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Clark Erickson

Oral History Interview with Clark Erickson, undertaken by Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent at Dumbarton Oaks on July 14, 2009. At Dumbarton Oaks, Clark Erickson was a Senior Fellow of Pre-Columbian Studies (2002–2008).

JNSL: Today is Tuesday, July 14, 2009. My name is Jeanne-Nicole Saint-Laurent. I have the privilege today of speaking with Professor Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania. Good afternoon.

CE: Good afternoon.

JNSL: Okay. Thank you for agreeing to speak with us today about Dumbarton Oaks, and I guess my first question would be what your first impressions were of the place and how you first came to know about Dumbarton Oaks as a student or – and so on.

CE: I first heard about it from my professors, and I had two professors who were very involved – actually three professors – very involved with Dumbarton Oaks and had presented papers at the conferences before I started studying with them, and afterwards actually too. One was Donald Lathrap, and my first class with him on survey of South American archaeology we used the Chavin volume, which was probably one of the first Pre-Columbian Studies publications, as one of our text books among many. And then I took courses with David Grove, who has also been a supporter and presented at Dumbarton Oaks a number of times I think over the past works in Mexico and Mesoamerican, and he used to assign the Olmec book. So, we had – right at the beginning in my first classes I was reading Dumbarton Oaks publications. And also Tom Zuidema, who has also participated over the years and was at one of the last symposia. And what we learned at the University of Illinois when I was a graduate student was – we had a very strong, what they called, “Americanist Studies” program, kind of equivalent to Pre-Columbian studies, and the idea was that we had a lot of faculty members – cultural anthropologists, physical anthropologists, archaeologists, and even sometimes linguistics professors – that would form sort of a group and kind of train their students in a specific technique, a specific anthropological question, usually rooted in a geographical area, but also they all expected us to be aware of and knowledgeable and be able to – I think their plan was you should be able to go out and teach anything in the Americas. So, my first teaching job here I taught North American archaeology, I taught a course, a survey of Mesoamerican archaeology, incorporated some stuff from South America, and the idea was to feel comfortable with that. And they came from a generation where it was quite common for people like Gordon Willey and others who would do a project in Louisiana or Georgia and then be working down in Belize a couple years later then do a project in the Virú Valley in South America and publish on them and if you asked them what they did they’d probably say, “I work in the Americas.” Today you rarely find anybody that would, you know, apply that way. But it was an ambitious thing and it’s very hard to train students that way because there’s just – now there’s so much coming out. But what it did was – related to Dumbarton Oaks – was that one of the places where this Americanist Studies concept is still alive and kicking is at Dumbarton Oaks where you have people coming together from many, many different fields that address issues of the Americas and benefit from each other through discussion and through debate and being sequestered for a year on a fellowship or whatever and bring all these people together, so I think that was part of it. And it’s one of the few places around that has that kind of emphasis. Some of our regional meetings will still include areas outside of theirs but they’re – you know, it’s usually Andean or it’s Amazonian or it’s Mesoamerican. As it was, a lot of these welcome somebody in that maybe is crossing between them and trying to maintain some multidisciplinarity and hear talks by various people from outside anthropology or art history, but nothing like at Dumbarton Oaks. It brings together people like – that standard sort of group is the archaeologists and art historians, but a lot of times you have historians, you have landscape architects that are maybe doing Andean stuff or working in Mesoamerica on these topics, and cultural anthropologists, historians who overlap with the other fields. But also in recent years we’ve had geomorphologists, geologists, chemists, and climatologists come into the meetings and contributing their expertise. So, I just like that mix of all these different approaches and a group of people that appreciate the need for those kinds of things. In fact, that’s probably what engaged me the most about Dumbarton Oaks. The best conferences that I remember were ones that tried to bring in people from North America, from Mesoamerica, from South America