Pioneering Into the Past

Archaeologists used to focus on tool types, says Robert Adams; today they probe ancient beliefs. INTERVIEW

ASK Robert McCormick Adams how he got into archaeology and anthropology, and he'll tell you about the opium dens in postwar Shanghai. He had attended a private prep school in Chicago, where his father was a lawyer, and gone on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to major in physics. But a stint in the Navy found him, still not 20, assigned to the shore patrol in China for six months.

``Shanghai at the end of the [Second World] War was something else,'' he muses, looking out the window of his office in the 19th-century ``Castle'' of the Smithsonian Institution, where he is the director. ``I was on a vice squad, raiding opium dens. It was a scene of unbelievable brutality, and the most crass form of political manipulation, and vast crowds of workers who were already moving very sharply toward the communists, and a refugee colony of Jews and White Russians, and women having babies in alleys, and everything on sale. It was clear that here was history in motion.''

He, too, remained in motion. Returning home, he switched to the social sciences and to the University of Chicago, where he ``wandered back and forth between economics and history and anthropology.'' Hoping to become a journalist, he took a job in a South Chicago steel mill in 1949 - telling himself that ``if you're going to be a reporter, you better see what it's like out there.''

The break came, he says, in 1950, when archaeologist Robert Braidwood of the university's Oriental Institute chose young Adams, one of his students, as a last-minute replacement for an expedition to Iraq. ``So within a two-week period,'' he recalls, ``I went from working on the beam mill in South Chicago to running a crew of Kurdish workmen in the foothills of Northern Iraq.''

Even then, Dr. Adams didn't think he wanted a career in archaeology. One Friday afternoon, however, he remembers lying on his bunk in a house they had built near Jarmo, Iraq, and talking to a Norwegian social anthropologist. ``I was talking along about what I was going to do when I got back - go back into the mill and journalism. And I remember his saying from the top bunk, `Bob, you really ought to give some thought to this academic business - it has a lot going for it.'

``Really, from that moment, I decided to go back and get serious about school.''

What followed - his PhD dissertation on the beginnings of cities, his continuing work in Iraq and Mexico, his directorship of the Oriental Institute, his highly regarded books and articles, his membership in the National Academy of Sciences - flowed out of that commitment. It also, he says, flowed out of the age in which he lived. ``It was a time of incredible fluidity,'' he says. ``It was still sort of the tail end of colonialism, and you could still ... get a permit [to dig], and nobody was going to bother you.''

But over the years, as his plans for further expeditions developed, so did political unrest in the region. Finally, in 1970, after waiting months for a digging permit from the Iraqi government, Adams took a position as dean of the social sciences department at the University of Chicago, later serving as provost before coming to the Smithsonian in 1984.

The change from research into administration, he says, led him to become ``interested in a lot of the main currents in the social sciences which were not confined to anthropology.''

Now, looking across those currents, what does he see?

``I think the disciplines are fragmenting in all directions,'' he says, ``and the most interesting frontiers of work are ones that cross all the usual lines.''

That very breadth, he maintains, is crucial to the future of science. ``I don't see enough people who are looking beyond their field - who are taking my path. People are too imprisoned in their disciplines - and I think the disciplines aren't worth the powder to blow them up. In the social sciences, I would say they're really nothing but diploma factories - which isn't to say that they aren't producing good people, but that the conceptual core is not present in anthropology any more, or in political science.

``I'm not suggesting that there isn't wonderful work being done, but only that what makes sense now are clusters of people and ideas that grab across disciplinary frontiers.''

As an example, he cites the ``enormous and truly exciting'' studies of the Maya culture in Mexico. ``They're at the point of being able to read about half of what's written,'' he says, noting that earlier this year a lava flow in El Salvador yielded up the first Mayan ``codex,'' or manuscript volume of writing, preserved for centuries by a cap of lava.

Such progress does not come, as it once did, from lone researchers but from the ``contributions of many individuals, who are highly individualistic.'' They form a community, he says, that is ``highly creative and highly selective,'' where leadership is ``very fluid'' and where information travels through ``preprints'' circulated within the community. ``By the time stuff gets into print,'' he notes, ``it's already pass'e.''

Is the academic model inherited from Germany - where the professor sits atop a hierarchy of underlings - crumbling?

``Yes,'' he says, ``and something distinctly American is replacing it, which I really like and which does not involve any clear authority lines, and yet involves a lot of serious competition.'' And that, for Adams, is what makes his field so enjoyable.

``The intellectual adventure is what life's all about,'' he says. ``I can't think of a more worthwhile activity that puts you more on the tips of your toes at all times.''

What does he see as cutting-edge issues for the future in his field?

``I think first of the great, long-lived civilizations of the world,'' he says. Access to the sites remains a ``terrible problem,'' given such issues as political instability in Iraq, terrorism in Peru, and the drug cartels in Colombia. But if those can be resolved, ``there is a grand series of questions that people are beginning to ask.''

Archaeology, he explains, used to focus largely on the modes of subsistence of ancient peoples, skirting the tougher issues of social organization and belief systems. ``That made archaeologists into sort of crass materialists,'' he asserts, ``who were doing a lot of fact collecting but were generalizing only about tool types.''

Now, he says, ``the questions are being refined in ways that take us into genuine realms of social organization and belief. And it seems to me that we're going to press that frontier back a long way in the years ahead.''

Why is that relevant? ``You provide something by way of true perspective on our own times if you're dealing, let's say, with the rise of urbanism as a massive social transformation,'' he says. ``What archaeology provides is a long-term understanding of how change takes place. Granted that you get into mists of uncertainty as you move into belief systems. But you can't talk about change if you're talking only about subsistence systems. You've got to talk about the whole organism.''

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