“I think my ability to demonstrate how disciplines come together is maybe something my students don’t know about me—but should,” said James Higginbotham from his perch by the Assyrian reliefs in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA). 

Higginbotham is both an associate professor of classics and an associate curator of the ancient collection at BCMA. And outside of the College, his intellectual and extracurricular pursuits—from cooking to bejeweled fish—blend together in unexpected and productive ways. 

“My interests are varied,” he said. “I was a zoologist and a biology major in college. I took courses in archaeology to fulfill my humanities requirement and got hooked. I took a trip to Rome and never looked back.”

In addition to his stint as a zoologist and before his commitment to classics, Higginbotham worked as a plumber on construction projects around Detroit and spent some years as a banker after college.

“It’s a great argument for the liberal arts education; you can go in all these different directions,” said Higginbotham.

Ultimately, however, his passion for art and mindful presentation led him back to archaeology and curatorial work. Not only does his creative drive and appreciation for craft take him beyond the walls of the museum to international digs, but it manifests itself in his everyday life: Higginbotham is an avid woodworker, his family’s chef and a trumpet player.

“I have a shop in my basement and I make furniture, do construction, make decks and also do cabinet work. It helps me maintain a balance,” he said. “My father was a carpenter and my family goes back generations with house building and woodworking. We were also a musical family.”

Higginbotham’s appreciation for precision and the fusion of disciplines is also evident in his cooking. And as a world traveler for digs and studies, sampling world cuisine is one of the many perks.

“I lived with my family for a year in Spain, and got completely converted to Spanish cooking—I have a paella cooker,” he said. “I love being close to the College, but the other great part of my job is travel.”

Although Higginbotham’s hobbies and academic interests may seem eclectic, each informs the other. In fact, coming out of graduate school, Higginbotham wrote his dissertation, and eventually a book, on a subject that combined both his biological and artistic studies.

“There was a great fad in antiquity in Roman periods of owning a pond where you could keep eels and red mullets,” Higginbotham said. “And some of the Romans actually put jewelry on their fish and treated them like pets. I was really able to marry my interests in life science and archaeology with the ancient world.”

These days, Higginbotham is still doing exactly that.

“For me, there is strong belief in what the sciences bring to archaeology,” he said. “I teach a class on Pompeii, and so we need to understand not only what volcanoes do geologically, but what the volcano did to artifacts. I also teach a seminar on ancient coins, and I take dissection microscopes from the biology department and look at these things really closely. We can analyze how the artifacts were made and what they were made from.”

This method-based approach to the aesthetic lends itself to his curatorial work at BCMA. Higginbotham is in the midst of assembling an exhibit opening April 28 called “Contest! Challenge, Competition, and Combat in Ancient Art,” a collection illustrating everything from heroic labors to musical competitions—all pulled from the archives.

The exhibit has an interactive component: visitors can attempt to solve ancient riddles that have been translated into English. 

Considering Higginbotham’s affinity for the ancient contests, it is no surprise that he is a “Game of Thrones” fan—both the books and the television show. 

“My son and I are playing catch up watching the DVDs,” he said.

Higginbotham’s interests are clearly wide-ranging—from cooking to plumbing to studying bejeweled fish. And yet, each is somehow an extension or reinterpretation of the other. Creativity and commitment to craft, it seems, are the threads that connect his story.