that could all talk together on a topic. So, some of the themes were – they – was it on – the Horizons one I think is a good example and one of the recent volumes – I can’t remember now the name of it, was that sort of a – cosmologies and mindsets across the Americas and looking at some of the big picture of what might be the connections between religious beliefs or certain art motifs that are shared throughout the Americas and things like that. And then these tend to – sometimes it’d be interspersed with conferences which, personally, I would be engaged with maybe if it was about my area, but it wasn’t quite the same kind of approach, like focusing on Formative Ecuador or the Classic Veracruz area or something which is a much more narrow theme, and there is a need to do that kind of stuff. And they did a nice job of this when I was a Senior Fellow of varying the topics and trying to integrate at least every other year or so a more thematic approach that would include people from all over. And those were the best attended symposia when they addressed those bigger issues. For me it was great being a Senior Fellow and I went through two cycles of it over the years, but I was up ‘til 2008, fall of 2008 I think was when my term ended. And we worked hard – that was usually two full days in the fall, two full days and sometimes three in the spring doing the planning stuff in addition to the conference, symposia, various topics and things like that. But I remember those were just really stimulating intellectually and also it was fun and that – I’m on so many committees and that’s drudgery in most cases, especially the academic ones on university campuses. But that group, I always looked forward to going and interacting with them. It was like coming to see old friends. And you have a bunch of incredibly bright people in the same room talking about these Americanist, pre-Columbian topics. So, we’d get a stack – Joanne when she was director or Jeff Quilter would send us this big huge express mail stack of all the proposals and we were given usually a month or so to read it, where most of us put it off until the last minute, but everybody came prepared. That’s one thing that – I’ve been on many committees where things like proposals were reviewed and some people are very well prepared others aren’t, they’re reading them as you’re going through them, and that’s not fair I think to the person who’s put so much time into the proposal and is waiting on edge to hear if they got the grant or not. And this group, everybody came prepared and we talked for – sometimes on the same proposal – maybe we would talk for an hour or so about its merits and why it should be included or not. And we always had, of course which was great also, we had too many good proposals, so you couldn’t fund them all. So, it was always a long, long, long, long, long discussion at the end of where the break point was going to be in terms of who would get funded and who couldn’t. And what I really enjoyed with that was the incredible sense of fairness I think between the group members. And I don’t like committees where everybody’s in agreement either, I mean you get out of there quickly if everybody’s in agreement and that’s fair. But in this group we weren’t in agreement. We all had our positions and good justifications from all different sides and everybody went through compromises. Nobody got their way. It was all a long, long discussion of compromise and everybody – I don’t think there’s any time when somebody was upset about the final decision or whatever. We all came to an agreement after much, much, much discussion and I think that we always got great people who came to be the Fellows. And part of – I remember, part of the atmosphere at Dumbarton Oaks in my – it’s very scholarly but at the same time it’s a bunch of friends and I think anybody that’s gone through that experience, probably very, very few that aren’t deeply engaged emotionally and academically and scholastically to that place after having some contact, even just going to one of the symposia, but especially if you’ve been a Fellow or something or if you’re a Senior Fellow. And I think that that kind of engagement is because of the emphasis there, not only on the scholarship but also on this collegiality. And I remember – I would say most of the proposals were probably judged on its academic merit but there was also considerations of the fit, it depends on a good mix of art historians with archaeologists or maybe this year we should put some more people that were doing things that would maybe overlap more with cultural anthropology or history. And that mix was so important of making that a successful group where the people got along well, interacted, and hopefully learned from each other, from the experience.

JNSL: What was the most exciting project that you have been a part of, or projects, at Dumbarton Oaks?

