Sunday 5 January 2014

In Memoriam, Professor David R. Harris (1930-2013)

It is with a heavy heart that I report the passing of David Harris during the holiday period, Professor Emeritus of Human Environment at the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) and former director of the institute (1989-1996). Our sympathies go to his widow Helen, their children and grandchildren. He also leaves a hole in the intellectual community of the Institute and wider research community on domestication and agricultural origins. For a few generations of archaeologists he was an influential teacher on past subsistence, drawing on a global and encyclopaedic knowledge of ethnographic subsistence systems and world archaeology. Through his writings, edited volumes, and conference organization, and no doubt peer-reviewing, he influenced generations of environmental archaeologists, especially archaeobotanists, and he promoted a comparative and world approach to the transition from forager to farmer. While I was not a student of his in the classroom, I was heavily inspired by his writing on tropical and savannah cropping systems [e.g. 1967, 1972, 2006, 1980 book], on the spectrum transitional subsistence systems that included pre-domestication cultivation (while he did not coin this term, he probably did more than anyone else, to promote its use and to clarify the concept, in part through a series of highly influential and reproduced diagrams-- e.g. Harris 2007, or this 2007 derivative). He was also a dedicated and knowledgible historian of the Institute of Archaeology (e.g. 1997), of Gordon Childe's work, and their influences on the development of Neolithic research.
David Harris studying swidden farming in the upper
Orinoco River, Venezuela, 1968 (from AI 9)

When I joined the institute, David become a mentor, friend and frequent discussant; he informed my ideas, the direction of my research, and always made me look wider, inter-regionally. In many ways he was a unique figure because he adopted archaeology, having moved to the Institute as Professor of Human Environment in 1980 after some two decades teaching in Geography (in UCL Geography from 1964). He had long had predilections for archaeology, indicated by his involvement in the Ucko and Dimbleby conferences on "The domestication and exploitation of Plants and Animals" and "Man, Settlement and Urbanism". His papers on tropical agriculture and the importance of vegeculture were highly influential in encouraging the development of tropical archaeobotanies, from the Neotropics to Africa to New Guinea. His recruitment of Gordon Hillman led an fruitful and extremely influential partnership, both for research, synthesis (their jointly edited book, Foraging and Farming, remains in many ways unparalleled). His contributions were in many world regions, from early work in the Caribbean and Neotropics (e.g. 19621971), the American Southwest (e.g. 1966), to the Torres Straits islands (e.g. 1995), the Fertile Crescent and his more recent work on Djeitun in Central Asia (e.g. 1997;  2010 book). He is well-known for his clear working definitions of slippery concepts, and his monumental syntheses, often streamlining what was the best current knowledge of the origins of agriculture in various regions, often including the Near East and China , along tropical regions.
David photographing tea cultivation in
Zhejiang, Sept. 2010

Several colleagues have written to express their gratitude to and memories of David. Andy Fairbairn points that he was “ great advocate for our work and was a major influence on taking archaeobotany from a minor sideshow to a discipline in its own right”. Keith Dobney recalls “some rocking seminars with him and others on domestication.Ehud Weiss remembers him as influential teaching, “amazed by his knowledge”. Several more have written to me about how he was inspirational on their work.

Please do leave further memories and observations in the comments on this blog.

I will append some addition photos below. Feel free to submit others.

Visiting the Harvard arboretum in Boston (2008): Dorian Fuller, Ksenija Borojevic, David Harris

At the excavation of the Liangzhu city (ca. 2500 BC) wall, outside Hangzhou: Liu Bin, Zheng Yunfei, Qin Ling, Helen Harris, David Harris (Aug/Sept. 2010).
Peking University archaeologist Ling Qin discussing Liangzhu ceramics with David Harris and Helen Harris (Aug/Sept. 2010)
Visiting Hemudu archaeological site museum, Aug. 2010: DQ Fuller, Ling Qin, Helen and David Harris.

Victor Paz, Lewis Binford, Dorian Fuller, David Harris, Lazslo Torok (Cambridge, 1998).

David Harris in conversation with Prof. Barbara Pickersgill and Dr. Mark Nesbitt, Linnean Society of London 2006.

Gordon Hillman, Mary Anne Murray, David Harris, and Sue Colledge, in office 311, UCL Institute of Archaeology 1998/99.


Andrew Fairbairn, The University of Queensland, Australia said...

I am very sorry to hear of David's passing. As well a s undertaking pioneering research in several geographical regions, he inspired many of us to investigate ancient plant use and subsistence practice. I was lucky to have studied in his "Resources and Subsistence" class at the Institute and still draw on its global perspective in my own work, both in Turkey and Australasia. David continued to publish incisive and stimulating papers well into his retirement and was always engaging and thought provoking in discussion. He will be greatly missed as an original thinker and advocate for all the disciplines of environmental archaeology

Mark Nesbitt said...

Like Andy, I first came in contact with David through his "Resources & subsistence" MSc module at the Institute, a fascinating world tour of food production practices, all based on first hand observations, and a compelling demonstration of the virtues of the worldwide, comparative, rigorous approach that David took.

