Obituary

By Hammond, Norman | Antiquity, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Obituary


Hammond, Norman, Antiquity


GORDON RANDOLPH WILLEY 1913-2002

GORDON RANDOLPH WILLEY, Bowditch Professor of Mexican and Central American Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and the leading American archaeologist for almost half a century, died aged 89 on 28 April 2002. He was born in Chariton, Iowa on 7 March 1913.

Gordon Randolph Willey was recognised by his colleagues as the epitome of American archaeology: his excavation experience in the United States and in Central and South America was of unrivalled breadth, his knowledge of the continent's prehistory encyclopaedic, and his published output formidable. His influence on academic appointments and in professional organisations was as wide and long-lasting as his contribution to the understanding of the Pre-Columbian world.

Willey was educated at the University of Arizona, where (as he admitted in his Portraits in American Archaeology) he paid more attention to athletics than to academic work. Only his first taste of excavation at the end of his degree course finally aroused a serious interest in American archaeology, and he then moved to Columbia University in New York for his doctoral research, taking his Ph.D. in 1942. He spent the period 1936-39 working as a Federal Relief Archaeologist in Georgia (where he met and married Katharine Whaley of Macon, by whom he had two daughters; she died in 2001) and Louisiana, and in 1940 had begun a new and important project in Florida when he was diverted into South American archaeology by his advisor at Columbia, Duncan Strong.

His surveys in the Chancay and Viru Valleys of north coastal Peru in 1941-42 and 1946 established settlement pattern studies as a new aspect of American prehistory, and after seven years (1943-50) at the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington, D.C., Willey was invited to become Bowditch Professor of Mexican and Central American Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. He held the Chair until 1983 and then, Harvard having failed to appoint a successor, was asked to continue as Senior Professor until his retirement in 1987. He continued to teach, however, in the new Department of Archaeology established by Boston University across the river from Harvard.

During his third of a century as Bowditch Professor, Willey shifted his fieldwork first to Panama and then, in accordance with the wishes of the Chair's founder, Charles P. Bowditch, into the Maya Area of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Not being a specialist in either Maya hieroglyphic writing or iconography, the two aspects of the civilisation that had preoccupied scholars for a century, Willey sought to establish the nature of the economic and social infrastructure on which those more visible achievements stood. Where previous research had concentrated on the temple-filled 'ceremonial centres' of the Maya, Willey deliberately moved into as rural an area as possible and started to excavate a small riverside settlement at Barton Ramie in central Belize (then British Honduras). The excavations, from 1953-1956, and the resulting monograph on Prehistoric Maya Settlements in the Belize Valley (1965) set a fashion for studying the Maya in a regional context which was taken up by many of his pupils, and which also underlay his two major projects of the 1960s, at the large sites of Altar de Sacrificios and Seibal in the Pasion Valley of Guatemala, and his last important fieldwork at Copan in Honduras (1973-1977).

Willey was never a narrow-minded Mayanist, or only an economic archaeologist, however: although he always eschewed epigraphy, his holistic approach to Maya studies included the rule of iconography and the impact of political events on the archaeological record. He was a prime mover in the development of Pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., which became the principal centre for research in PreHispanic art history. He was attracted to the grand themes of the past rather than the minutiae of the stratigraphic record, although his detailed studies of the artefacts from Barton Ramie, Altar de Sacrificios, and Seibal showed that he was more than capable of dealing with them.

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