AIA News

June 18, 2020

In Memoriam: Robert H. Dyson, Jr.

The AIA is sad to share news of the passing of Dr. Robert Harris Dyson, Jr. We offer our sincere condolences to his colleagues, former students, and friends.

Robert H. Dyson, Jr., American Philosophical Society 2004. Photograph courtesy of Richard L. Zettler, Associate Curator-in-Charge, Near East Section, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Robert Harris Dyson, Jr. (1927-2020)

Robert Harris Dyson, Jr., President of the Archaeological Institute of America from 1977-1980, died in Williamsburg, Virginia on February 14, 2020, after a long illness. He was 92 years old.

Bob Dyson was born in York, Pennsylvania on August 2, 1927. He was the only child of Robert Harris Dyson and Harriet Myrtle Dyson (nee Duck). After graduating from Runnymede Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Canada, he joined the U. S. Navy and, as he recollected, was in transit to the Pacific when Japan surrendered on September 2, 1945. He was initially posted to a patrol gunboat (USS PGM-6) and later transferred to landing ships. His assignment to USS LSM-112 in February 1946 took him to China.

Dyson enrolled in Harvard College on his return to the U. S. in 1946. He majored in Anthropology, apparently on the advice of a cousin who was a professor of Anthropology, and was a member of the Anthropology Society of the Harvard Peabody Museum. Dyson said that Carleton S. Coon had been his advisor as a freshman, but he credited Lauriston Ward, Curator of Asiatic Archaeology at the Peabody Museum, as being his real mentor. Graduating with a BA (magna cum laude) in 1950, Dyson continued on in the PhD program. He was named a Junior Fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows after his first year of graduate work and he remained in the cohort of Junior Fellows from 1951 to 1954. Dyson received his PhD in 1966, with a dissertation based on field research carried out a decade earlier entitled Excavations on the Acropolis at Susa and Problems of Susa A, B, C.

Froelich G. Rainey, long-time Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (Penn Museum), recruited Dyson to the University of Pennsylvania in 1954, where he was appointed Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Assistant Curator. Dyson oversaw the installation of a Mesopotamia Gallery in his initial years in Philadelphia. He was promoted to Associate Professor and Associate Curator in 1962, and he became Full Professor and Curator in 1967.

After years of involvement in Penn’s central administration, Dyson was appointed Dean of Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in 1979. FAS had been created in 1974 and Dyson, who had been Associate Dean, followed its charismatic first Dean, Vartan Gregorian, who had been named Penn’s Provost. Mary Ann Meyers, former Secretary of the University, said Dyson was well respected as Dean, and he served in that capacity until named Director of Penn Museum in 1982, following Martin Biddle’s tenure.

Dyson had a distinct vision of Penn Museum, but he faced significant challenges as its Director, including fund raising to restore a nearly 100-year old museum building in need of a new tile roof and upgraded security systems following several thefts, publication of backlogged manuscripts, etc. Throughout his tenure, however, he maintained a focus on field research, and he supported excavations and ethnographic research to the extent finances permitted. He also believed in sending members of the Museum’s staff into the field so they could get a better sense of what archaeology (or anthropological field research) was all about and be more enthusiastic and effective in their jobs..

In 1987 Dyson, Peter Paanakker and Jerome Byrne created the Louis J. Kolb Society of Fellows, supported by the Louis J. Kolb Foundation established by Paanakker in 1981, to provide financial support to outstanding graduate students whose interests coincided with Penn Museum’s collections and field research. He modeled the Kolb Society of Fellows on the Harvard Society of Fellows, with members of Penn’s faculty as Senior Fellows and graduate students as Junior Fellows.

With a grandfather (Charles W. Dyson) who had been a Rear Admiral in the U. S. Navy and a world traveler, Dyson, as he volunteered in an interview published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, grew up surrounded by objects from exotic places. His father apparently wanted him to follow in his grandfather’s foot steps and enroll in the U. S. Naval Academy, but his interest in geography, travel, history and photography led him to archaeology. He said he was lucky in knowing that he wanted to be an archaeologist when he was thirteen.

Dyson’s life-long passion for archaeological field work began early. He participated in the University of Arizona’s Point of Pines field school, directed by Emil Haury, in 1947, after his freshman year at Harvard. He and Elizabeth Tooker, a contemporary undergraduate in Radcliffe College, co-authored a report on excavations at the Palmer-Taylor Mound in central Florida in 1949. The Palmer-Taylor Mound had been excavated by the Harvard Excavators Club before World War II. The report was never published, but often cited. In summer 1950, following his graduation, Dyson and Theodore L. Stoddard, Jr. surveyed and tested native American sites near Cobscock Bay and Dennysville in Maine and Richibucto in New Brunswick.

Flourishing as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows, Dyson represented the Peabody Museum as an anthropologist on the first Marshall Expedition to study the Kalahari Bushmen of southern Africa in 1951. In a letter dated March 3, 1951, J. O. Brew, Director of the Peabody Museum, wrote to John Kennedy Marshall, “We shall be able to send with you as an anthropological assistant one of our best graduate students, who has had four seasons field experience and who is a well-rounded anthropologist.” Dyson left the U. S. in late April and returned in mid-September.

Dyson made his first trip to the Middle East in 1953-1954, and participated in three very different archaeological projects. He first joined the excavations at Nippur, sponsored by Penn Museum and the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, in late November and December, 1953. In a Newsletter, dated December 13, 1953, Donald McCown, who directed the excavations, took note of Dyson’s stay, “Our small company has been supplemented, since shortly before Thanksgiving, by a visit from Bob Dyson, an anthropologist from the Peabody Museum at Harvard, who will be here until after Christmas. He has proved a most pleasant and useful addition to our group and we are sorry that his plans to participate in the excavations at Jericho and Susa will not let him spend the full season with us.”