His intellectual legacy, well described above by Dorian, is matched by David's leadership in building up academic respect and funding for archaeological science and, in particular, recruiting Gordon Hillman to the Institute, initially as SERC (now NERC) funded fellow working on Abu Hureyra, then as lecturer. The thriving state of today's UCL Institute of Archaeology is further testament.

I last saw David at the Institute's 75th anniversary party in 2012, where he was in excellent form, and very proud of the academic achievements of his grandchildren at UCL and elsewhere.

Unknown said...

I am enormously saddened by David's passing. His research, teaching and writing profoundly influenced several generations of Canadian archaeobotanists such as Professor Catherine D'Andrea, who did a masters degree with him (including his "Resources and Subsistence" class) as well as Dr. Charlene Murphy, Dr. Sandra Peacock and myself.

Anonymous said...

Dear Dorian and other friends of David Harris:
I first read publications written by Dr. Harris in the latter part of the 1960s during my last years as an undergraduate in the University of California system. His cultural ecology and historical perspectives had strong influence on my interests in human-plant and ecological relationships over time. He was a significant mentor to me through his publications which manifested deep insight and were written so clearly. In 1996, at Imperial College in London, I had the privilege of hearing him speak in a joint conference of the Society for Economic Botany and the Society for Ethnopharmacology. We shared some come themes of intellectual interest and he was so supportive inspiring me to continue my historical geography research focusing on important multipurpose plants and their long term contributions to human culture. It was also at that meeting that I first met, in person, Robert C. Clarke; we agreed at those meetings in London to co-author a book which 17 years later was published in September of 2013 on the evolution of ethnobotany of Cannabis by the press of the University of California, Berkely where David Harris received his Ph.D. and was inspired himself by professors who focused on the human role of landscape change – the same professors that so affected my own career. I plan to go back and reread David’s works and reinvigorate my own research. His work and memory lives on.
Aloha Nui Loa, Mark Merlin, Professor of Botany, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

DQ Fuller said...

Ksenija Borojevic writes:

I am deeply saddened by Professor David Harris passing. My deepest condolences to his family. Like many other colleagues, I have participated in his MSc course at the Institute at UCL and was always fascinated with David's breath of knowledge. He had masterfully incorporated anthropogenic perspective of the landscapes with archaeological data and presented it with poise and dignity. I had an opportunity to spend some time with David during his visit to Boston in 2008 when together with Dorian three of us had a pleasure of enjoying autumn colors at the Arboretum.

Anonymous said...

David played an important role in how I view agriculture and its origins. His contributions and insights into the past will be greatly missed. I remember well his early participation with the Journal of Ethnobiology and his willingness to serve on our editorial board.

Professor Steven Weber

Anonymous said...

Sorry to know sad demise of Prof. David Harris.What an exceptional source of intellectual stimulation David has been for our areas of Archaeobotany-Origins of Agriculture and Environmental Archaeology in general indeed!

Please convey my deep sympathies to his widow Helen and family members.


Mukund Kajale

(Former) Professor and Head: Archaeology Department & Founder: Botany Lab
Deccan College Postgraduate & Research Institute (Deemed University)

Catherine D'Andrea said...

I am very saddened to learn that David Harris recently passed away. I send my heartfelt condolences to his family and to his many colleagues at UCL. It seems that December 2013 has been a month of significant loss for archaeobotany and environmental archaeology, in particular for Africanist colleagues with the passing of David and also Ahmed Fahmy. David’s admirable research achievements in studies of agriculture, domestication, and environmental archaeology certainly will live on in his many publications. David also left an incredible legacy as an enthusiastic and inspirational teacher and mentor. I was very fortunate to have been one of his students back in the mid-1980s. Those were truly exciting days, when the Institute of Archaeology, propelled by David’s guidance and boundless energy, was breaking new ground in developing environmental approaches to archeology. Attending David’s landmark course “Resources and Subsistence” which provided an interdisciplinary and global perspective on human-environmental interaction, represented a turning point in my research and teaching, and his influence is continuing to inspire my students. David as a teacher was nicely described to me by Prof. John Pierce, who is a geographer and Dean of our faculty. He attended a lecture series given by David many years ago at the University of Toronto and writes that David “really opened my eyes to the wonders of early agriculture and domestication”.
Catherine D’Andrea
Simon Fraser University

Manuel Arroyo-Kalin said...

My most sincere condolences to the family and close friends of David Harris. His published work is a major reference in a number of fields, including plant cultivation in the Neotropical lowlands (his 1971 paper on swidden cultivation is a classic). I met him only briefly at the Institute of Archaeology but have a lasting memory of our exchange about slash and burn practices in the Amazon basin.

Delwen Samuel said...

David Harris’s death is sad indeed. My deepest condolences to his family and friends.

I was privileged to be his and Gordon’s student when I took the MSc course in Archaeobotany at the Institute. My training until then had been wholly in science, and he completely opened my mind to the fascinating and extraordinary understanding of human-plant interactions in all their global complexity and deep history. I remember, very clearly, listening to his lectures as these complex ideas so new to me were accessibly laid out in all their rich detail. His intellectual contributions have had individual and international impact. He was also a kind and approachable man with an unquenchable enthusiasm for knowledge.

