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Robert Braidwood, 1907-2003

[robert braidwood]
Robert Braidwood

[robert and linda braidwood]
Robert and Linda Braidwood

See also:
Linda Braidwood, 1909-2003

Robert Braidwood, Professor Emeritus in the Oriental Institute and Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago, and a leading pioneer in prehistoric archaeology, died Wednesday, Jan. 15, in the University of Chicago Hospitals.

Braidwood, a resident for many years of LaPorte, Indiana, was 95.

His work provided important insights into the development of settled cultures that preceded ancient urban civilization, such as that of the Sumerian civilization that flourished in Mesopotamia beginning in about 3100 B.C.

He discovered a number of important firsts, including the oldest known sample of human blood, the earliest example of hand-worked natural copper and the oldest known piece of cloth. He did early investigations on recovering DNA from blood on ancient artifacts.

He also advanced the scientific study of archaeology by bringing to his teams botanists, zoologists, geologists and other specialists who provided insights about the communities to augment what Braidwood was finding among the artifacts and other archaeological material.

Braidwood introduced the idea of the testable hypothesis to archaeology, and he was the first to use archaeological survey to investigate an entire region.

Throughout his career, his wife, Linda, was a constant companion and partner in his work.

“Bob Braidwood’s death marks the passing of an era,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute and Professor in Near Eastern Languages and Literatures at the University of Chicago. “It is difficult to overestimate his professional stature, his impact on the archaeology of the Near East, and his role in archaeology as a general discipline. Over the course of his long and distinguished career, he made numerous major contributions at every level — theory, methodology, and empirical data. More than almost anyone else he exemplified archaeology at the Oriental Institute.”

Braidwood, who studied architecture at the University of Michigan, received an M.A. there in 1933. He took a course in Near Eastern archaeology at Michigan and was invited to do field work near Baghdad in 1930. He was hired in 1933 by the legendary founder of the Oriental Institute, James Henry Breasted. Breasted had invented the term “fertile crescent” to describe the rich series of civilizations that developed in the ancient Near East.

Braidwood began his work at the Oriental Institute’s archaeological excavation in the Amuq Valley in northern Syria. “It was overwhelmingly successful,” said Ray Tindel, registrar of the Oriental Institute and Braidwood’s son-in-law. “They brought back tons of material–pottery, stone and other artifacts.”

In his work in the Amuq, Braidwood expanded the use of archaeological surveys of ancient sites and set a standard for the approach that continues to be used today. By carefully gathering material from surrounding sites, he was able to precisely date the artifacts in the area by comparing them to material he had recovered from a trench built in step fashion in a mound he had excavated.

He and Linda were married in 1937 and did some field work in the Middle East before the outbreak of World War II. During the war, he was in charge of a meteorological mapping program at the University for the Army Air Corps. He also finished a Ph.D. in 1943.

In 1947, Braidwood learned of work by University of Chicago colleague Willard Libby for dating organic materials on the basis of their radioactive carbon content. He provided some ancient samples for testing. Radiocarbon dating became an essential element for dating materials recovered during the Braidwoods’ pioneering work in prehistoric sites.

It was also at this time that Braidwood began serious research on the period beginning about 12,000 years ago in the ancient Near East. That research and teaching led Braidwood and his wife to develop an interest in a neglected area of Near Eastern archaeology–the time about 10,000 years ago between the period of nomadic hunters and gatherers and the period when agriculture emerged and civilization ensued.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings had lived as small bands of hunters and gatherers. Suddenly, 10,000 years ago, mankind made the revolutionary transition from food gathering to food producing.

The Braidwoods studied late hunter-gatherer cultures and early farming societies. To conduct research on this important transition, the couple established the Prehistoric Project at the Oriental Institute in 1947.

“We wondered what we would learn were we to concentrate on that threshold of cultural change that must have attended the very earliest domestication of plants and animals,” the couple wrote in a report in 1987. Although other scholars had suggested that an agricultural revolution had preceded the development of civilization, no one–until the Braidwoods began their work–had uncovered evidence for the transition.

The project pioneered a new form of archaeology because it required specialists who could examine rubbish, such as fragments of bone, plant remains, and carbonized grain, that had previously been discarded by archaeologists looking for artifacts and architecture. In 1954, the Braidwoods’ work with natural science colleagues won them one of the first grants in anthropology made by the National Science Foundation.

The Braidwoods began their work at Jarmo, a site in northeast Iraq, and continued working there until 1958 when a political revolution made Iraq unstable. They then continued their work in Iran and subsequently, in the early 1960s, they traveled to southern Turkey to work to work at Cayonu. It became their principal site, as part of the Joint Prehistoric Project between the University of Chicago and Istanbul University.

At Cayonu, they discovered the oldest known terrazzo floor, which was produced with concrete made of burned lime.

Braidwood was the author of numerous articles on prehistoric archaeology as well as Prehistoric Men, which was published in eight editions and translated into Turkish and Chinese. He received the medal for distinguished archaeological achievement in 1971 from the Archaeological Institute of America.

Survivors incude a daughter, Gretel Braidwood of Chicago; a son, Douglas Braidwood of Virginia Beach, Virginia; two grandsons and one granddaughter.
Last modified at 05:04 PM CST on Monday, April 14, 2003.

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