John H. Rowe
(Photo by Loren McIntyre)

Eighth Emeritus Lecture Honoring
John Howland Rowe

Interview with John H. Rowe

Honoree of Anthropology's Eighth Emeriti Lecture

The Jawbone: anthropology department newsletter. University of California, Berkeley. Novermber 1, 1998.


What were some of the high points of your career?

My work on the library. My first teaching job was in Cuzco, Peru, starting a new anthropology department with very few anthropology books. The rector (president) of the university was a problem. Once when I was in his office on department business, I was sitting next to his wastebasket. In it was a letter, written in English, lying face up. I pulled it out and said, "What's this?" He said it was nothing. He said this because he didn't speak English and could not read it. I looked at it and saw that it was an offer from the American Library Association to give the university some American books, part of a government good neighbor policy. I said, "I can take care of this for you," and I did. I started ordering anthropology books with the money, and it made a lot of difference. After WWII, I helped start another anthropology department in Popayan, Colombia, and I started another anthropology library there. The one here is my third.

I was chair of the department here for some years in the sixties (1963-67). I was lucky enough to have a very able administrative assistant, Barbara Lulich-she and I realized that the administration was making life difficult for the departments, because it dealt with each department individually, and the departments never combined. I started having lunch with some other department chairs, and Barbara made friends with some other administrative assistants, and we made alliances to deal jointly with the administration on matters of common concern. I can't remember any specific battles we won. We didn't keep notes. We thought it better not to.

I was very active in starting the Kroeber Anthropological Society. For years it met in people's houses, to listen to lectures in the evening and end the evening drinking beer. In addition to the good fellowship, the society provided ways for students to get experience editing a journal and giving papers-things they would be expected to do as professional anthropologists. We had a lot of fun with it. However, with the increased number of graduate students, we could no longer meet in people's homes. Plus the university went to the quarter system which was a disaster. It did away with the extra time, everything was too packed. By the time the university went back to semesters it was too late, the damage was done.

I've done a great variety of research from time to time and I think I've gotten particular satisfaction from putting together combinations of things that people haven't thought of before and getting valuable results. I've always been particularly interested in the Incas. Most people were saying that the Incas disappeared when the Spanish arrived. That's ridiculous. Of course they didn't disappear. I turned to Inca art to prove this. It was something concrete. The problem was how to prove the art was colonial. Most researchers would just say that it was art done before the conquest. One thing I did was find portraits of Inca nobles in the museum of Cuzco. There were inscriptions done on the paintings. I had a friend who was a physical anthropologist and also a doctor. I got him to take the pictures to the hospital and put them under an x-ray. The x-ray showed a lot more of the inscription than you could see previously. Like dates. I think it was the first time in South America that a painting had been x-rayed. In time I was able to convince a certain number of people that the Incas were around and organizing a certain amount of resistance. Anyway, finding new ways to solve problems was very satisfying to me-much more satisfying than simply applying what everyone else already does and knows about.

The Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers volume 40 is dedicated to me. Eugene Hammel referred to me in his paper entitled "Peck's Archaeologist." This is a play on words-a reference to a novel that used to be popular, department Peck's Bad Boy. Hammel was implying that I was a bad boy. And this is true. I've always considered myself kind of a bad boy.

I wanted to be an archaeologist since I was three. My father was Director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art in Providence, but he had one season's experience doing archaeology in Egypt and loved it. He always wished he had been able to be an archaeologist. As often happens, the child ends up doing what a parent wanted to do. I went to Brown University, also in Providence, and majored in classical archaeology, learning to study texts as well as objects and to look at objects as an art historian does, emphasizing the style. New World archaeology was dominated by classification and statistics, and I thought the classical approach was better. I also learned to take an interest in linguistics, and when I got my first teaching job in Cuzco, I taught a course in linguistics because I thought it was important. When there was a job opening at Berkeley, they wanted someone who could teach archaeology and linguistics. They asked me if I could teach both. I said, "Sure!" I was the only one who could. I got the job.

What went through your mind while you were being honored at the Emeriti Lecture?

A great deal of satisfaction. A great deal. I was very pleased with the way the lecture turned out. The degree to which all sorts of people found it interesting. I had picked DeBoer because when he speaks at meetings I learn something every time. I could not have predicted ahead of time that anyone could make stone axes interesting, and he did. I thought he was a particularly fine example of what my students could do.

November 1, 1998

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