September 23, 2008

Brown Archaeologist Wins MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant

By Karen Lee Ziner

The professor is one of 25 people nationwide receiving a $500,000, no-strings-attached fellowship.

PROVIDENCE -- Archaeologist Stephen Houston deciphers hieroglyphics to peer into past worlds and "disappeared mentalities," into the dreams and souls of the Maya and other ancient civilizations. The Brown University professor has for years spent rainy seasons leading excavations in remote areas of Guatemala and Mexico, unearthing monuments and structures, then decoding their symbols and scripts.

Today, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognized Houston's body of work with a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes nicknamed the "genius grant."

Houston, the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and professor in the Brown anthropology department, is one of 25 people nationwide receiving a $500,000, no-strings-attached, 2008 MacArthur Fellowship. The award installments are stretched over five years.

The fellowships are awarded to individuals "who have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits." Fellows are nominated anonymously by leaders in their respective fields. Other 2008 MacArthur fellows include an urban farmer, a saxophonist, a sculptor, an astronomer, a historian of medicine, and an inventor of musical instruments.

Houston is one of two Brown professors -- the other being former Rhode Island poet laureate C.D. Wright -- to win a MacArthur fellowship. Three other people with Rhode Island ties are recent past fellows.

Houston, 49, said he was notified last week by phone. He pledged to keep mum until today's announcement.

"It's really kind of anxiety-inducing to keep a secret this long. You're really forbidden from telling anyone except maybe your spouse or whoever's in the room at the time," Houston said during an interview Sunday at his home. "It's a surreal experience."

"So if you get a phone call -- in this case about dinnertime -- from someone who identifies himself as the president of the MacArthur Foundation, it's very hard to be coherent ... I think they can understand and accept a certain befuddlement on the part of the recipients."

But Houston said his wife, who was in the room, "whooped with joy" when he told her.

Though there are no constraints on how Houston can spend the money, he plans altruistic use.

"I think it should be well considered. It shouldn't be about going out and buying a Cadillac -- not that you'd want such a gas hog these days -- but it has to be about something that will make me think and work better. At the same time, I think there's a moral obligation to do some good with this award that's not just focused egocentrically on my needs."

He has not thought it through, Houston said, but one possibility might be to establish a scholarship here or in Guatemala for young scholars, in the name of a younger colleague who was killed several weeks ago.

The MacArthur Foundation biography of Houston describes him as "an anthropologist illuminating the intellectual and emotional life of ancient Mesoamerican peoples, through insightful interpretations of hieroglyphic inscriptions and figural art."

Houston said many of the decipherment breakthroughs "have been going on very recently, in the last 10 or 15 years."

He describes a major part of his work as code-breaking.

"It requires a certain kind of mind, I suppose," he said. "One that's good at pattern-recognition. So the first thing someone like me would do is look at a text ... and then start sorting out whether there are any internal patterns. Are there elements that are repeated, or elements that are repeated in sequence? Are there signs that are recognizable in some way with respect to the local imagery ...?"

Two years ago, Houston and his U.S. and Mexican colleagues detailed in the journal Science the discovery and analysis of a 3,000-year-old stone tablet, unearthed in 1999 by road-builders that bears the oldest writing in the Western Hemisphere.

The 26-pound tablet, about the size of a legal pad, bears the first text linked to the Olmec empire -- a civilization believed to be the progenitor of the Aztecs and the Maya.

He and a colleague have also recently "sorted out aspects of the Maya soul," and discovered "soul concepts which aren't quite like ours." The Maya saw the soul as being "dividable and extendible," he said, "so you might have several souls within your body."

For example, "there were souls that expressed themselves in the nighttime, and the word for those is the same as the word for sleep." Those dreams "would be one aspect of your soul, and would roam free, often in the guise of a supernatural being or animal of the forest."

Houston was asked to describe what he finds most enthralling.

"One is simply finding the inscription, because when the dirt peels off that surface, and if the text is well preserved, it hits you immediately that you're the first person to see that text in fifteen hundred years, or twelve hundred years, and that's a heady and powerful emotion."

The second involves "discerning something in a text that you haven't quite expected, and suddenly, many, many other elements lock into place, and that's often an intuitive process."

His academic schedule dictates that much of the fieldwork occurs in rainy season. The work is rigorous, and potentially hazardous.

" ... There have been many close calls with snakes, and they're extremely toxic creatures down there, and aggressive. I've had workers kidnapped by guerrillas. And yes, there is a good deal of sustained physical misery. You just can't think about these things," he said. "It's a great mental discipline, as well as physical." Houston adds, "They don't teach you this at grad school."

Prof. Stephen Houston looks at some of the masks he has collected over the years. Two years ago, Houston and his U.S. and Mexican colleagues detailed the discovery of a 3,000-year-old stone tablet. The Providence Journal Frieda Squires [email protected] / (401) 277- 7375

Originally published by Karen Lee Ziner, Journal Staff Writer.

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