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Success is a ‘sherd’ thing

ASU archaeologist honored for groundbreaking contributions to field

photo of Prof. David Abbott at Petra, Jordan

Professor David Abbott at Petra, Jordan

August 09, 2016

David Abbott, associate professor at the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, received not one, but two distinguishing awards this summer for his archaeological work in Arizona: the Arizona Archaeological Society’s 2016 Professional Archaeologist Award and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Governor’s Archaeological Advisory Commission.

Abbott, who specializes in researching the Hohokam who inhabited Arizona (including the area of ASU’s Tempe campus) until around 1450, is recognized not only for his many years of dedication to the field, but also for his method for sourcing ceramics, which revolutionized the study of ancient pottery in the desert Southwest.

“Over the last 25 years, Dave’s remarkable research has transformed our understanding of Hohokam society and continues to play a major role in setting the research agenda for Hohokam archaeology,” said fellow ASU archaeologist Keith Kintigh.

Others would agree. His projects “have greatly increased the understanding of prehistoric archaeology in the central Arizona region of the Southwest,” said Glenda Simmons, chair of the Arizona Archaeological Society.

Abbott originally chose his field because of his lifelong passion for the little details that make up history.

“I have always been interested in the past, largely because I want to know how we came to be as we are. And I am fascinated by the way material remains, like pieces of broken pots, can reveal the past to us,” he said.

Thanks to his innovative ceramic analysis methods, those tiny sherds can reveal much more than meets the eye.

By examining ultra-thin sections of potsherds, Abbott is able to get a close look at the different makeups of the temper — usually sand or small bits of rock — that was added to the clay to make it more stable during baking. Southern Arizona is so geologically diverse that he can track where a particular pot was made just by knowing what kind of temper it contains. When the place where he found the sherd is different from where it originated, Abbott knows there was a network of trade between the two regions.

“Abbott’s analysis of pottery transactions among Hohokam villagers, which has a precision unmatched across the globe, has — with amazing clarity — revealed networks of economic interaction and community structure,” Kintigh stated.

Since Abbott first pioneered this technique, other archaeologists have picked it up and used it around the world from Korea to Mexico.

The most surprising thing that Abbott himself has learned from applying this method is the degree of Hohokam economic complexity, which surpassed anything that archaeologists had imagined beforehand.

“The evidence is pointing to an economy that operated at a regional scale,” he said.

He painted a picture of thousands of ceramic products made each year by special artisans and sent out to hundreds of villages; agricultural surpluses that valley farmers traded for large game, crafts and goods from the uplands; ceremonial ballgames played in one of hundreds of stadiums and watched by crowds of locals and visitors; and marketplaces assembled regularly for the barter of goods from all over the Hohokam territory.

“This is the picture of vibrant and surprisingly sophisticated life in ancient Arizona that emerges from the pottery research,” he explained.

Knowledge about these people, Abbott pointed out, is not only interesting, but relevant to Arizonans today.

The Hohokam lived in their villages and towns for over a thousand years, built and managed the largest irrigations infrastructure in prehistoric North America, and turned the Salt River valley into an agricultural haven. Modern Phoenix, on the other hand, is just the opposite: it’s been here only one hundred years, yet already we have water challenges and other sustainability issues.

“Clearly, the Hohokam offer some lessons to be learned about environmental challenges, population pressure and water usage over the long haul,” Abbott said. “As we work to understand their success, we gain insight about who we are and where we are headed.”

For this professor, working with students is an integral part of discovering more about the Hohokam. He sees graduate education as an apprenticeship, where the student and faculty member work on a particular problem together.

“These collaborative undertakings are wonderfully productive, and it is especially gratifying as they contribute to our growing understanding of Arizona’s ancient past,” he said.

So, what advice does Abbott have for those inspired to pursue archaeology?

“Archaeology is an exciting business to be in. Field work is all about discovery — you never know what’s going to turn up. And the lab work is like putting a puzzle back together. But it’s also a lot of hard work and it takes a long time to become proficient. You really have to have a ‘fire in the belly’ in order to be successful.”

You don’t have to be a professional, however, in order to participate in archaeology. Abbott explained that he does a good amount of research with the help of what he calls “citizen archaeologists” — average people with a love for Arizona’s past and a willingness to get their hands dirty. In fact, he tries to interact with the community whenever he can, engaging volunteer groups in fieldwork, giving presentations for public audiences and offering site tours.

“I really like bringing together volunteers, students and professionals, while raising ASU’s profile to the public,” he said.

With a ceramic-analysis breakthrough to his name and a commitment to the people of Arizona — past and present — it’s no wonder that Abbott became the winner of two awards, including a Lifetime Achievement. He isn’t in it for fame, however; for him, the job is a reward in itself. 

“I love my job. I love working with colleagues and students to figure things out. It’s always a thrill when we learn something we did not know before about the remarkable people of the ancient past.”

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