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UD professor sifts through the past wherever it leads

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By Pete Kennedy

When Dr. Margaret Laird tells people she’s an archaeologist, she often hears the same response:
“People will say, ‘That’s great! I love dinosaurs!’” Laird said.

But Laird – who goes by Peg – doesn’t dig up giant reptiles from the Mesozoic Era. She unearths the history of Roman art and culture from the slightly more recent past.

Her work has taken her to private family libraries and the Vatican archives to pore over old manuscripts, and to historical sites looking for clues about how those spaces were used centuries ago.

“Italy is the most amazing country that way, because the layers of habitation are just so thick. You can turn a corner, even in the city of Rome and, ‘Wow, look up there, there’s a piece of the Baths of Agrippa, early 1st century CE!’” she said.

Laird, 53, holds a Ph.D. from Princeton University and teaches in the University of Delaware’s Ancient Greek and Roman Studies program. In June, she was named the editor of the Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, a renowned academic journal published annually since 1915.

The journal coves Italian history, literature, art and architecture. The current issue includes an article on the importance of the portraiture of Empress Sabina, an article on how Ancient Romans studied birds to predict the weather, and another on the Marzamemi 2 shipwreck from the 6th century B.C., when 100 tons of prefabricated stone sank off the coast of Sicily. The publication can be read with a free login at jstor.org.

Laird will serve as the journal’s editor for the next three years. She hopes to build on the work of her predecessor, who opened the journal to periods beyond antiquity.

“It would be great to publish something on 19th-century Rome or Baroque Gilt frames, something beyond the ancient field and the smattering of Renaissance,” she said. “I’m also hoping to regularly publish reviews of important exhibitions in Italy. There’s great contemporary architecture and art happening in modern Italy. I want to broaden [Memoirs] and make it a great journal of Italian studies, broadly defined.”

Laird has been interested in history since her childhood in Wilmington.

“We had construction on our road, and it cut across an old dump,” she said. “So you could actually find pieces of Chinese export porcelain, oyster shells, bits of burnt coal, pottery, and burnt glass. One of the most exciting things was a Lea & Perrins worcestershire bottle from the 1870s.”

She’s quick to caution young explorers against disturbing archaeological sites, though. The grounds she explored as a girl were already disturbed.

From 1998-2000, Laird was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, holding a pre-doctoral fellowship for classical studies and archaeology. She stayed with other fellows in the Abbey of San Sebastiano, a 6th-century monastery in the town of Alatri, about 50 miles west of Rome.

“We traced its history as we were living in it,” she said.

Laird’s focus was the hundreds of acres surrounding the monastery. In the Renaissance, it was given by the pope to his secretary and eventually passed to the prominent Pamphili family. Laird uncovered letters as far back as the 13th century talking about where certain crops would be grown.

“And you actually walk around through the landscape doing survey field work and look for buildings or boundary stones for early modern periods. You look for scatters of pottery like I was doing as a little kid, which would tell you that maybe there was a Roman farmstead in a certain spot,” she said.

After the fellowship, Laird taught at the University of Chicago and in the Princeton University Writing Program. She then joined the art history faculty at the University of Washington. While there, she served as a curatorial advisor of the Seattle Art Museum and as guest curator for the Roman Art exhibition from the Louvre.

Today, Laird lives in Rockland, Delaware, with her husband, Phil Taylor, an electrical engineer. They met when they were both DJs on WPRB 103.3 FM, Princeton’s student radio station.

In her free time, she enjoys working in her garden, drawing and painting. She also collects ”Brandywiniana” – views of Brandywine Creek in old postcards, paintings and other ephemera.

“It was one of the really early industrial spots in the country, with the flour mills down at the mouth in Wilmington, coming up to Jessup and Moore [Paper Company], Bancroft, fabric and powder yards, up into Rockland, the paper mill, and all the way up into Coatesville and Lukens Steel,” she said. “It looks so bucolic now.”

“I’m always interested in how a landscape can change so profoundly from a site of heavy industry to a beautiful park. It wasn’t always that way.”


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