Robert SharerOn the Road to Xibalba:
Robert J. Sharer (1940–2012)
Birth: March 16, 1940; passing: September 20, 2012

In the IMS Explorer: Volume 41: Issue 11 • November 2012

Robert J. Sharer, an Internationally renowned archaeologist and Mesoamerican scholar, was the Emeritus Curator, American Section, Penn Museum, and the Emeritus Sally and Alvin Shoemaker Professor in Anthropology, University of Pennsylvania, having officially retired in 2009. He conducted research in Central America for nearly 50 years. His research career focused on two major Penn Museum excavation projects at two UNESCO World Heritage Maya sites – Quirigua in Guatemala (1974-79) and Copan in Honduras (1988-2003).

Sharer was author, co-author, editor or co-editor of more than twenty books and monographs including, in 2006, with Loa P. Traxler, The Ancient Maya (Sixth Edition, revised), Stanford University Press, and in 2004, Understanding Early Classic Copan, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Museum.

His strong desire was to see all the archaeological research from his many projects through to publication. The Robert J. Sharer Maya Publications Fund, newly established, is available for those who would like to honor his memory by payable to the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania with the Fund name in the memo line, and sent to the attention of Amanda Mitchell-Boyask at the Penn Museum. A memorial service is planned for Saturday, November 10th at the Penn Museum. An article in Penn Museum’s Expedition magazine, Volume 51, No 1, entitled “Meet the Curators”, focuses on Dr. Sharer.

An Archaeologist’s Archaeologist
Excerpts from the obituary by John F. Morrison, posted 9/27/2012 in the Philadelphia Daily News, now at:

Sharer was well known for his fieldwork in Maya sites, such as Copan, El Mirador at Copan. He directed the Early Copan Acropolis Project (E-CAP). His team created more than three miles of tunnels into the early levels of the city, and in 1993, discovered the founder’s tomb. Sharer was always intrigued by how advanced the Maya civilization was and how it produced major findings in astronomy, mathematics, art and agriculture.

Among Sharer’s discoveries about the Maya was how much they loved and treasured chocolate. Chocolate was important to the Maya, he noted in an article in the Inquirer in 2002. “Chocolate was associated with wealth and power,” he said. “Many chocolate vessels have been found in the tombs of the elite. It was traded and also used as monetary exchange.” Sharer was often was accompanied by Loa P. Traxler, a Penn graduate student who he married in 1997. She also tramped through jungles and down those claustrophobic tunnels with Bob and as part of other teams. She was part of an expedition that discovered another royal tomb in 1992. He can be seen and heard discussing his work in an interactive kiosk at the “Maya 2012: Lords of Time” exhibit now at the Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Loa Traxler is the exhibition curator.
A Lifetime of Accomplishments
From Penn Publication, Vol. 51, No. 1, in the Curator In-Charge – American Section, by Deborah I. Olszewski:

Robert J. Sharer became interested in archaeology as an undergraduate when he took a summer job at the Michigan State University Museum. The fascinating stories of Arctic field archaeology told by his boss, the noted Arctic scholar Moreau Maxwell, prompted Sharer to broaden his history major by taking additional anthropology classes.

During his senior year (1960–61) at Michigan State, Sharer was unexpectedly nominated for a Woodrow Wilson graduate fellowship, that he was awarded. This required him to choose a graduate school and field of study. A serendipitous dinner meeting with the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Loren Eiseley, who was invited to speak at Michigan State University by Sharer’s father, the head of the Evening College there, persuaded Sharer to choose the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school, sight-unseen.

Sharer began his graduate career in anthropology at Penn in 1961, studying archaeology under Bernard Wailes. A summer excavation project in Cornwall with Wailes convinced Sharer that his interests were in archaeology. After two years of graduate work, Sharer took a two-year break to fulfill his military obligation, returning to graduate school at Penn in 1965.

Sharer’s dedication to Maya studies can be traced to the influence of Ruben Reina. After taking a course in Maya ethnography, Sharer went to Guatemala for summer research in a highland Maya community, and found the people, their traditions, and the region fascinating.

