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Student Spotlight: Eilis Monahan

Eilis Monahan, Near Eastern Studies

What is your area of research?

I'm an archaeologist, and my main area of interest is social and political developments in the Bronze Age in the Eastern Mediterranean and Near East. 

What inspired you to choose this field of study? 

My interest in the politics and cultures of the Mediterranean Bronze Age is longstanding, starting with an obsession with Ancient Egypt in elementary school! What I really love about archaeology is the breadth and depth of questions that the subject poses about both the fascinating cultures of the past and more broadly about how human societies develop, interact, and adapt. Archaeology can, and sometimes does, combine the study of history, art history, politics, economics, languages, geography, chemistry, physics, geology, and so on. Archaeologists pull from any perspective that might help us better understand where we as humans have been, where we are now, and where we might be heading.  

Why is this research important?

This particular project grew out of a pilot project I ran in 2013 with Dr. Matthew Spigelman, then a Ph.D. student at NYU. We were both in Cyprus working on other archaeological projects, so we stayed an extra 10 days mapping two of the fortresses at Ayios Sozomenos on Cyprus. That was when I realized there was much more work to be done on these sites. I saw the potential for a real contribution to our understanding of how Cypriot society changes during this period and, more broadly, how buildings and landscapes affect the way people interact with each other and the relationships they establish. 

How has your background influenced your scholarship?

I'm the daughter of a professor and a librarian, so I think research might be in my blood. I also moved around and traveled a lot both before and after college, and experiencing different places and different cultures made me curious about how cultural and social differences develop. 

What else has influenced your thinking as a researcher or scholar?

I've always been really struck by the way architecture and landscape affects people, and lately I've been influenced by the work of social theorists like Michel Foucault and Henri Lefebvre, inspiring me to think critically about how space was created in the past and how these spaces actively shape political trajectories in human society. I also have to credit my committee: Prof. Adam T. Smith in anthropology for introducing me to the literature on political theory and materiality; Prof. Sturt Manning in classics for his knowledge of all things related to Cyprus and scientific methods; and most of all, my advisor Prof. Lori Khatchadourian in Near Eastern studies. She has been tireless in her support of my work, and her knowledge and insight concerning ancient political and social organization and the relationship between materials and power is both an amazing resource and a constant source of inspiration. She really won’t accept anything less than my best, and I always come out of meetings with her full of new ideas and excited to get back to work.

You recently received an NSF Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant and a Fulbright U.S. Student Fellowship to fund your dissertation research in Cyprus. Congratulations! What were the application processes like?

The Fulbright application was actually relatively painless. The Einaudi Center is very supportive and makes the process simple and transparent. The essays for the application have to be carefully crafted, they're quite short. The NSF grant proposal process, on the other hand, was much more intense, but it was an excellent experience in learning how to develop a project proposal, obtain the necessary permissions and collaborators, and craft a detailed budget. In fact, the NSF proposal was where my dissertation research really came together and began to make sense to me; it made me realize that my project is actually feasible and other people may be interested in it. However, I suspect my committee members are quite happy to never have to read another draft of it!

What will you be researching in Cyprus? 

My dissertation research consists of archaeological investigations: primarily the surveying and mapping of sites and museum collections from previous excavations into a group of fortresses and surrounding settlements in the central region of Cyprus between the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, around 3,700 years ago. This is a very exciting period in Cypriot history when the island transitioned from a village-based and relatively insular society to a complex urban-focused society involved in trade and diplomacy with the major polities of the Eastern Mediterranean, including the Egyptians, Hittites, and Babylonians. My project investigates how the introduction of fortifications to the landscape alters social relations, and the roles that fortresses and their control of the landscape may play in the development of political regimes.

In what ways will the research you conduct on this trip be vital to your scholarship?

The opportunity to work and live in Cyprus for nine months provided by the Fulbright, along with the NSF funding to support my fieldwork, will allow me to complete the research necessary for my Ph.D. dissertation. This will be my first time directing my own project, and it will give me the opportunity to gain the experience and foster the relationships I will need to develop future archaeological research projects. 

Any advice for other graduate students interested in applying for fellowships or grants?

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again! I received both the NSF grant and the Fulbright Fellowship on the second try. And really try to listen to and respond to criticism. The NSF rejection comes with reviewer comments, but with the Fulbright I had to find people to ask what I could improve. I actually ended up cutting an entire section out of my NSF proposal at a reviewer's suggestion, and at first I was frustrated, but I think in the end it made the proposal much stronger.

Why did you choose Cornell to pursue your degree?

Two reasons: First is that Cornell is a family tradition. My father, Edward C. Monahan, was class of '58; my mother, Elizabeth A. Monahan, was class of '61; my grandfather, Edward Monahan Jr., was class of '18; and my great-grandmother, Anna Elizabeth Thomas, earned her M.A. at Cornell in 1894. There's also my great uncle Herbert L. Nickles, class of '26, and my aunt Lois Eberhard née Vaughn, class of '74. As I'm the youngest and first Cornellian of my generation, I know that my choosing to come here for graduate school was a major relief to the family! 

The second, real reason was the faculty. I was at Cornell for my M.A., so I already knew that faculty here was excellent, but when I learned that Prof. Khatchadourian and Prof. Adam T. Smith were joining the faculty there was no doubt in my mind that Cornell was the place for me.

What’s next for you?

I plan to continue in academia, hopefully becoming a professor myself someday. 

Interview by Sally Kral, communications and outreach assistant in the Graduate School