Letter by Bar-Yosef, Harbottle, Harrison, Hair, Mass, and Stager

Dear Colleague:

The recent precipitate firing of researchers at the Penn Museum includes another world-class scholar and scientist in Near Eastern archaeology and archaeological science among its casualties. Why was Patrick McGovern, who heads MASCA’s Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory, fired? McGovern, who received his Ph.D. at Penn in Near Eastern Archaeology, has made a series of stunning discoveries and set a standard for how the sciences and the humanities can be effectively integrated together in his 40+ year career at Penn (C.V. posted on his personal website, below). Indeed, McGovern’s academic achievements embody the interdisciplinary research that the university espouses in The Penn Compact and its new PIK (“Penn Integrates Knowledge”) Professorships.

His Vita reads like a compendium of major scientific breakthroughs and accomplishments:

Pioneered the rapidly developing, interdisciplinary field of Biomolecular Archaeology. This field is at the technological cutting-edge of modern archaeology.

Discovered the earliest Royal Purple (the famous dye of the Phoenicians), grape wine, barley beer, alcoholic beverages generally (China, ca. 7000 B.C.), and chocolate.

Published these findings in high-impact scientific journals, including three in Nature (one as the cover story) and two in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (one as the cover story) .

Published 10 peer-reviewed books, most recently Ancient Wine (Princeton University Press), which garnered numerous awards. Uncorking the Past (University of California), in press, traces alcoholic beverages around the world and as far back in time as possible from a multi-disciplinary perspective. Published 50 peer-reviewed articles, ranging from geophysical prospecting for archaeological sites to some of the earliest steel ever found to the earliest DNA evidence for wine yeast, and another 70 additional articles, reviews, and book chapters.

Directed major excavations in Jordan, and collaborated on archaeological projects throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. His Baq`ah Valley Project was one of the first excavations in the Near East to successfully incorporate scientific methodology in the field and the laboratory (published as a museum monograph). An older excavation (Beth Shan, Israel), part of the museum’s Near East collection, was subjected to similar scientific scrutiny (published as a museum monograph).

Built up a state-of-the-art laboratory in MASCA for archaeological chemical research (with Fourier-transform Infrared Spectrometer, High-performance Liquid Chromatograph, and other instruments). It is one of the few such facilities in the U.S., and is staffed by Ph.D. chemists and Penn students. Numerous close collaborations with laboratories at Penn and around the world have given his lab access to the latest, most sensitive instrumentation.

Developed an innovative, cost-effective ceramic analysis program which combines multiple analytical techniques (Neutron Activation Analysis, petrography and heavy-mineral analysis, xeroradiography, etc.) to solve important anthropological questions.

Established an academic program in the archaeological sciences by teaching (cross-listed in Penn archaeological and science departments). Students, who were trained in his lab, have gone on to careers in archaeology and conservation science.

Received grants from the NEH, NSF, American Philosophical Society, Wine Institute, Fulbright Foundation, universities, and many other funding agencies and private individuals world-wide, together with in-kind contributions (i.e., equipment donations, gratis analyses at outside labs, and the expertise of volunteer chemists). These monies, combined with the value of his publicity for the museum and university, amount to millions of dollars. He has leveraged a very small budget into a very productive research program.

Re-created the “King Midas” funerary feast, the first time that a historic meal has been reconstructed by chemical analysis of ancient organic residues

His ground-breaking research has resulted in 15 international stories, and widespread public and scholarly exposure and acclaim. It has been profiled in ten video programs, including a full-length feature filmed at the Midas Tumulus in Turkey, and has been the focus of museum exhibits in Philadelphia, Athens, the Napa Valley, France, and elsewhere.

Given keynote addresses around the world (most recently at the National Museum in Tblisi, Georgia, after the Russian invasion), and has collaborated with over 400 scientists and archaeologists in museum and academic institutions in more than 30 countries.

On-going studies include testing ancient compounds for their anti-cancer and medicinal effects (Abramson Cancer Center and Penn Medical School), grape and yeast DNA, prehistoric Chinese fermented beverages, New World chocolate, and early wine, ranging from Neolithic villages in the Taurus and Caucasus Mountains to Iron Age shipwrecks in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

In short, McGovern has made a huge contribution to both Near Eastern Archaeology and archaeological science. Few other museum researchers has the distinction of so many peer-reviewed books and articles, which is the ultimate measure of research success.

At a time when science and technology have become increasingly important in our society, why would a museum, which is supposedly looking to the future, fire a researcher of McGovern’s caliber? To destroy a laboratory which took years to create, in a matter of days, is not only short-sighted, it is contradictory to the very essence of a university and museum in advancing human knowledge and preserving the past. The loss in human capital and facilities is incalculable, and not easily rebuilt.

Why weren’t other, less draconian, measures explored before firing McGovern? During the Great Depression, all Penn employees pulled together and took an across-the-board 10% pay cut. Some of the fired researchers might even have been willing to take larger cuts, to continue their careers. Moreover, if McGovern had been evaluated as an individual, based on his annual performance evaluations, peer-reviewed publications, grants received, teaching, etc., he could never have been fired.

We urge our colleagues, who have benefitted from Dr. McGovern’s research, to not let this decision stand, but to express their objections to the museum Director Richard Hodges, the Deputy Director Brian Rose, university President Amy Gutmann, and Provost Ronald Daniels (addresses, below).

Specifically, we encourage our colleagues to stress that by firing McGovern, the professions of Near Eastern archaeology and the archaeological sciences, the museum, the university, and the academic world generally will suffer serious losses. The Penn administration needs to find another solution in keeping with McGovern’s significant contributions and world-wide reputation. If enough colleagues register their dissatisfaction with the decision and highlight different aspects of McGovern’s career, the combined effect might well provide a compelling argument for the administration to find another solution.

Please consider submitting one such letter, and feel free to forward this request to other colleagues.


Ofer Bar-Yosef
MacCurdy Professor of Prehistoric Archaeology
Department of Anthropology
Harvard University

Garman Harbottle
Research Professor
Department of Geosciences
Stony Brook University

Timothy Harrison
Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology
University of Toronto
President of the American Schools of Oriental Research

Victor H. Mair
Professor of Chinese Language and Literature
Consulting Scholar, Museum Asian Section
University of Pennsylvania

Jennifer L. Mass
Director, Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory
Winterthur Museum
Winterthur Delaware

Lawrence E. Stager
Dorot Professor of the Archaeology of Israel
Director of the Semitic Museum
Harvard University.

News releases on Penn firings:

Daily Pennsylvanian (also look for responses under Article Tools):



Philadelphia Inquirer:


Dr. Patrick McGovern’s websites

Personal website: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~mcgovern/
http://www.museum.upenn.edu/new/research/Exp_Rese_Disc/masca/jiahu/jiahu.shtml :

Addresses of Penn administrators:

Dr. Richard Hodges, Director
University of Pennsylvania Museum
3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Dr. Brian Rose, Deputy Director and Chief-of-Curators
University of Pennsylvania Museum
3260 South Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104

Dr. Amy Gutmann
Office of the President
University of Pennsylvania
100 College Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6380

Ronald Daniels, Provost
University of Pennsylvania
122 College Hall
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6303


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