Renowned researcher introduced environmental principles to archaeology

July 11, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- William T. Sanders, the late Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Archaeological Anthropology at Penn State University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, was one of the first archaeologists to attempt to make the discipline of archaeology a true science through the development of theories and the formation of testable hypotheses about culture. His approach, known as cultural ecology, considered the biology of an area, subsistence patterns of the human population, demography, technological innovation and social organization as an interacting whole. He died July 2, 2008, in State College, Pa., of complications from a fall.

The interrelationship between culture and the environment led to an approach that looked at the ecology of a location as the primary means of understanding its cultural development and his studies included settlement patterns of rural areas and small villages, land use, ethnographic approaches and ancient population patterns.

In the early 1960s, he began his first large project in the Basin of Mexico in the Valley of Teotithuacan. This investigation of the rural valley around the ancient city of Teotithuacan was intended to trace the origin and history of developments in prehistoric agriculture, to define and chronicle rural and small urban community types during the prehistoric periods and to record the demographic history of the Valley from the earliest human occupation to the period of the Spanish Conquest.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sanders worked in the Valley of Guatemala, excavating the city of Kaminaljuyu, a trade center dating from 1000 B.C. to 800 A.D. This archaeological site near Guatemala City was in danger of being lost to the encroachment of the modern capital. This five-year project included the use of computers to catalog and organize the vast amounts of artifacts collected.

From 1980 to 1984, Sanders, along with David L. Webster, worked on Phase II of the Copan Archaeological Project, which focused on the Maya city of Copan in western Honduras. They conducted extensive field mapping and excavations in the area surrounding the city to determine the population and settlement history of the entire Copan region. Sanders also studied modern land use and cropping patterns and residential architecture as a reflection on the past. Another product of this research was the "Out of the Past" video series, an eight-part set of public television programs made with major funding from the Annenberg/CPB Project.

Born in Patchogue, N.Y. on April 19, 1926, he served in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He received his bachelor of arts, master of arts and doctorl degree in anthropology in 1949, 1953 and 1957 respectively, all from Harvard University. He also attended the Escuela Nacional de Antropologia e Historia in Mexico City in 1951. He was an assistant professor of anthropology at University of Mississippi beginning in 1956. In 1959 he came to Penn State in 1959 as an assistant professor and became an associate professor in 1962. He was named professor in 1966 and Evan Pugh Professor, Penn State's highest honor, in 1985. He retired from the university as Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus in 1993.

Sanders also taught at various times at the Escuela Nacional de Antropologia, Mexico City College, Universidad Nacional de Mexico and University of Cuzco, Peru. The National Academy of Sciences named Sanders a member in 1985. He was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. In 1980, he received the A.V. Kidder Medal for Achievement in Mesoamerican Archaeology from the American Anthropological Association. In 1984, he received Penn State's Faculty Scholar Medal for his study and reconstruction of Copan in western Honduras.

He is the author, coauthor or editor of 25 books, reports or monographs and numerous book chapters and professional papers in English and Spanish. He is survived by his wife, Lili, three daughters, a brother, two sisters, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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Last Updated April 05, 2010