CE: Well I actually enjoyed doing the proposal reviews and stuff. That was just – that was very interesting to hear everybody’s opinions and the debates that went on and weighing the various pros and cons of proposals. But I think it was the decision to host the symposia in Latin America, which was I think a very – some people probably thought of it as risky and others thought possibly very expensive, and part of it was just by fate that the library was being constructed and asbestos pulled out of the building, so there wasn’t a place to meet in – you know they could have gotten – well, actually one year they did get a space over in the Library of Congress that was one of the – a conference. But I was so happy that Keenan decided – the director decided to fund and support having the conferences overseas. So, we went and I remember I think it was – the first one was in Mexico City maybe, and that was wonderful. And I know it was a nightmare for Jeff and Joanne to organize these things in coordination but we were hosted so well, and the Mexican scholars went way out of their way to make us feel comfortable. They had all these great events, we had a reconstructed pre-Columbian meal at a nice restaurant one night and just a wonderful atmosphere and having the conference right in the Templo Mayor in downtown Mexico City and stayed in a nice hotel near the plaza there. And then another year a year or so after we went to Lima, Peru and we were hosted there, just red carpet service from the Larco Herrera Museum and I was – just a wonderful experience and great collaboration and we had more attendants at that one. I would guess there were three, four hundred people there and a lot of them were students. And Dumbarton Oaks usually doesn’t limit how many of the 200 people that can go into that room, with fire marshal code and stuff, and then there’s always a debate too. How big do we get? You know, we’re very popular, but some people argued it should just be limited to scholars and if you let too much of the public in – graduate students and undergrads and stuff – it kind of disrupts the academic side of it. But I’ve always been for trying to include as many people as you can. And I was just amazed, the Peruvians had even for the Americans that came down, because they knew that’s there’d be some – there’s a tour group at Harvard I think that was being organized in conjunction, so there was a group of tourists and supporters of Dumbarton Oaks and Harvard that came for the conference and didn’t speak any Spanish, and they had a translator and they were seeing this in the archaeology or art history meeting where they had translators and they had these little ear phone things, you know with a transmitter, and they had seamless translations of all the talks for anybody who needed it. And that was a great conference. They had poster displays for the Peruvian students so they could participate in some form and they were judged by a panel of some of the Dumbarton Oaks scholars. And then the conference – the last one that I went to out of the country was in Guatemala, Antigua, and that was a wonderful place to have a conference and it was a great success. But probably best about that was – I guess my best event that I attended was the tour that Joanne Pillsbury organized afterwards. She said, “We’re all going to be here, you know, and if we could all take three, four days or maybe longer after the conference we could travel around together and visit sites.” And so she arranged, got a great travel deal with a company that you know we pay a little bit extra and then we would travel with Bill Fash and his wife and Loa Traxler and Bob Sharer and went to – got these just incredible tours of these classic sites like Tikal and Copan and many other sites around there and great meals and sitting up drinking wine or beer late in the evening, talking with fellow travelers – and most of them were the Senior Fellows but there were some other people that came along too on that tour – and the incredible collegiality to have. I remember in the Lima, Peru conference on the Moche, we did an informal tour with just some of the participants and they were some of the “hanger-on-ers” after the conference and took a trip down to the south to visit a series of Inca sites. And Megan, I think, came with us, a Mesoamericanist – I can’t think of her name – O’Neil, she came and there was an Ecuadorian family, two archaeologists who came, and I remember walking the sites and having like ten different opinions on it. You know, “What do you think of this room?” “Well, the archaeological record says this, this, and this, but in Mesoamerica this kind of a room and this association with a plaza would be this.” And getting – and Megan had never been there, but to have those kinds of interaction and people talking from their own perspective about this. And we didn’t rush through these sites. We walked very slowly, and there was this continued dialogue, debate as we were sort of interpreting the sites as we’d go through them. So, this was at a much larger scale when we did the tours of Tikal and Copan, where we had a larger group and we went very slowly through these sites and talked and talked and talked and talked about it, and even when we went back to the hotel you know we were still talking about it from all the different perspectives represented by the incredibly diverse group of people. So, those were great events. I think it also showed that there’s not just the academic side but there’s the collegiality. I know that Jeff Quilter and Joanne Pillsbury and all of the directors, the main directors of Dumbarton Oaks, had always promoted and that’s all part of it. And I think – I mean, you went through this experience – but for the Junior Fellows it’s an eye-opening opportunity to learn professionalism. I think that there’s an incredible amount of mentorship that goes on from the Senior Fellows to the Junior Fellows and also the Fellows category that’s – the already established professional scholars interacting pretty much as peers with the younger scholars. Some of them haven’t finished their dissertations.

