Passion for History Leads Alum to Career in Archaeology


Southeast Missouri State University alumnus Matt McKnight is living his dream job as chief archaeologist at the Maryland Historical Trust in Baltimore, Maryland.

A career in archaeology is what he knew he wanted to do since he was a kid, growing up in Flora, Illinois, and Kansas City, Missouri. McKnight’s family trips always included pit stops at the local and national historical sites and monuments.

“When I was younger, most of our family vacations involved a visit to some historic site, and I think that must have inspired me,” he said “I showed up at Southeast knowing that I wanted to select anthropology as my major on day one.”

A 1999 graduate of Southeast, McKnight earned a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and a minor in historic preservation. He earned a Master of Arts and doctorate in anthropology at Pennsylvania State University.

As chief archaeologist at the Maryland Historical Trust, he brings his passion for history to life every day.

“I enjoy conducting original research and working with the public,” he said. “Maryland has amazing cultural resources, and I play a valuable role in understanding those sites and interpreting them for the public.”

On his role as chief archaeologist at the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT):

I work with a team of six other archaeologists at the Maryland Historical Trust (MHT), the agency within Maryland’s state government tasked with preserving and interpreting the state’s rich historical and cultural heritage. MHT also serves at the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) for Maryland. As the chief archaeologist, I set the goals and objectives as they pertain to archaeology for our office; engage in and direct fundamental research into the archaeology of the state; synthesize and disseminate existing research; and encourage and coordinate archaeological research in Maryland by other qualified professionals and volunteer organizations. And I get to dig and not just sit behind a desk!

I have been working at the Trust, in some capacity, since before I completed my doctorate in 2007. I originally began working at MHT on a project to make archaeological data more accessible to both academics and the public. Helping others understand the importance of our history, past cultures and past ways of life has always been my passion. I get to do even more of that as chief archaeologist.

On his future goals:

One thing that I am really excited about at the moment is the launch of a book that I helped compile, edit and shepherd through the publication process. “The Archaeology of Colonial Maryland: Five Essays by Scholars of the Early Province” is being released this month by MHT Press. The book is heavily illustrated and geared towards the general public. It features five chapters by archaeologists working throughout the state, with sidebar sections that I wrote to kind of “fill in the gaps.”

I hope to build MHT’s archaeology program and expand the Maryland Archaeological Site Survey into areas of the state that have received less research attention in the past.

On his time at Southeast:

I think the thing that appealed to me the most about Southeast was the smaller class sizes. I don’t think I would have done well as an undergraduate in classes with hundreds of other students. I felt like I was more than just a number and making contributions to the anthropology program while I was there.

I think the best thing Southeast ever did for me was to challenge me. I didn’t have too much difficulty just sliding by in high school, but Southeast was a wake-up call. I was really being challenged by my class load that first couple of semesters and needed to adapt if I was going to maintain a decent GPA, and keep the scholarship I had at the time. I eventually learned how to study, how to form and present logical arguments, and how to network, all of which have applied to my career.

On advice for future Southeast students:

Take advantage of all the opportunities that the University has to offer. You never know when some little skill you learned, some connection you made, or some project you worked on is going to lead to the next big thing in your career.

Photo Caption: Southeast Alumnus Matthew McKnight records data on a field tablet at a 17th century Calverton site in southern Maryland. Calverton was a town founded in 1688 as the first county seat of Calvert County. McKnight had used a magnetic susceptibility meter to identify soil anomalies that often represent locations where there are buried artifact deposits or past disturbance. McKnight recorded the meter’s data onto the tablet for later interpretation and mapping.