Christopher Wilson ’21: From A&A to Archaeology for Environmental Projects

Feb. 7, 2024

A&A alum Christopher Wilson ‘21 is equally passionate about art history and archaeology, so he earned Masters of Arts degrees in both, from the University of Chicago and Yale University respectively, and then let fate settle his career path.  Today, he is a Registered Professional Archaeologist (RPA) serving as Director of Cultural Resources at ELOS Environmental, a consulting firm whose work includes permit applications, regulatory compliance, coastal restoration, GIS, disaster recovery, industrial hygiene, and environmental site assessments. In a motto: “Where Natural Environments and Human Interests Intersect.”

Finding A&A

Wilson came to Princeton “as a nervous military veteran” of the United States Marine Corps before discovering his love for archaeology. “I think the connection between being a veteran and archaeology is fostered very easily,” said Wilson. “We are taught to embrace and understand the history of the military when we go through basic training. Archaeology gives one the opportunity to be a part of history, literally seeing it and feeling it. I think this is the first major factor that draws veterans in. The second factor is how archaeology can be seen as a chance to work outside of an office.”

Christopher Wilson stands in front of a stone structure

Christopher Wilson during a summer program in Portugal (Photo courtesy of Christopher Wilson)

We are taught to embrace and understand the history of the military when we go through basic training. Archaeology gives one the opportunity to be a part of history, literally seeing it and feeling it. I think this is the first major factor that draws veterans in.

He credits Emma Ljung *12 with exposing him to this ideally suited field. “She was the first to introduce me to archaeology as a practice,” said Wilson. “After expressing a general interest in the subject, she immediately invited me to join her on her excavation in Portugal. This was such a life-altering experience, I knew what I wanted to do and dedicate myself to.”

“One of my very first classes, ‘Art and Archaeology in Cleopatra’s Multicultural Egypt,’ really helped set the stage for what the department had to offer. It was educational, fun, and exciting,” Wilson said.

Among his most influential courses were those taught by Professor Nathan Arrington. “His classes were the highlight of my education,” said Wilson. “His mentorship, attitude, and dedication to archaeology were so inspiring. He became someone for me to emulate. I fostered a love for Classical archaeology as a result. This love has allowed me to travel, research, and work in Greece.”

Christopher Wilson uses a pick axe to remove dirt

Christopher Wilson, in foreground, excavating at the Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project (Photo courtesy of the Department of Art & Archaeology)

Initially lured by archaeology, immersing himself in the broad spectrum of A&A courses fostered a deep appreciation of art and art history, as well. 

Among art history courses, those taught by Professor Rachael DeLue especially resonated.  “Her classes were also incredibly insightful for areas I had little exposure to,” Wilson said. “While I concentrated on ancient art, she ensured I did not forget about modern issues and developments.” Wilson also treasures the support Professor DeLue gave him. “She was an amazing resource, professor, and personal adviser,” he said. “Her kindness was easily seen in her constant willingness to assist me in my academic and career endeavors.”

Wilson’s senior thesis adviser, Janet Kay, is an enduring source of support for him. He calls her “an immensely important individual to my progression and success.” “She was and continues to be, my biggest cheerleader,” Wilson continued. “I learned so much from her expertise and instruction. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that her tutelage made me the scholar and archaeologist I am today.”

Wilson’s A&A education clearly cast his gaze toward ancient art history, whatever role that might take. “I knew that I would be in a position dealing with ancient artifacts in some capacity because that’s why I chose A&A as my major,” said Wilson. “I love physically connecting with history and now I get to do that every day as part of my job!”

“I love physically connecting with history and now I get to do that every day as part of my job!” 

Working in archaeology

In his current role, Wilson supervises and participates in concurrent projects involving excavation, construction monitoring, historical research, artifacts processing, and report writing for government, military, and commercial clients.

Two man stand smiling in frotn of a large tree, one holds a wooden box, the other is leaning on a shovel

From left, Christopher Wilson and Ricky Henry in the field at Boogie Bayou, LA (Photo courtesy of Christopher Wilson)

His work ensures compliance with federal and state regulations, including the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and the Native American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act (NAGPRA).

“Some see modern development and the environment as enemies,” said Wilson, “but progress can happen while also protecting the environment.”

