman Davis Chair in Slavic Studies. He helped launch a collaborative Wintersession program in the Republic of Georgia, along with colleagues at Williams and Mount Holyoke, providing many students with a unique immersive experience in a setting simultaneously at the crossroads of Eurasia and the crossroads of the post-Soviet world. In 2015, a year before his retirement, Phil received the Anna and Samuel Pinanski Teaching Prize, in recognition of his outstanding teaching.
Phil, his wife, Barbara, and children, Owen and Mira, were an active part of the Wellesley faculty housing community for many years before moving to and renovating an old farmstead in southern New Hampshire. If he wasn’t in the classroom or doing survey work in a faraway land, Phil could often be found kayaking the lakes and streams of New England.