01 Mar 2004

Take 2: From Ad Copy to Cuneiform

Another in a series of occasional articles on HBS graduates who have embarked on second careers
by Margie Kelley


68de8c2ce3ee202dde70bc45957e0ca6 Since retiring from the advertising business in 1994, Joan O. Rothberg (MBA ’63) has spent a good deal of time crawling around in the dirt. But she’s not just puttering in her Summit, New Jersey, garden (though she likes to do that, too). Rothberg has been uncovering ancient history at archaeological dig sites from England and Turkey to the Jordanian desert.

“It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Rothberg admits with a laugh. “It’s a combination of a lot of physical labor and solving puzzles. You only get clues — you don’t just come up with some treasure. You’re doing some very mundane things like digging up postholes and then trying to figure out how the posts were placed and what kind of roof they supported.”

While she now holds a Ph.D. in the field, Rothberg’s passion for archaeology began as a hobby while she was working more than full time as an executive vice president and director of the Ted Bates Agency in New York City (then among the top five advertising agencies in the world), managing the firm and million-dollar accounts for big-name clients such as Prudential, Colgate, Maybelline, and Pfizer. A family vacation to a dig site with Earthwatch Institute opened a whole new world to Rothberg, and she was hooked.

“I became intrigued, and so did my husband,” says Rothberg. “So in the beginning, we just went on digs with Earthwatch, and the archaeologists trained us.”

Passionate though she was about archaeology, Rothberg’s main focus remained on advertising. In 1988, she launched a Madison Avenue agency, Masterson Rothberg, which quickly collected its own big clients, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Citicorp, and IBM, as well as a reputation as a hot young agency. But Rothberg says she decided to retire in 1994, “when I realized my clients were younger than my daughter!”

Turning her hobby into a new career was a bit of an accident, Rothberg admits. “When I left Masterson Rothberg, I was in my 50s,” she recalls. “I really wanted to do something else with my life. But I also decided at that time not to be goal-oriented. I wanted to take time to enjoy the journey, so I started classes at Drew University as an auditor. Of course, I couldn’t just sit there in class and not do the work. So I did all the reading, all the papers and tests. Finally, two of my professors said, ‘Why aren’t you doing this for credit?’ So I did.”

Rothberg earned her doctoral degree in 2000, basing her dissertation on what she learned on a dig in Sardis, in western Turkey.

“There are the remains of an ancient synagogue in Sardis from about 212 CE Common Era, formerly A.D. in the most magnificent building,” she says. “It had originally been a Roman basilica. It was decorated in cut pieces of marble on the walls and on the floors. It’s a spectacular place.”

Inspired by what she saw, Rothberg began asking questions: Who were these people? What was their relationship to Rome and to ancient Israel? “I think I came up with new information,” says Rothberg. Her dissertation was published in 2001, and she is now working on several related articles and a book titled The Ancients Speak: From Love Poetry to Contracts, based on clay tablets inscribed in cuneiform.

“There were libraries full of clay tablets — love poems, letters, receipts, contracts, even clay envelopes,” she explains. “What we can learn from the tablets is that not very much has changed. People still have the same yearnings, the same emotions, and the same little things in life to communicate.”

Since her first Earthwatch trip 25 years ago, Rothberg has been on a total of eight digs. She has unearthed evidence of ancient dwellings and dishes and literature. At a site in England, her group uncovered the imprint of a Viking ship’s prow in a riverbank.

While current world events have prevented Rothberg from fulfilling a dream to dig in Mesopotamia — modern-day Iran and Iraq — she’s not sitting idle.

“When I’m not at a dig site, I’m in a library or talking to people. I’m always doing research. I consider it only a part-time job. I take my time, and I have fun. It’s wonderful to use a different part of your brain. I’m just as energized as ever. It’s a terrific thing to do more than one thing in your life.”

— Margie Kelley

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1963, Section K

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