Archaeology has lost a noted scholar, Maya ceramicist, valued colleague, and a gentle man. Robert L. Rands passed away Friday, July 24th, 2010, from heart failure. Less than 36 hours before his death, Bob continued providing insights into what he suggested was temporally sensitive variation found in the modes of the base constructions of ceramic basins from the site of Trinidad, in Tabasco, Mexico.

Bob Rands was born into an impoverished environment in Rising Sun, Maryland, May 13, 1922. His early years were frequently marked by malnutrition, which may have contributed to health problems that affected him throughout his life. He could temporarily escape his environment through reading archaeology books and playing baseball, taking skills as a fielder and as a fair hitter into his college years. Following high school, he worked as a copy boy for the Washington Evening Star newspaper of Washington, D.C., learning the value of writing without obfuscation. Later, he worked nights in the mail room of the Surgeon General's Office so that he might "hang out" with members of the Bureau of American Ethnology and read about archaeology during the day. It also afforded an opportunity to develop strong relationships with archaeologists such as Gordon Willey, Matthew Stirling, Linton Satterthwaite, and Julian Steward.

In 1946 Bob became an undergraduate in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, doubling up on classes to graduate in two and a half years. On a university field trip in 1947 he met Barbara Cornet, the woman who would become his wife and partner in subsequent excavations at Palenque. They moved to Los Angeles in 1948, where he studied with George Brainerd, who was incorporating Anna Shepard's approach to paste analysis. Bob obtained a master's degree in 1949. After that, it was off to Columbia University to begin a doctorate in anthropology, which he obtained under the supervision of Gordon Ekholm, William Duncan Strong, Alfred L. Kroeber, and visiting professor Julian Steward. Bob was deeply intrigued with the themes and complexities found in Maya art. His 1952 dissertation focused on the widespread representation of warfare, creating an extensive tabulation of motifs found on Maya sculpture. His compilation of evidence for warfare ran counter to prevailing notions among contemporary scholars regarding the "peaceful" Maya.

Prior to graduation, his earlier acquaintance with Matthew Stirling resulted in an invitation to accompany Matt and his wife, Marion, on what must have been one of the last major museum expeditions to acquire exhibit quality vessels from sites in the jungles of Panama. Later, with funding made possible by the Institute of Andean Research and a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in 1951, Bob established his first contact with the Mexican-run excavations at Palenque directed by Alberto Ruz Lhuillier. The rapport that developed between the two men resulted in Bob being invited to engage in what would be a long-term study of Palenque's pottery. No one realized just how long it was going to be!

Bob joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Mississippi as an assistant professor in 1952, becoming a full professor in 1960. Being an anthropologist during the 1950s in Mississippi presented several challenges; while he might work with the material remains of the past, he lived very much in the present. Bob was among the faculty that fought to admit the first African American, James Meredith, to the University of Mississippi in 1962—an event that precipitated widespread rioting in the town. Personally, and professionally, he felt that he had to do something to combat the notion of racial inferiority prevalent in the region. Bob wrote a series of articles that were published in the Pascagoula newspaper The Chronicle, wherein he challenged point after point made in Carleton Putnam's widely read book Race and Reason, concluding that the book was devoid of any scientific basis or objectivity. In response to his detailed critique, Bob and his family were subject to numerous bomb and death threats. These ultimately forced him to take a temporary position at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He served as Director of the Research Laboratories of Anthropology and as an associate professor of anthropology from 1963-1966. In 1966 he was recruited to become the Curator of Mesoamerican Archaeology and Professor of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, becoming the Curator of Southern Mesoamerican Archaeology in 1972.

Barbara Rands passed away in 1980. Bob married for a second time, rekindling a relationship with Elizabeth Vaughan Reel from the early 1940s. Ironically, she worked for the IRS office in Kansas City, which was frequently investigating Bob's tax returns, as they failed to believe the extent to which he financially supported his own research. Since Beth was not an archaeologist, he was forced to take time away from work, resulting in him becoming more rested and ushering in a period that several students believe involved his best teaching. Following Elizabeth's death in late 1990, Bob returned to his former grueling work regimen, often exceeding 15 hours a day, seven days a week. He "retired" from the SIU-C anthropology department in 1997 but remained affiliated with the university's Center for Archaeological Investigations. He moved to Mechanicsville, Maryland, in 1998 and continued research with his former student (the author) in his laboratory facility up to a week before he passed way.

In addition to his academic appointments, he held several temporary positions: as anthropologist with the U.S. Department of Justice, conducting research to help settle the Acoma and Laguna land claim dispute (1954, 1954, and 1957); as a Visiting Scholar at Dumbarton Oaks (1975); and as a Research Collaborator at Brookhaven National Laboratory (1974-77, 1980-83). Bob was honored by the Society for American Archaeology, receiving the Excellence in Ceramic Analysis award in 1998 that recognized his innovative contributions to the study of pottery. He appeared even more pleased, however, by two of his students being similarly honored ahead of him: one for lithic analysis in 1996 and another for ceramic analysis in 1997.

