Karl W. Butzer— 1991 Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology

Award Citation:

The Archaeological Institute of America is proud to honor Karl W. Butzer with our Twelfth Annual Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology for his clear and compelling identification of archaeology's dependence on the methods and models of the natural sciences, and his presentation of the new paradigm of contextual archaeology.

Dr. Butzer, who received his B.Sc. in Mathematics from McGill University in 1954, and his D.Sc. in Physical Geography and Ancient History from the University of Bonn in 1957, has since 1984 occupied the Dickson Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts Chair in Geography and Anthropology at the Umvers1ty of Texas at Austin. He is the author of some 250 papers, and nine books and monographs since 1957, all dealing, at some scale or level of complexity, with one central theme: the interaction of culture and environment. Dr. Butzer's research has included both the Old World (the Mediterranean region, from the Upper Nile drainage to the Iberian Peninsula, and sub-Saharan Africa) and the New (central Illinois); it spans the Pleistocene Epoch from australopithecine sites in South Africa to the Medieval Islamic city of Alzira in Valencia; and most notably it encompasses new theoretical insights into the role played by human societies in improving or degrading their habitat, regardless of space or time. Therefore, it is not surprising to see his research extending out to encompass truly fundamental questions, such as an analysis of ancient Egyptian civilization from an ecological viewpoint in Early Hydraulic Civilization in Egypt: A Study in Cultural Ecology (1976) and a consideration of civilizations as adaptive systems in "Civilizations: Organisms or Systems?" in American Scientist (1980).

In the first edition of his Environment and Archaeology: An Introduction to Pleistocene Geography (1964), he laid the cornerstone for a theoretical structure relating prehistoric people and their environment. This structure has been further articulated since the late 1970s with his notion of archaeology as human ecology, first presented in 1978 and then expanded and refined in 1982 in his book Archaeology as Human Ecology: Method and Theory for a Contextual Approach. In conceptualizing human cultures as complex adaptive systems, Dr. Butzer has argued for an ecological, systemic approach to archaeological contexts at all scales, from individual artifacts to subcontinental regions. He has defined contextual archaeology as the study of archaeological sites as part of a human ecosystem, representing a complex social science unto itself. He has proposed five measurable, replicable foci for archaeological research: space, scale, complexity, interaction, and stability, characterizing them as dynamic "perspectives" from which archaeologists may more profitably operationalize their research designs, in consort with the more traditional concerns of artifact assemblages, intrasite patterning, and general cultural patterning.

Dr. Butzer's formulation of the contextual archaeology paradigm was a revolutionary proposal, highlighting a fundamental difference between, on the one hand, the static, descriptive environmental archaeology that is taught (if any is taught at all) to graduate students of archaeology, and, on the other, a new, dynamic explication of interrelationships between culture and environment. Due to the widespread adoption of portable computers, relational databases, and spatial analysis software, some excavations are collecting significantly more information than just a decade ago. Once these data are collected, something other than traditional study must be utilized if the effort is not to have been in vain. Exploratory data analysis, multivariate statistical analysis, and systems theory could be applied in the framework of contextual archaeology that Dr. Butzer has outlined in his most important contributions to the archaeological literature.

Karl W. Butzer has provided a new paradigm within which the complex multivariate relationships among cultural and environmental data may be analyzed. It will result in the broadening and deepening of what really should be our ultimate, systemic objective of understanding how people related to their environment in the past. It is incumbent on us, in bestowing this award on Dr. Butzer, to redouble our efforts to implement in practice the potentially revolutionary approach of contextual archaeology that he has offered to us in his work over the past quarter-century.

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