Robert H. Brill— 1990 Pomerance Award for Scientific Contributions to Archaeology

Award Citation:

Robert H. Brill has spent an enviable life as a productive scientist and administrator. He has been a pioneer in the application of many scientific techniques to the study and understanding of artifacts and the technologies behind their manufacture. His research, his field projects, his lectures, and his impact have extended throughout Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and the Far East.

Dr. Brill received all of his formal education in his native New Jersey including public schools in Newark, a B.S. in Chemistry from Upsala College in East Orange, and a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Rutgers University in New Brunswick. After a six-year career as a chemistry professor at Upsala College in the 1950s, he embarked in 1960 on what can only be described as a wonderfully fruitful career at the Coming Museum of Glass where he continues to mix science and art in creative and prolific ways.

It has been from his perch at the Corning Museum of Glass that he has flown literally to exotic lands (that archaeologists usually consider their own) and, equally, has flown figuratively to heights of exotic science in the service of archaeology. (At least it was exotic when he first perceived that the technique—for example, lead isotope analysis for provenance studies—could help solve an archaeological problem.)

The archaeological community can well appreciate the significant administrative contribution Dr. Brill made when he took over the directorship at the Corning Museum of Glass and supervised the flood-recovery effort during the early 1970s. But his commanding love has remained archaeological chemistry, and he returned to research in 1975.

Archaeologists who begin to explore what natural science can do to further explicate ancient lifeways from the study of limited physical remains soon become aware of Dr. Brill's seminal volume entitled Science and Archaeology. Published in 1971, it has inspired the whole current generation of those who practice or draw on the fruits of archaeometry. In the Introduction to this book Brill entered a plea—a plea for close cooperation between the archaeometrist and the archaeologist. He pinpointed the danger that the capability for analyzing much greater numbers of samples and making ever more complicated types of measurements could lead the laboratory scientist unwittingly into a preoccupation with numerical data and a tendency to lose direct contact with archaeologists and the archaeological component of the problem. His plea remains valid.

A good example of Dr. Brill's insights that have benefited archaeology is his early work on using lead isotope analysis to provenance Egyptian, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine glass. His pioneering work helped develop the current rash of lead isotope studies to source the copper in Mediterranean bronzes.

Currently his research focus is early glassmaking in East Asia, particularly China. Again using chemical analysis and lead isotope analysis he is studying the origin and development of Chinese glass during the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. (the Warring States period).

Robert Brill has not ignored the educational aspects of his chosen field. In 1977, he directed the field expedition and wrote the story line and narration for The Glassmakers of Herat, a 30-minute film documenting a one-room glass factory in Afghanistan. More recently he has directed field expeditions to videotape traditional methods of glassmaking in India.

The breadth and depth of Brill's contributions to archaeometry lead the Archaeological Institute of America to follow in the footsteps of the American Chemical Society, which presented him with the Eugene C. Sullivan Award. The Pomerance Award is a fitting honor for a lifetime of significant research in archaeological chemistry.


Dig Deeper

Email the AIA Facebook Instagram YouTube Twitter
Subscribe to the AIA e-Update

Sign Up!