Wilson especially enjoys the portion of his work that gets him outdoors. “I love being given the opportunity to work outside of the office. I am in my element when I am outdoors.” When he’s in the field, he manages projects ranging from Ground-Penetrating Radar observations of cemeteries to shovel test pits along highways, to evaluating historical sites for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

At his desk, where he spends the majority of his time, Wilson provides archaeological insight into project proposals, produces reports for completed fieldwork, and researches different cultures from both precontact periods and historic periods.

“I hope to have an impact on the historical record, making it more accurate by contributing new research and data. We are constantly uncovering new styles of pottery, bioarchaeological data, or cultural affiliations in new areas. By producing and publicizing our findings, we can confirm new theories and improve current understandings,” said Wilson.

A man and woman sit across form each other at a black table, both with goggles examining objects

Christopher Wilson works at the artifact table in the office lab at ELOS Environmental LLC with Bailey Jones (Photo courtesy of Christopher Wilson)

Another goal is to reinforce the contributions and benefits of archaeological work. “I also hope to improve how archaeology is perceived by the public,” said Wilson. Rather “grave robbers or destroyers of history,” Wilson aims to exemplify that “Archaeologists hold a deep level of respect for any and all cultures they interact with. We have an ethical responsibility to perform our duties appropriately and respectfully.”

“While at Princeton, I learned that research matters, sources matter, and people matter,” said Wilson. “No matter who or what is involved in my work, I must be respectful, inclusive, unbiased, knowledgeable, and humble. I am no better than anyone, living or otherwise, and must therefore do my due diligence in any scholarly work I produce or am involved with.”

The highlight of Wilson’s career to date was an excavation in Barataria, Louisiana, which produced hundreds of artifacts, both historical and from pre-contact cultures. “It was fascinating to process and research dozens of decorated ceramic sherds,” said Wilson. “My department works with the Louisiana State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) to determine the different cultures these artifacts belonged to, and it feels amazing to hand these artifacts to their office, knowing the SHPO’s Division of Archaeology will do their best to repatriate the finds.”

The majority of the Barataria excavation finds dated to the Late Woodland Period (700 C.E. – 1200 C.E.). Along with some bone and shell, most of the finds were pottery, with varieties including Pontchartrain and French Fork Incised stemming from cultures such as Coles Creek and Baytown cultural horizons. Among the more unique finds were a pipe stem and alligator gar scales that may have been used as arrowheads.

Man in neon green jacket with ELOS on back faces a river in the woods

Christopher Wilson in the field at Fullerton, LA (Photo courtesy of Christopher Wilson)

Learning from Wilson

Striving for excellence and letting that take you across borders are Wilson’s key recommendations for undergraduates today.

Traveling abroad and “experiencing the world” left a deep imprint on Wilson’s education.  “I highly recommend a summer internship or archaeological excavation! These were so enjoyable, informative, and inspirational to me,” said Wilson.

Christopher Wilson takes a selfie showing his head in the foreground with a large group behind him in a landscape

Christopher Wilson, very much in the foreground, with fellow students on the Santa Susana Archaeological Project, Alentejo, Portugal (Photo/Christopher Wilson)

As a first-year student, Wilson traveled to Vietnam with Coach for College, an international service learning program that brings together U.S. student-athletes and Vietnamese university students to teach sports and an academic subject and to Portugal with the Santa Susana Archaeological Project. He participated in the field course on Arrington’s excavation, the Molyvoti, Thrace Archaeological Project (MTAP) in northern Greece the summer before junior year, and, after graduating, excavated a World War II plane crash site in Poland. “My international travel was so beneficial to my networking, my work experience, and my personal growth,” he said.

“My international travel was so beneficial to my networking, my work experience, and my personal growth,” he said.

Wilson internalized Princeton’s rigorous standard and it has driven his success. “The most valuable lesson I was taught is that the bare minimum serves the betterment of no one,” he said. “This fostered an attitude within me to always reach for the highest standard, work harder, and seek excellence in everything I do.”  It hasn’t gone unnoticed. “Even my husband, Raymond Gonzales, believes my Princeton education was the best thing to have ever happened to me,” said Wilson. “I am a stronger, more intelligent, and responsible person because of it.”