JNSL: Right. Did you – how have you, as far as you’ve heard or experienced yourself, how is the Pre-Columbian Studies program at D.O. changed or evolved through the years since the time that you first began or even from knowledge from people who taught you, who perhaps were –?

CE: Well I don’t – that’s an interesting question. I always sort of think of it as continuity and an incredible tradition that replicates itself, but as an anthropologist I can’t quite believe in that. And certainly it has evolved. And I’d say I guess a lot of it – just the themes of what people were working on. I think you can probably go back and trace trajectories of themes but you still find a lot of very similar ones from when I started, certainly in ’88 to present, or maybe even going back to the beginnings of time when the first symposium, the first conferences – but I think the fact that some of these themes come up several times over the years as symposium topics or workshops and various kinds of symposia that are outside of the main ones sometimes, and the fact – it means that they’re still vibrant, still very, very central to the fields that are involved. But one of the things that changed maybe, at least I’m guessing that the Senior Fellows were not as senior as they used to be maybe in the past, because there were a lot of younger scholars that were in the group that I was in, in my tenure there. And that was, I think – was very important because sometimes I think a younger approach has a different appreciation for what a lot of the advanced graduate students who are applying for the Junior Fellowships are getting into and what’s important and maybe what isn’t at the cutting edge, and I think for an institution to survive it has to be addressing current issues. I think that there was a – quite – concern with most of the Senior Fellows, the proposals had to be good proposals and they had to be solid and we looked at the training of the student and the field experience they had and if that was necessary for the kind of project they were doing, who they studied with, who they took courses with and things like that. But I think also, at least I was looking and a number of people on the committee of Senior Fellows were looking for theory and some kind of context for the study. Why should this be funded? Why should this person be supported? And I think that all of the good ones, I think everyone that got the fellowships, were doing something to link it to bigger issues, to address issues beyond pre-Columbian studies that other people would be interested in. And then I think probably one of the best things about Dumbarton Oaks – and it was a struggle, it always is – was to turn the symposia into books in a reasonable amount of time. And I know that Jeff Quilter and Joanne Pillsbury have been very instrumental in corralling the people, moving them along and setting deadlines and things for trying to speed up that process. And those books are classics, and some of them unfortunately take a long time to get through the system for various reasons. But I think that looking at the Chavin conference and the Olmec conference are great examples of classic, classic studies and most of the symposia that have been published. A few of the symposia have become classics in at least part of the discipline of art history and archaeology, sometimes outside. And I know that’s an incredible amount of work. Jeff co-edited a lot of those things, Joanne has too, and they get a lot of credit for putting in all the work that they put in, in addition to the editor and the authors on those things. And then to be able to download those things, clean PDF files, and use them in your classes and assign them to students and pass them on to colleagues and accessibility for Latin American scholars who can’t afford the books. Although, I was amazed that I was able as a grad student to buy the Dumbarton Oaks volumes, hardback, beautifully produced on nice paper, all the illustrations well-reproduced for an incredibly decent price when most other academic books of similar quality have double or triple the price.

JNSL: Right. And did you – if you could see avenues that you would like to see Dumbarton Oaks explore in the future, perhaps say over the next decade, what kind of new things would you like to see perhaps tried or preserved even?

