Robert McCormick Adams, 1926-2018

Pioneer of innovative methods of landscape archaeology remembered

February 22, 2018
Robert McCormick Adams
Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives

A leading expert in Near Eastern archaeology has died.

Robert McCormick Adams was born in Chicago, Illinois in July 1926. By 1950, having already worked in a steel mill and in the navy as a radio technician, he was studying at the University of Chicago while contemplating a career in journalism. His life was transformed when the renowned anthropologist Robert Braidwood offered him a place on an archaeological dig in Iraq because of his mechanical aptitude with cars. He went on to obtain a PhD at Chicago (1957) and spent almost three decades of his life there, eventually retiring as Harold H. Swift distinguished service professor emeritus of anthropology.

While at Chicago, Professor Adams served as director of the Oriental Institute for two separate periods (1962-68 and 1981-83), dean of the Division of the Social Sciences (1970-74) and provost of the university (1982-84). He took part in a number of important digs in Iraq, Mexico, Iran and Saudi Arabia and made a major contribution to the study of settlement patterns, particularly in the Near and Middle East. His books include The Evolution of Urban Society (1966), Heartland of Cities (1981), The Land behind Baghdad (1984) and Paths of Fire: An Anthropologist’s Inquiry into Western Technology (1996).

“Bob was a towering figure of Near Eastern archaeology and a pioneer of innovative methods of landscape archaeology,” said Christopher Woods, the current director of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. “He was fundamentally interested in the reciprocal interaction between humans and their environments – how civilisation and geography are inextricably intertwined.”

After leaving Chicago, Professor Adams became secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (1984-94), which describes itself as “the world’s largest museum, education and research complex”, making him responsible for a national zoo, 13 museums and a number of research facilities, including one in Panama. He spearheaded the acquisition of the National Museum of the American Indian and the opening of the National Postal Museum as well as major infrastructure and digitisation projects. His commitment to diversity and determination to question more sanitised views of American history led to the creation of a number of boldly controversial exhibitions such as The West as America at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (1991) and Science in American Life at the National Museum of American History (1994).

At the end of a decade at the Smithsonian, Professor Adams returned to the academy as an adjunct professor at the University of California, San Diego. He died on 27 January and is survived by a daughter, two stepdaughters and three grandchildren.

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