Brown professor digs to free voices from distant past
'The extraordinary becomes almost humdrum. If you're digging you have to be that way.'
DIGGING DEEP: Stephen Houston, professor of social science, anthropology and archaeology at Brown University, said archaeologists must be “clear-eyed and strategic.”
PHOTO COURTESY BROWN UNIVERSITY
By Rebecca Keister PBN Staff Writer
Stephen Houston, who has been a professor of social science, anthropology and archaeology at Brown University in Providence for the last eight years, credits his “partly European” background and his parents’ love of history with developing his appreciation of all things past.
After studying anthropology and archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, he began a teaching career that eventually drew him to Brown for the university’s Ph.D. program.
When he hasn’t been teaching or writing, he’s been involved in archaeological digs in Scotland, Ireland, Mexico, Honduras and Philadelphia – where a team was working on excavating Colonial latrines.
But his most important field work clearly has been in leading a team at a Maya archaeological site in El Zotz, Guatemala, where last month they discovered a pyramid depicting the Maya sun god in a series of images in painted stucco that Houston believes will give researchers a “significant amount” of previously unknown insight into the Maya civilization.
PBN: Why a career in anthropology and archaeology and in teaching it?
HOUSTON: I remember being interested in this before I hit 8 years old. My mother was Swedish and we would spend most summers over there. My father took me to museums and ruin sites. I think it’s this feeling of a weighty past that most people ignore. It’s there, everywhere around and in us. Often those voices go unheard and I became interested at an early age in trying to hear those voices, and in ancient writing. That’s where the past really speaks most directly to us. [When I went to school] there were really no jobs [in this field]. The thought was that there would never be employment but I had to do it because I loved it.
PBN: Your research has focused on the Maya, a Mesoamerican civilization established beginning at about 2,000 BC and then flourished in what is now northern Central America – Guatemala, Belize and parts of El Salvador and Honduras – until the Spanish conquest beginning in the early 1500s. What is your interest there?