Jeremy Sabloff

Archaeologist and AAA 2010 Annual Meeting Distinguished Lecturer


Hosted by AAA President Virginia R. Dominguez, “Inside the President’s Studio” features interviews with anthropologists about their ideas, research and passions. It is part of an ongoing effort to foster public, visible and active engagement with anthropologists. Become a part of the conversation by reading and listening to the interviews, adding your comments to the blog, and suggesting people or topics for future pieces.

This month the studio features  archaeologist (and AAA 2010 Annual Meeting Distinguished Lecturer) Jeremy Sabloff.   In this podcast, he  talks about his work in studying pre-Mayan civilizations. He also talks about his work as President of the Santa Fe Institute.

Dr. Sabloff was provided with a series of questions by before the podcast was recorded, and his written answers are provided below.

(1)  What are you most passionate about?

a) family and b) writing

(2)  Has this been a lifelong passion or a more recent one?

Both of these started in the late 1960’s with my marriage and the writing of my doctoral dissertation.

And was there something else you used to be totally passionate about at some earlier point in your life or career?
Not really

(3)  What were you like in high school?  Very studious?  Long-haired like many of us?  An athlete?  A budding poet?
Fairly studious;  listening to a lot of early rock-and-roll (late ‘50s) probably accounts for the “fairly” rather than “very”

(4) At what point did it occur to you to become an archaeologist?  Do you remember the moment it happened, how you reacted to the thought, and whether you told anyone about it?
In the Fall of 1961, at the end of the semester of Anthropology 4 (Introduction to Archaeology, which was jointly taught by Loren Eiseley and Froehlich Rainey with many guest lectures by curators from the University of Pennsylvania Museum) in my sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, although I don’t remember any specifics.  However, there is fun story about how I came to take the course, which I will be happy to relate.

(5) What did you do about it once the thought occurred to you?  Go to a museum of anthropology or archaeology and stare at their holdings wondering how those objects got to the museum or how curators decided that those were significant objects in the history of some past human society?  Did you decide immediately to take a course from an archaeologist (and not just an introduction to anthropology)?  Was this Gordon Childe (Willey not Childe) who, I believe, later became your mentor?

I didn’t meet Gordon Willey until I went to graduate school at Harvard (there also is a fun story about how I decided to go to Harvard for my Ph.D.) My first archaeology course was held in the University of Pennsylvania Museum

(6)  Did you romanticize the whole field at that time?  NO

Did you worry about the hours (especially the early hours while on a dig), or about how you could turn your interest into an income-earning profession?

I was blissfully worry-free at the time!

(7) In retrospect, can you identify the moment you became realistic about the work of an archaeologist–its pleasures, pains, headaches, doubts, and routines?   Was this recent?  Was it eye-opening or depressing?  You clearly stayed in the field after that moment, so the good, intriguing, or pleasurable parts of the work must have seemed greater than the headaches and worries.  Or is this wishful thinking on my part?

I became aware of many of the difficulties that a field archaeologist faced during my first summer fieldwork in 1963, when I was a crew member on a team that was part of the River Basin Surveys in South Dakota and Nebraska, but I also had my intellectual excitement about archaeology reinforced by the enjoyment of fieldwork.

(8) You have run museums, institutes, and even the Society for American Archaeology.  Do you worry now that you have de facto  moved into a different career path by becoming an administrator, fundraiser, or politician when you began directing institutions and associations?  Do you hate the question NO (or get it often)? YES

In 1994, when I was offered the position of Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum, I made a conscious decision that I was ready to shift my career path.  My colleagues and I had published the major monograph from the Sayil Archaeological Project in Yucatan, Mexico, that I co-directed, and I felt that it was a good time to think about switching academic gears.  I also was elected to the National Academy of Science that spring at the very time I was offered the position at Penn, which I thought was a nice capstone to my academic work at that time.
(9) If I were to be a bit contrary, I’d ask why so many U.S. archaeologists are interested in ancient Mayan civilization(s).  Is it the mystery of its apparent demise that is the big attraction?  Is it the evidence of major architectural and scientific achievement?  What exactly has it been for you– the sense that prior archaeologists had gotten it wrong?

This is an excellent question.  I am not certain what has attracted many of my colleagues to the study of the ancient Maya, but clearly, the Maya’s achievements in art, architecture, writing, and science all play a role.  For me – and I believe for some other Mayanists, as well – it was the combination of the rise of a complex civilization in a tropical rainforest setting (the ecological context) and a drive to study the nature of the non-elite contribution to the development of Maya civilization, in contrast to the traditional emphasis on the role of the elite (a concern with 99% of the population, if you will, instead of 1%!!)

I also should point out that my own introduction to Maya archaeology was quite serendipitous.  When I began my graduate studies at Harvard, I had never taken a course on the Maya and had no particular interest in Maya civilization.  However, at the end of a seminar on South American archaeology, Gordon Willey told me that he was starting a new project in Guatemala the next month and asked if I was interested in joining the project.  I said “yes,” and went out and bought a copy of Eric Thompson’s “The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization” and a Spanish grammar book (I didn’t know a word of Spanish at that time – having studied French and German in college) before flying down to Guatemala the following month.

(10) Have you ever worried that it’s just (or largely) the geographic proximity of Mexico, Belize, and Honduras to the U.S. (and the long history of unequal political, economic, and military relations between the U.S. and Central America) that explains the long record of U.S. archaeological interest in Mayan civilization(s)?  I am sure you agree that the history of many other people in many other places is just as interesting, or potentially so, so what sustains this particular interest in the ancient Maya?

I certainly agree;  and I have been concerned  about such questions as proximity and relative ease of obtaining permits.  However, I think that some of these concerns have eased in recent years with the strong growth of national archaeological agencies in the northern Central American countries and the continued growth in Mexico.
(11) The National Academy of Sciences did a 32 minute interview with you earlier this year (March 9, 2010, according to their website).  You and I will have about twice as long to talk when we do the phone/recorded INSIDE THE PRESIDENT’S STUDIO interview.  Does that prospect appeal to you, or perhaps actually worry you?  Some of us are fairly private and much more comfortable as interviewers than interviewees.  Does this description resonate with your sense of yourself?

I very much enjoyed the National Academy interview – which actually lasted more than hour before it was boiled down to the 32-minute podcast – and am quite comfortable as an interviewee.

(12) What is the one question you wished I’d asked and have not yet asked you?

What have been the major changes in archaeology, in general, and Maya studies, in particular, that have impressed you the most over the past four decades?

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