Friday 17 January 2020

In Memoriam Steven A. Weber

It is with profound sadness that I record the passing away earlier this week of Steve Weber (1954-2020), an archaeobotanist, a friend, a sometimes sparring partner (on issues archaeobotanical), a sometimes co-author, whose ideas and work greatly enriched my own. For most archaeobotanists, he is probably best known for his work on Harappan plant remains, from his book Plants and Harappan Subsistence, to his co-edited volume on Indus Ethnobiology. Although his PhD (Univ. Pennsylvania, 1989) was on the Harappan site of Rojdi in Gujarat, India, he had previously worked in the American Southwest, especially in the Hopi region. After degrees at Northern Arizona State University and attending the first Ethnobiology meeting held in 1978 in Prescott Arizona, he helped to found the Society of Ethnobiology, with Steven Emslie, and edit its Journal of Ethnobiology that launched in 1981 (recounted in his article of 1986). The first issue of that journal partly celebrated the ethnobiological work of the late Al Whiting, which Steve Weber helped to bring to publication as Hasasupai Habitat, which looked in detail on resource use and settlment system of a native group in part of the Grand Canyon region. Steve departed Arizona to take up his PhD work at Pennsylvania and to establiosh the first really large scale machine flotation program of archaeobotany in the Indus valley region at the site of Rojdi with Prof. Gregory Possehl. He later took over the archaeobotany at the excavations at Harappa throughout the 1990s.

He was professor in the Anthropology Department at Washington State University, where he taught from 1994 onwards. On his webpage there, he describes himself as an "archaeologist and archaeobotanist working throughout the world" and working on the themes of "how and why people adopt new subsistence strategies, and how change in subsistence systems relates to change in material culture and settlement systems." He was always quick to point out that he was a field archaeologist first, but he was also a knowledgable and enthusiastic botanist. He certainly did get around-- we had meetings and encounters in France, in London and Cambridge, in the Delhi airport, n Lucknow, in Zhejiang and Kyoto, in San Francisco and Vancouver, Canada, and no doubt others I have forgotten. He was also intently engaging in conversations, full of ideas for further analysis, and extremely generous with his ideas. Sometimes they were quite accidental. We met once in the Delhi airport, both transiting and tired from long flights from abroad, but over coffee we had a conversation about potentially fundamental differences between wheat and barley on the one hand and millets on the other, and whether or not there was something inherent in the productivity of the big-grained cereals that meant they were more likely to support urbanism. Ideas he later developed in his paper "Does size matter?". In this article he suggests that large-seeded crops have larger and deeper root systems, making them much more productive when soils are well-watered in contrast to the more conservative small-grained crops like millets. While one can find exceptions, like northern Chinese urbanism based on millets, there does tend to be higher productivity in the larger grains cereals, allowing for the support of denser populations.

One time we arrived in Lucknow together, and Steve's luggage has been lost, so we spent the afternoon shopping for clothes for him. (He bought quite sensible clothes, while I opted for a rather louder shorts-- see below). Although we were both there for a conference on Lahuradewa and the origins of agriculture, and especially rice agriculture, our conversation strayed, as it often did, the small millets that constitute so much agricultural diversity, not just in India, but around the world. Steve's take was that the great potential of small-scale sustainable millet agriculture was largely overlooked by modern scholarship, in part because of bias towards interest in those large-grained cereals, that were both more easy to find archaeologically and more likely to support urban elites. This resulted in our joint attempt to call attention to millets in worldwide agricultural and archaeobotanical studies, published in Pragdhara 2008.
KS Saraswat, Steve Weber, Dorian Fuller, Mukund Kajale visiting Lahuradewa excavations, Uttar Pradesh, Jan. 2006

Steve Weber and Prof-Yo-Ichiro Sato (Kyoto, summer 2007).
Some of my most lengthy and enjoyable discussions with him took place in Kyoto, where we both had stints as visiting scholars at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, and where we were meant to bring order to nearly global archaeobotanical questions of origins and spread of crops being posed by Professor Sato.

Tragically over the pat couple of years he suffered from a degenerative illness. Despite this he was still intent on numerous research issues and ongoing projects when I saw him at a party and conference session in his honor at the SAAs in Vancouver, marked in part by the retrospective on Steve Weber the visionary written with Jade Guedes for the Journal of Ethnobiology. Steven generously passed on his many archaeobotanical samples to Jade, who had joined his department, and so the legacy of his research can be expected to continue to yield results for years to come. 

One of my earlier interactions with Steve was when I had first started teaching in London and I had offered something of a critique to an article on "seeds of urbanism" that he published in Antiquity. And while our published debate might have read somewhat acrominously, he was nothing but supportive and even enthusiastic about discussions with a younger scholar about the finer points of interpretaing patterning in archaeobotanictal data. He insisted that we should distribution together both his original article, my critique and his reply at the South Asia Archaeological conference in Paris in the summer of 2001. He was so focused on moving the field in the positive direction that he took criticism as a positive.  The discussions we began then lead on to many conversations on the value of different archaeobotanical samples based on inferences about how they formed. And he invited me to work with him on our first joint publication  on "formation processes and Palaeoethnobotanical interpretation," perhaps super-ceded by his later critical review on Palaeoethnobotany.  He was humble in his knowledge and a gentleman scholar. His example of putting the pursuit of archaeological knowledge first, before his ego, is an example I will continue to strive for.

He will be sorely missed. Below are some photos I could locate of him. Please do add your own comments thought and memories. I can add more photos if they are emailed to me. 

Steve Weber, Dr. Qashid Mullah, Dorian Fuller, above Kyoto (2007)


Steve Weber at the 2009 conference "Origin of Rice Agriculture and its diffusion to SOutheast and East Asia", Kyoto, August 2009. [from which his publication on rice and millets in Thailand]
Dorian Fuller, Steve Weber, Gao Yu, visiting historic Hangzhou (June 2011)

Steve Weber with Dr Jin Guiyin touring Tianluoshan site, Zhejiang

Visiting Tianluoshan Neolithic site, Zhejiang (Steve Weber at far right). 
Early rice workshop at Peking University, June 2011

Steve with Jade D'Alpoim Guedes at the SAA conference, Vancouver, Canada, 2018