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.