Jericho’s field season lasted from January to April, 1954, and Kathleen Kenyon provided Dyson with what he described as intense instruction in the Wheeler method of stratigraphic excavations and the use of sections that left a deep impression on him. He subsequently spent two months on the French excavations at Susa, then under the direction of Roman Ghirshman. Dyson made the first stratigraphic sounding on the Acropole at Susa that provided the data for his PhD dissertation.

Dyson returned to the Middle East in 1955, after his appointment at the University of Pennsylvania, representing Penn Museum on the Danish excavations on Bahrain. The University of Aarhus at Moesgaard in Jutland and Penn Museum apparently made simultaneous requests for permission to excavate on Bahrain in the early 1950s. The British Advisor to the ruler of Bahrain, Sir Charles Belgrave, felt unable to make an informed judgement as to the merits of the two proposals and made his decision on the toss of a coin. While the concession fell to the University of Aarhus, Penn Museum provided financial assistance to the second season that lasted from January to late March, 1955.

Dyson’s own long-term field project started the following year, when Penn Museum Director, Froelich G. Rainey, suggested that he go to Iran. Penn Museum had worked in Iran in the 1930s, and Rainey hoped to renew archaeological research in the country. Dyson’s early research interests – and his first article, published in American Anthropologist – had focused on the domestication of plants and animals. He was one of the first scholars to ask how animal domestication could be identified in the archaeological record. Both Rainey and Dyson envisioned a field research project focusing on prehistoric periods.

Dyson, along with Jason Paige, a Research Associate at Penn Museum, and Taghi Assefi, Iranian Archaeological Inspector, spent four months in early summer 1956 surveying archaeological sites across northern and western Iran. Dyson ended the survey with a ten day visit to the site of Hasanlu Tepe in the Ushnu-Solduz Valley at the southwestern corner of Lake Urmia in Western Azerbaijan. The British archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein, and Iranian archaeologists had briefly excavated the site in the 1930s and 1940s, and Mohammad-Taqi Mostafavi, Director of the Archaeological Service of Iran, and Ghirshman had encouraged Dyson to excavated there.

Dyson began excavations of Hasanlu in earnest in 1957, and in 1958 he got his first real indication that the site concealed an Early Iron Age occupation level that preserved the evidence of a violent destruction of the settlement’s citadel and surrounding lower town dating to ca. 800 BCE. In that field season, when he was just 31 years old, Dyson discovered the gold bowl or beaker whose base and sides were embellished with figural scenes (humans, deities, and animals) hammered in low relief. The bowl was found with the skeletons of three people, likely enemy combatants trying to loot it and other objects, who were killed in the collapse of what became known as Burned Building I-West. The discovery landed Dyson in an iconic photograph in Life magazine January 12, 1959. It also significantly altered Dyson’s focus on prehistory, but, as he himself recognized, made his career as an archaeologist.  

Dyson conducted fourteen seasons of excavations at Hasanlu, ending in 1977. While he focused largely on the citadel’s burned occupation, uncovering the foundations and walls of burned buildings, skeletal remains of more than 250 inhabitants and combatants, and tens of thousands of artifacts in amongst the ash and rubble, he also succeeded in one of his stated goals going into the field project of reconstructing the cultural-historical sequence of northwestern Iran. In order to obtain a broader picture of the region than he was able to get from Hasanlu itself, he and his colleagues conducted excavations at other sites nearby, included Pisdeli Tepe and Dalma Tepe (1961), Hajji Firuz Tepe (1961 and 1968), Agrab Tepe and Ziwiyeh (1964), and Seh Girdan and Dinka Tepe (1966 and 1968). If smaller than Hasanlu, these sites allowed for a closer look at earlier and later periods of habitation. Dyson’s investigations therefore extended our understanding of the occupation of the region south of Lake Urmia back to the Late Neolithic (ca. 6500 BCE) and up to the Medieval era.

Even as he pursued work at Hasanlu Tepe, Dyson continued active engagement with Penn Museum archaeological research projects, more generally. In 1962, for example, Dyson served as Field Director pro tempore of Penn Museum’s excavations at Tikal in Guatemala and loved to talk about his time at Tikal.

Dyson was a member of various scholarly organizations, including the American Philosophical Society, the nation’s oldest learned society, and was given many honors over the course of his life. He was a Chevalier of the French Ordre des Arts et Lettres and the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, awarded him the Order Homayoun (4th Rank). He was also feted after his retirement in 1994 on a tour of Pakistan by Mohammad Rafique Mughal, one of Dyson’s highly accomplished PhD’s, who was then Director-General of Archaeology and Museums.

Whatever his successes and honors, Dyson was most proud of the many students he had taught in the classroom, trained in the field, worked with informally or even influenced from afar. He left no family, but his students and extended family constitute a virtual “who’s who” of archaeologists across continents.

Bob Dyson hired me as Assistant Curator of Penn Museum’s Near East Section, with a faculty appointment in the Department of Anthropology, though I was able to transfer my faculty appointment to the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, when it was created in 2006. I and my own students had the great privilege of working with him and getting to know him as Director of Penn Museum and in his retirement.

Richard L. Zettler
Associate Professor
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania

Associate Curator-in-Charge
Near East Section
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

support Us

The AIA is North America's largest and oldest nonprofit organization dedicated to archaeology. The Institute advances awareness, education, fieldwork, preservation, publication, and research of archaeological sites and cultural heritage throughout the world. Your contribution makes a difference.