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Listen or download interview (mp3, 32 minutes, 30MB)
Jeremy Sabloff is one of a new breed of archaeologists. Using tools from other sciences—including statistical analysis and even soil testing—they come close to traveling in time, mapping the neighborhoods, markets and even the garbage dumps of ancient civilizations to fill in the gaps that earlier researchers left behind. Instead of hunting for tombs and treasures, they study how ancient cities functioned and how all people—not just the elite—lived. After graduating from high school at 16 with no clue what he wanted to do, Sabloff took a college counselor’s advice and signed up for an anthropology class. There, he fell in love. Anthropology and archaeology took him far from the skyscrapers and subways of his New York City childhood, to distant jungles and Mayan ruins. Inspired by his experiences and by Gordon Willey, his mentor and a distinguished archaeologist of Pre-Columbian sites, Sabloff decided to become a Maya archaeologist. Following in Willey’s footsteps, Sabloff has spent his career drawing from disparate disciplines to piece together a detailed picture of ancient Maya life. His work has challenged conventional thinking about the empire, and further developed the new, culture-focused archaeology that Willey helped establish. Sabloff retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 and is currently the President of the Santa Fe Institute. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1994.
Sabloff recalls growing up in Manhattan, where he learned to study on subway trains and block out a frequently noisy world. As a smart but aimless 16-year-old, he makes his way to the University of Pennsylvania and unwittingly stumbles into a revolution. Late 1960s archaeology is reinventing itself, as scholars like his own advisor shift the field’s focus from ancient rulers and their riches to the lives of regular people. Seduced by the field’s tumult and the adventure of digs in remote Central American jungles, Sabloff becomes a Maya archaeologist. He soon discovers that accepted models of Maya life are wrong: where earlier scholars claimed the Maya had no cities and were dominated by a priestly elite, he finds evidence of vibrant urban communities with marketplaces, manufacturing centers and community gardens. He describes ancient Maya cities with densely populated hillsides, streets bustling with trade and smoke from household cooking fires hanging in the air. He concludes by narrating the tragic fall of the Maya after European contact and the culture’s recovery in later years.
Last Updated: 03-09-2010
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The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.