The interest in Maya art expressed in Bob's dissertation was evident in several of his early publications during the latter half of the 1950s. He shared his ideas on the origins and manifestations of water lily motifs in Maya art (see Rands 1953) with noted Maya scholar, Tatiana Proskouriakoff. Believing that Proskouriakoff had expressed general enthusiasm for his research, he was surprised by her American Antiquity review (Proskouriakoff 1956) that characterized his approach as more closely resembling dissection than analysis. Clearly, his early publications on aspects of Maya art, sculpture, jade, and figurines reveal the tendency toward exacting, thorough research and extensive tabulation with a focus on variation rather than superficial categorization. He believed in first "splitting" archaeological materials into basic components that could then combine into larger, more manageable units for interpretation according to one's specific problem orientation, eventually leading to more synthetic conclusions.

Bob had a broad grasp of Mesoamerican archaeology but focused on the Classic Maya. He prepared several papers that provided benchmark syntheses including contributions to the Handbook of Middle American Indians and Advanced Seminars of the School of American Research. Increasingly, however, his research and publications became more restricted to aspects of technological and compositional change within the Palenque pottery assemblages over time. His approach to deriving patterns of variation was put to the test during his more than five decades of analyzing pottery from the Palenque region. Over the years, diverse data sets expanded with new considerations frequently offering a glimpse of some avenue of research that required further investigation. Bob labored under the responsibility of preparing a "final" publication on Palenque pottery for the majority of his professional life. The obstacles, however, were formidable as the low-fired pottery was highly fragmented by frequent mixing and reuse as structure fill and consistently ravaged by the heavy rains and acidic soils. Despite extensive excavations during the 1950s at Palenque, clear stratigraphy was largely absent. Barbara Rands had painstakingly mended small, eroded sherds into sufficiently large sections to demonstrate that Palenque, which was situated in the far west of the Maya lowlands, made and consumed pottery unlike that of the better known core lowland Maya region. In 1960s Bob surveyed and excavated sites that surrounded Palenque in order to place changes at the primate center within a greater regional perspective and to provide information about Palenque's interactions with many smaller, satellite sites. As one easily drives through the region today, it is hard to imagine cutting through the dense tropical growth and traversing muddy landscapes in order to recover wet, fragile ceramics that had to be packed out from a site on one's back.

The poor preservation of Palenque's regional ceramics caused unusually strong emphasis to be placed on attributes of form, plastic decoration, and especially paste. Reflected light, low power microscopy, petrographic analysis, refired color of surface and core, and extensive use of neutron activation analysis provided the data for interpreting time, space, and processual relationships. The use of such variably sensitive analytical techniques required a team-like structure and equally important financial support. Bob favored a strong interdisciplinary, rather than a multidisciplinary approach, but one which would provide information for archaeologists working in the field rather than the laboratory. As the mixed-level data sets evolved, he would work intensely to seek interwoven patterns that would serve to guide additional sampling. Dead ends and pitfalls were common, serving to highlight what he considered to be "misplaced faiths of archaeology." These include such "faiths" as holding that sharply contrastive composition among pottery at a site would be indicative of trade or that clay differences might have an approximate relationship to distance. While these, and similar, "faiths" may often be true, he found their use limited and tending to distract attention from a careful consideration of alternatives. For a while, he sought to find some simplified taxonomic means that would communicate changes within Palenque's ceramic complexes to archaeologists more familiar with the type-variety system widely employed in Maya studies. Working without surface finish, he attempted to force shape variation into a set of named patterns. Frustratingly he found that the exercise dampened the variation of certain classes of pottery to an unacceptable extent and tended to mask the differential retention or elaboration of temporally sensitive traits. Thus he abandoned the type-variety approach in favor of mapping modal differences of form and technological features. This eschewing of single, simplistic relationships in favor of weighting many variables and multiple alternatives was characteristic of Bob's intellectual dedication to research throughout his career.

Despite his dedication, Bob did not complete his Palenque study, leaving huge data sets, synthetic essays, and numerous form-class page layouts for others to knit together. During the writing of his last paper, co-authored with T. Patrick Culbert, Bob was asked by Pat if his recursive process of trying to integrate so many data sets was worth the effort. Given the decades of energy expended, it was a valid question, but one that was easily answered. In order to provide as accurate a portrayal of ceramic development and distribution as possible, Palenque and Bob would accept no less.

A 2003 interview with Robert L. Rands is available from the Maya Exploration Center web site:

Selected publications of Robert L. Rands.

Posted: March 5, 2011

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