Robert McCormick Adams— 2002 Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement

Award Citation:

Robert McCormick Adams is one of America's foremost archaeologists.  In the course of a highly distinguished career Professor Adams has worked in both the Near East and Mesoamerica. Above all, however, it is his pioneer research in Iraq, with its broad cross-cultural implications, which has been most richly acclaimed in scholarly circles throughout the world.

Over the course of his career Adams has emphasized the importance of social interaction and cultural ecology in the evolution of civilizations. In particular, his research has explored the relevance of cultural ecology as an explanation for the rise of civilizations as a cross-cultural phenomenon. Representative of this facet of Adams' work are the Henry Lewis Morgan Lectures which he delivered at the University of Rochester in 1965 and which were published in book form as The Evolution of Urban Society in the following year. In this influential study Adams compared in detail the development of early pristine civilizations in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica. He showed how, despite differences in detail, there were processual similarities which led to remarkable parallels in the way that these unrelated civilizations evolved.

From the outset Adams' theoretical contributions were closely supported by his innovative and timely field surveys in Iraq, which saved a vast store of otherwise unexamined data from irretrievable loss. This work was concentrated in the broad alluvial plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers where early Uruk, Sumerian, Akkadian and Babylonian civilization each emerged in turn. Such fieldwork in Mesopotamia remained one of his more significant, consuming concerns well into the 1970's and fresh surveys would probably have been initiated in the 1980's but for the constraints of the Iran-Iraq war.

Adams’ survey data embraced all available material from the Neolithic period well into Islamic times. It provided an unparalleled data set for examining just how the natural environment had affected local subsistence strategies and Mesopotamian cultural evolution as a whole. The results of this exhaustive examination of the available archaeological evidence culminated in the publication of a remarkable series of monographs including Land Behind Baghdad (1965), The Uruk Countryside (1972, with Hans Nissen), and the magisterial study, Heartland of Cities (1981). With the aim of continuing to flesh out his ideas on the importance of social interactions, both within and between given societies, he published a number of landmark articles including "Ideologies: Unity and Diversity" (1992) and "Anthropological Perspectives on Ancient Trade" (1974). More recently he has published Paths of Fire - An Anthropologist's Inquiry into Western Technology (1966). This insightful volume explores the interaction between the forces of social and technological change and the implications of this interaction for the modern world.

As far as Robert Adams' distinguished contributions as a teacher are concerned, many of his students now hold academic positions of distinction through which they are transmitting his innovative lines of thinking to new generations of students.

While service to the discipline at large is not a formal criterion for the present award, it cannot pass without notice that Professor Adams has always maintained an interest in policies which promote research and that he has occupied a particularly notable succession of significant academic positions. Thus, apart from two terms as the Director of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, he has served as Dean and Provost of the University of Chicago, as a Councilor of the National Academy of Sciences and as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute from 1984 to 1994. From this last date, moreover, he has continued to teach and advise a new generation of students as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Anthropology of the University of California at San Diego.

In conclusion, this is an overall record of distinguished archaeological achievement that few can be said to match. And, on behalf of the Archaeological Institute of America, I believe the award of the Gold Medal constitutes an entirely fitting degree of recognition for an individual who happily remains "in harness" more than forty-five years since the time of his first faculty appointment -- and who unquestionably remains at the cutting edge of our common subject.

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