Mark Beech (Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, Abu Dhabi, UAE) said...

So sad to hear that news. I have fond memories of attending lectures on his Resources and Subsistence course, as well as attending numerous research seminars on the 3rd floor of the Institute (between 1982-1985)... His lectures were an inspired mix of archaeology, anthropology and ethnography, with a deep understanding of related environmental and social issues. As a raw young undergrad I remember his generosity and kindness to share his ideas, and sometimes a small glass of sherry in his office/standing in the corridor outside the seminar room! ..... Listening to him talking about his work in the Torres Straits, exploiting yams and dugongs etc.... He inspired me.... and little did I know at that time that I would eventually end up based in the Middle East (since 1994), doing coastal and island archaeology and chasing the Neolithic dugong hunters of the southern Arabian Gulf, etc.

Unknown said...

I’m not an archaeobotanist, but David helped inspire my interest in human-environment relationships and anthropological approaches to archaeology. As a student at the Institute of Archaeology in the 1980’s the 3rd floor Environment Department which David shaped with Gordon Hillman, Ken Thomas and Tony Barham was the most exciting place to be and I enjoyed their stimulating courses and seminars. David helped inspired a couple of generations of students with his wide-ranging comparative approach, backed up by a wealth of ethnographic detail and a constant enthusiasm. He was also a main actor in negotiating the Institute of Archaeology’s joining UCL in 1986 prior to becoming Director of the Institute himself in 1989. Without that move and David’s direction the Institute could not have grown and developed the strength it has today. David had wide interests and stimulated and encouraged many archaeologists, so I join you all in expressing my appreciation and bidding him a fond farewell.

Jose R. Oliver said...

My condolences to David R. Harris's family. At a very personal level, I was extremely proud to have had with David Harris a special connection to his academic roots, one with his PhD thesis work conducted on plant ecology and environment of the Caribbean (my home turf) and the seminal work on 'swidden' agriculture during the expedition to the middle-upper Orinoco (my second home turf). I had known his name a reputation since my graduate years at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, as my spuervisor, Donald W. Lathrap was also a Berkely alumni and had a common root with David through Carl Sauer. Inevitably, when David Harris and I bumped into each other on the corridors of the Institute, he would always reminisce of his early years in the Antilles and the Orinoco. I am quite sure that was one reason why he supported my candidacy to become a faculty member back in 1994. I will always remember him with utmost affection and respect. He was (for this Latino writing here) in every good sense of the word a true gentleman in his dealings and approaches to colleagues and students alike. I will miss him greatly. May he rest in peace.

Anonymous said...

It is sad to hear news that David has passed away. I was fortunate to have David on my PhD advisory committee at UCL in the last ‘70s, prior to his move from the UCL Geography Department to the (then still independent) Institute of Archaeology. He greatly broadened my perspective away from regional or discipline-based analyses, towards a view that was at the same time holistic and global. Indeed, one of David’s most important contributions was to remind us that knowledge is universal, not compartmentalised. His research was multi-disciplinary, straddling environmental archaeology, cultural geography, economic botany, social anthropology, among other subjects. It was also interdisciplinary, at the rich interfaces between subject areas, of which there is no better example than the problem of agricultural origins and dispersals, to which David dedicated so much of his research. He has left us a rich legacy indeed.

Neil Roberts, Plymouth University, UK

Alvin Urquhart said...

It is only by chance I learned of David's death. I was one of his close friends at the University of California. We went on field trips together; we shared sherry with friends most Friday or Saturday evenings, going on to dinner at a local restaurant. We drove across the US together--Helen and David in an old second hand car--stopping to have lobster in Maine, a traffic ticket in New York, and many other places along the way to California.
I know of his great scholarship from seminars of Carl Sauer that we attended. His interests in early agriculture were formed there.
I will miss him greatly.
Al Urquhart
Department of Geograpphy
University of Oregon

Anonymous said...

I was fortunate to know David as a colleague in Turkey, but also in California and England. Our last meeting was on the Berkeley campus where he did get his degree and enjoyed visiting, he was off to seek out a Cyad that he remembered on the campus. I will remember him best for a wild mountain ride we took seeking wild Triticum in the Taurus mountains. It was a stunning trip.

He was engaged and was open to all.

Christine Hastorf, University California Berkeley

Barbara Pickersgill said...

I was saddened to hear of David Harris’s death (rather belatedly, because I have been out of email and internet contact for some time). We shared one of David’s many interests; namely plant domestication. David came to this field as a geographer, having spent time with Carl Sauer in California, while I came to it as a botanist, having done my PhD with Charley Heiser in Indiana. We met at many conferences over the years, at least two of which were organised by David and he edited the resulting publications. I always enjoyed immensely my discussions with him. He was extremely generous in promoting the work of others and I in turn looked forward to reading, and frequently citing, his latest publications. He wrote carefully, clearly and in a way that was accessible to those in a variety of disciplines. In one of my last exchanges with him, he was exhorting me to be rigorous in my definitions of those troublesome terms domestication, cultivation and agriculture. His corpus of publications will stand as a fitting and effective legacy for years to come.