CE: Right. I think to the success – I don’t know if anybody’s studied it, but if you looked at the Junior Fellows and traced their careers, very few of them maybe dropped out or switched to a totally different thing. I mean, almost all of them went on to become superstars. It took them a while sometimes, but I think that that’s a critical investment. For a little bit of money to support someone in that kind of atmosphere with that kind of support, library system, encouragement to produce, and the professionalism that you get exposed to during that year period. A lot of the directors are also by your peers and by the fellow Fellows there – it’s just so, so valuable and there’s a lot of bang for the buck. I don’t know how much a fellowship costs with taxes and all that stuff but it really pays off and to be able to expand that a bit, especially on the junior end I think would be something that Dumbarton Oaks could – this economy’s difficult – but to try to do because that was always an issue. Why can’t we include these three other people, four other people? It’s – the director had said no because we don’t have the funds for them. Maybe we’ll encourage them to reapply or something, but we can’t fund them. And I think that the one program that we didn’t have much money for, but it was very important and now especially in the later years when I was as Senior Fellow, was the – I forget the grant, what it’s called? – but it’s on the preservation and conservation of archaeological sites, so sites in danger. I don’t think it was well publicized I don’t think I even knew about it until I became a Senior Fellow, and for some reason the institution just didn’t have enough money I think to give to that program. But it’d ordinarily be maybe ten thousand dollars, five thousand dollars to salvage an archaeological site, to conserve something that is exposed and was being destroyed or salvage archaeology of something that was going to be gone next year – but to be able to find what you could and photograph it, record it, and excavate it, whatever. And those were very important and a lot Latin American scholars were supportive of those projects. That was always frustrating too because we – as the program became more popular – people found out about it and there were more – all the applications that came in on that were fundable and should’ve been funded and we just didn’t have the money for it. And then I think – I know that sometimes it got expensive and it was very – a lot of planning issues that cause a lot of frustration, anxiety for the staff at Dumbarton Oaks, but to be able to host conferences in Latin America would be great. I remember we had talked about trying – a goal was to maybe every third year or something have it somewhere in Latin America, which moneywise probably maybe can’t happen but maybe every fourth year or something would be – and also part of the symposium – you have to set limits sometimes. It has to fit in a day and a half, anything longer than that and it’s too much. But always ensure there’s a good mix of participants from the various disciplines involved with Dumbarton Oaks, but also getting in Latin American scholars, and Jeff and Joanne really – that was one of their main objectives, to enforce that and to make sure that there was good participation.

JNSL: Did you ever hear anything about the beginnings of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks? Any funny, sort of quirky things about that time period that you recall? Or even about Mr. Bliss himself?

CE: No, because I didn’t know much about that side. But what was always interesting, I guess more interesting than the actual books that came out, was the sections of the back of a lot of the earlier ones where somebody had gone through and painstakingly transcribed every person’s question, every person’s comment, verbatim in some cases, and those discussions were incredible. In those days there were probably fewer people. Instead of two hundred people showing up there might have been fifty or forty or something, what the attendants said an asked – you could track that. So, there was more chance for people to talk, but because – if you’re following your field and the symposium’s about something you’re kind of close to then you’ve probably heard most of the talks in various forms. Once in a while you’ll hear something that’s totally new and those are the most exciting. But you kind of get the gist of them, but they’re more eloquent than you’ve ever heard it because they’ve practiced them and timed them and just some of the graphics and stuff that are so great at Dumbarton Oaks. But the best thing is the discussion afterward and that’s where people learn. And sometimes it’s softball questions that are just to compliment the person, and maybe some easy-to-answer questions, but the majority of the time it’s very difficult questions and something that makes the speaker or the audience think about an issue. And I remember just great discussions during the Inca conference, which finally got published, and that one – it was just an incredible discussion. And sometimes the moderator had to cut the discussion off when it could have gone on longer. But there’s those coffee breaks which they’re still kind of long and you hear this interesting discussion, and it’s all – very few people are talking about the weather. They’re continuing the discussions that went on at the conference and to me that was – it’s all – that’s why you go to conferences like that is for the discussion, for the debate. And I’m sure that almost all of those speakers who got incredible comments back had to address them in their final version. But then there’s always this – in any professional organization you want to squeeze more people into the conference because certain people should be there to participate because that’s their theme or whatever, and the tendency is to cut back that discussion time. And I think we were very careful, at least when I was a Senior Fellow, to ensure that that stayed, that’s sacred, and wasn’t cut back because the discussion had to be there or it wouldn’t be a useful symposium. I remember there’re people like Gary Urton, who was the chair for a lot of the time that I was a Senior Fellow, would – and he keeps up on everything, so he always had a good question. You know, sometimes the first question no one really wants to ask, you know, and it’s rare at Dumbarton Oaks, but sometimes – he, Gary always had something, a great comment and a great question, that would be addressed. And I think also a lot of the Senior Fellows would ask questions to bring the talk – some talks might be a little bit too focused on that area or that site or time period – to get the discussion up at a higher level, to raise it. So, I think that was what the Senior Fellows were really good at a lot of those conferences is to bring the discussion up to the higher level if it wasn’t covered explicitly in the talks.

