In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gordon Willey

  • Introduction
  • Historical Overviews, Festschrifts, and Collected Works
  • Archaeology of the Southeastern United States
  • Archaeology of the Intermediate Area
  • History of Archaeology

Anthropology Gordon Willey
Damien B. Marken
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 September 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 September 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0137


Gordon Randolph Willey (b. 1913–d. 2002) was an American archaeologist best known for his pioneering studies of New World settlement patterns. His seminal publications on the Virú Valley in Peru and the Belize Valley in Belize established regional settlement patterns as a fundamental object of archaeological research. As mentor to nearly three generations of archaeologists at Harvard University, he was often referred to by colleagues as the “dean” of New World archaeology during the second half of the 20th century and was immortalized as the “Great Synthesizer” by Kent Flannery in The Early Mesoamerican Village (1976). He received his BA (1935) and MA (1936) from the University of Arizona and his PhD from Columbia University (1942). In 1950 he became the first Charles P. Bowditch chair of the Department of Anthropology at Harvard University, where he taught for thirty-six years. Over the course of his career he was awarded the A. V. Kidder Medal, the Viking Medal, the Huxley Medal, and the Order of the Quetzal from the Guatemalan government, and honorary doctorates from the University of New Mexico and Cambridge University. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Willey was a prolific field investigator, participating in and/or directing projects across the Americas. He was proud to have published final reports for every field project he directed prior to his passing. Although Willey conducted the majority of his fieldwork in Central America (Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Panama), he also pioneered new data collection and analytical methods in archaeology of the southeastern United States and South America, particularly in regard to reconstructing and correlating “space-time systematics.” His early research in Florida remains a keystone of scholarship on Southeastern prehistory, and Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the Virú Valley, Peru, published in 1953, is perhaps his most famous publication, although its immediate impact on South American archaeology was limited. The projects he directed in the Maya region were large-scale, multiyear, interdisciplinary endeavors, whose data and results significantly contributed to modern interpretations of the Classic period (250–950 CE). Although Willey’s early arguments for an intrusive foreign Terminal Classic presence in the Maya lowlands have proven to be overly simplistic, the Altar de Sacrificios and Seibal reports remain invaluable contributions to understanding the chronology and demographic and political history of the Classic period. Following his investigations in the Pasión River Basin, Willey initiated the current era of archaeological research at the major Classic site of Copan and its environs, at the behest of the Honduran government. An important aspect of Willey’s legacy is his influence on the practice of Americanist archaeology through his students. Willey’s dedication as a mentor and a teacher is well attested. A true field rat, Willey graduated scores of well-trained, field-hardened archaeologists, many of whom went on to direct their own groundbreaking field projects. The diversity of his students’ interests in many ways reflects the breadth of his contributions to archaeological research and his advocacy of a holistic approach to reconstructing the past.

Historical Overviews, Festschrifts, and Collected Works

Willey, along with Robert McC. Adams, is often credited with placing settlement patterns and household organization at the forefront of archaeological investigation. His emphasis on reconstructing regional culture histories made him the target of criticism by the New Archaeology (see also the Oxford Bibliographies article Processual Archaeology), whose advocates concurrently embraced his contributions to archaeological method and practice. Sabloff 1994 elaborates on the revolutionary influence Willey’s settlement pattern approach had on the practice of Maya archaeology. Four years prior to his retirement, Willey was honored in Leventhal and Kolata 1983 and Vogt and Leventhal 1983, a massive two-volume collection of innovative research by former students, many of whom became prominent scholars themselves. Sabloff and Fash 2007 is a posthumous collection of papers that assess Willey’s broad contributions to Americanist and anthropological archaeology. Fash 2007 and Sabloff 2007 introduce and conclude Sabloff and Fash 2007, highlighting the impact of Willey’s empirical, methodological, and theoretical impact on the study of New World prehistory. Prior to his death in 2002, Willey published two collections of his writings. Willey 1987 exclusively centers on overviews of Maya archaeology. Willey 1990 is a comprehensive collection of Willey’s publications and includes his later reflections on the relevancy of each publication in light of subsequent research on each topic.

  • Fash, William L. 2007. Introduction. In Gordon R. Willey and American archaeology: Contemporary perspectives. Edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff and William L. Fash, 3–14. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    This introduction places ten specific publications, whose topics/themes are the subject of each chapter in the book, within the historical context of Willey’s career.

  • Leventhal, Richard M., and Alan L. Kolata, eds. 1983. Civilization in the ancient Americas: Essays in honor of Gordon R. Willey. Albuquerque, NM, and Cambridge, MA: Univ. of New Mexico Press, Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard Univ.

    One of two collected works jointly published in honor of Willey in 1983. All the authors are former students of Willey’s. Regional focus is nearly balanced between Mesoamerica and the Andes. Chapter topics are highly diverse and include a historical overview of Maya studies, material analysis reports, settlement analyses, urbanism, and empire. Contains a complete bibliography of Willey’s publications (1937–1982).

  • Sabloff, Jeremy A. 1994. The new archaeology and the ancient Maya. Scientific American Library 30. New York: Scientific American Library.

    First published in 1990, this text describes the history of Maya archaeology. It cites the key role of Willey’s settlement pattern studies in altering conceptions of Maya society and demography in the 1960s. Also describes projects directed by Willey at Altar de Sacrificios, Seibal, and Copan.

  • Sabloff, Jeremy A. 2007. Conclusion. In Gordon R. Willey and American archaeology: Contemporary perspectives. Edited by Jeremy A. Sabloff and William L. Fash, 233–236. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    Short statement on Willey’s legacy that argues his most enduring contribution to archaeology is ultimately the data he collected, organized, and published.

  • Sabloff, Jeremy A., and William L. Fash, eds. 2007. Gordon R. Willey and American archaeology: Contemporary perspectives. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    This volume recognizes Willey’s scholarly and empirical contributions to archaeological practice and culture history of the New World. Chapters evaluate the historical context and scholarly impact of ten Willey publications.

  • Vogt, Evon Z., and Richard M. Leventhal, eds. 1983. Prehistoric settlement patterns: Essays in honor of Gordon R. Willey. Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard Univ.

    One of two collected works jointly published in honor of Willey in 1983. Authors are former students and collaborators of Willey’s. Regional focus is predominantly Mesoamerica, although comparative case studies include South America, China, and Europe. Themes in settlement archaeology include household studies, community organization, cities, regional analysis, and method and theory.

  • Willey, Gordon R. 1987. Essays in Maya archaeology. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press.

    A limited collection of seven previously published articles and book chapters authored (or coauthored) by Willey. Regionally exclusive to the Maya. Selections are predominantly synthetic in scope because several are overviews or conclusions to edited volumes. Foreword by Jeremy Sabloff.

  • Willey, Gordon R. 1990. New World archaeology and culture history: Collected essays and articles. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press.

    A comprehensive collection of thirty previously published articles. Selections are wide ranging in regional and topical breadth. Section headings include “Culture-Historical and Developmental Syntheses” (thirteen selections), “Patterns in the Data” (eight selections), “A Priori Hypotheses” (three selections), “Settlement Patterns” (three selections), “Method and Theory” (two selections), and “Recovery of Ideology” (one selection). Each section and subsection is prefaced by short introductory comments by Willey.

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