With guidance from William Coe, Sharer’s Ph.D. thesis research focused on collections from Coe’s excavations at El Trapiche, an early precinct of the site of Chalchuapa in El Salvador. Sharer finished his graduate work in 1967 and was awarded his doctorate in 1968. His first academic position was at Pitzer College (part of the Claremont Colleges) in California, where he taught from 1967 to 1972. While at Pitzer, Sharer was able to return to Chalchuapa for field research between 1968 and 1970. The project was partially funded by a large research grant for graduate student training, which Penn Museum Director Froelich Rainey had secured for Penn Museum projects, including Chalchuapa.

Upon Linton Satterthwaite’s retirement in 1972, Sharer was appointed Assistant Professor in Penn’s Department of Anthropology and Assistant Curator in the American Section at the Penn Museum. Sharer was promoted to Associate Professor and Associate Curator in 1975; became Professor and Curator in 1984; was appointed Curator-in-Charge of the American Section in 1987; and was made Shoemaker Professor in Anthropology in 1995.

Robert’s research career has focused on two major Penn Museum excavation projects at Maya sites – Quirigua in Guatemala (1974–79) and Copan in Honduras (1988–2003) – as well as a number of smaller projects in Guatemala and Honduras. While Field Director of the Quirigua Project in 1975, Sharer was invited by Gordon Willey of Harvard University to help develop a master plan for future research at Copan.

Sharer’s contribution to the master plan included a proposal to investigate the Acropolis area at Copan using a series of tunnel excavations, which could be dug horizontally into the Acropolis from the river-cut side. At the time, Sharer had no idea that he would eventually be asked to undertake this work. Then in 1988, William Fash, now director of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, offered this option to Sharer, who realized that the tunneling strategy afforded a truly unique opportunity to explore the history of the Acropolis from its foundation to its last constructed buildings.

Sharer’s expectations were more than fulfilled, as his team found what appears to be the tomb of Copan’s Dynastic Founder, a discovery without equal at any Maya site, as well as revealing the entire sequence of building and rebuilding at the Acropolis by later rulers of Copan. Although directors of large complex archaeological projects usually spend their time in administration and logistics, Sharer found time to excavate the Margartita tomb and a large dedication cache at Copan.

After a long and successful career, Sharer retired in the summer of 2009. This, however, does not mean that he hung up his hat for good. Since 2004, he was hard at work with his wife and colleague, Loa Traxler, to ensure that all Copan databases, artifacts, records, photographs, maps, and so forth are completely analyzed, curated, and conserved for future generations. He also worked on several monographs on the Early Copan Acropolis Program, and used his “free time” after retirement to concentrate on that research.

The Ancient Maya              
Perhaps his biggest accomplishment in making the Maya known to the public was his update of the famous Sylvanus Morley book, The Ancient Maya, first published in 1946, revised by George Brainerd in 1956. In 1983, the Fourth Edition was published preserving much of the Morley-Brainerd text while adding the considerable results of research and interpretation then available. By the Fifth Edition, published in 1994, Sharer had thoroughly rewritten and much expanded the book. Morley’s name was dropped and Robert J. Sharer stood alone as the author of a book many consider essential in any Maya library.

Sharer wrote: “The rich findings of recent exploration and research are incorporated in this completely revised and greatly expanded edition of the standard work on the New World’s most brilliant native civilization – that of the Maya people of northern Central America and southern Mexico.”

The Ancient Maya traces the evolution of Maya civilization through the Pre-Columbian era, a span of some 2,500 years from the origins of complex society within Mesoamerica to the end of the Pre-Columbian world with the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. The result is the most thorough and incisive study of the origins and development of ancient Maya civilization ever published.

In Loving Honor

There will be a Memorial Service at the Penn Museum on Saturday, November 10 at 11:00 am. Bob’s strong desire was to see all the archaeological research from his many projects through to publication. You can help support this noble effort. In lieu of any flowers or other similar expressions of condolence, gifts or donations should be directed to the Robert J. Sharer Maya Publications Fund. All contributions may be sent to Amanda Mitchell-Boyask, Penn Museum, 3260 South Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19104



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Copyright 2012 Robert J. Sharer. The Institute of Maya Studies is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. Your charitable contributions are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
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