JNSL: What are you most grateful about in terms of how Dumbarton Oaks has helped you as a scholar, say, the contact that it’s provided or that kind of impact for you personally?

CE: Well, for instance here at Penn I have great colleagues and they’re scattered all over campus. And one of the things geographically: we’re stuck on the edge of campus in our own building so we’re far from most of our colleagues. And I interact with them at various committees and things like that but there are very few of the Dumbarton Oaks-type Americanists here – like, for instance, art history doesn’t have a strong Americanist component at Penn – and I miss that, having colleagues that do that. Here at Anthropology, we have very few Latin Americanists and most of them are doing other things in addition. And most of my colleagues at the museum – it’s an incredible mix of art historians, archaeologists, classical archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, physical anthropologists, but very few of them do Americanist studies. So, it’s kind of getting together a little family or old friends to go down to D.C. and make that trip down and spend those two and a half days or three days or one and a half or – depending on what’s going on with colleagues. And then seeing them at conferences and meetings and it’s like that also. You’re going to run into an incredible group. Especially a lot of the younger scholars I might not have ever known if it hadn’t have been for the symposia or, you know, a Senior Fellow going through their proposals and then meeting them later after they’d taken residence.

JNSL: Well, that’s very helpful. We probably have to wrap things up in a little bit.

CE: Yes, it’s 12:30.

JNSL: Okay.

CE: One last little thing was the library, and everybody talks about the library especially the Junior Fellows. It’s an incredible resource. And you think in these days with e-journals and Google Books and stuff that a library like that would be obsolete, but never. And I think that Dumbarton Oaks putting their effort into doing that beautiful building to showcase it might have been overkill in some ways, and I’m sure it was incredibly expensive, but what a way to showcase it. And that – I think most people say that’s the most important thing, experience as being a Fellow, at least when you’re full with aspirations for your dissertation. And Jeff Quilter did a program, which I thought was fantastic, was all this gray literature of Peruvian and Mexican or any Latin American country, most of the current contemporary cutting edge research is done by students and they’re doing it for their equivalent of their senior thesis or licenciatura or master’s degree. And these tend to be somewhat descriptive, but they’re just incredible accounts of surveys, of excavations, of various kinds of studies, and it’s all the literature that we don’t have access to but we should. And they should be appreciated for all the hard work that they did. So, Jeff had a program to try to round up and get copies of as many of the thesis projects from Latin America that dealt with Pre-Columbian studies into the library and then get them on Inter-Library Loan so essentially the whole world could potentially have access to it. And I think it’s very unfair for people to be doing what’s the kind of state of the art but based only on what limited library resources you can get here in the States and stuff, and all the work that’s being done that’s probably incredibly relevant that isn’t being cited by a lot of the students because its being buried in theses. So, I hope that program continues.

JNSL: Very good. Well, thank you so much for chatting today. I’m going to turn this off.