Jan. 23, 2003 – Vol. 22 No. 8

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    Robert, Linda Braidwood, pioneers in prehistoric archaeology

    Robert Braidwood, Professor Emeritus in the Oriental Institute and Anthropology, and his wife, Linda, his companion and colleague in pioneering research in prehistoric archaeology, died Wednesday, Jan. 15, in the Hospitals. Robert Braidwood was 95. Linda Braidwood was 93.

    Their work provided important insights into the development of settled cultures that preceded ancient urban civilization, such as that of the Sumerian civilization that flourished in Mesopotamia beginning in about 3100 B.C.

    The Braidwoods discovered a number of important firsts, including the oldest known sample of human blood, the earliest example of hand-worked natural copper and the oldest known piece of cloth. He did early investigations on recovering DNA from blood on ancient artifacts.

    Robert Braidwood also advanced the scientific study of archaeology by recruiting to his teams a number of botanists, zoologists, geologists and other specialists who provided additional insights about the communities he was studying.

    Braidwood introduced the idea of the testable hypothesis to archaeology, and he was the first to use archaeological survey to investigate an entire region.

    Throughout his career, his wife, Linda, was a constant companion and partner in his work. “Through the years, it is impossible to disentangle Bob Braidwood’s contributions from those of his wife, Linda,” said Gil Stein, Director of the Oriental Institute. “The two of them were true intellectual partners in addition to their deep personal commitment to each other.

    “Bob Braidwood’s death marks the passing of an era,” said Stein. “It is difficult to overestimate his professional stature, his impact on the archaeology of the Near East and his role in archaeology as a general discipline. More than almost anyone else he exemplified archaeology at the Oriental Institute.”

    Braidwood, who studied architecture at the University of Michigan, received an M.A. there in 1933. He took a course in Near Eastern archaeology at Michigan and was invited to do field work near Baghdad in 1930. James Henry Breasted, the legendary founder of the Oriental Institute, hired Braidwood in 1933.

    Braidwood began his work at the Oriental Institute’s archaeological excavation in the Amuq Valley in northern Syria. “It was overwhelmingly successful,” said Ray Tindel, registrar of the Oriental Institute. “They brought back tons of material–pottery, stone and other artifacts.”

    In his work in the Amuq, Braidwood expanded the use of archaeological surveys of ancient sites and set the standard for an approach that is used today. By carefully gathering material from surrounding sites, he was able to precisely date artifacts by comparing them to material he had recovered from a trench built in step fashion in a mound he had excavated.

    The Braidwoods were married in 1937, and before the outbreak of World War II, they did field work in the Middle East. During the war, he was in charge of a meteorological mapping program at the University for the Army Air Corps. He also finished a Ph.D. in 1943.

    In 1947, Braidwood learned of work by Chicago archaeologist Willard Libby that involved dating organic materials on the basis of their radioactive carbon content. He provided some ancient samples for testing. Radiocarbon dating became an essential element for dating materials recovered during the Braidwoods’ pioneering work at prehistoric sites.

    It also was at this time that Braidwood began serious research on the period beginning about 12,000 years ago in the ancient Near East. That research and teaching led Braidwood and his wife to develop an interest in a neglected area of Near Eastern archaeology–about 10,000 years ago–between the period of nomadic hunters and gatherers and the period when agriculture emerged and civilization ensued.

    In 1947, the Braidwoods established the Prehistoric Project at the Oriental Institute to study the transition from hunting and gathering to farming.

    “We wondered what we would learn were we to concentrate on that threshold of cultural change that must have attended the very earliest domestication of plants and animals,” the couple wrote in a report in 1987. Although other scholars had suggested an agricultural revolution had preceded the development of civilization, no one–until the Braidwoods began their work–had uncovered evidence for the transition.

    The project pioneered a new form of archaeology that required specialists to examine rubbish, such as bone fragments, plant remains and carbonized grain, which previously other archaeologists digging for artifacts and architecture had discarded. In 1954, the Braidwoods’ work with natural science colleagues won them a National Science Foundation grant–one of the first the NSF had given to the field of anthropology.

    The Braidwoods began their work at Jarmo, a site in northeast Iraq, and continued working there until 1955. The revolution in 1958 made it impossible for them to return. They then continued their work in Iran and subsequently, in the early 1960s, traveled to southern Turkey to work at Cayonu, which became their principal site in a joint Prehistoric Project between the University and Istanbul University.

    At Cayonu, they discovered the oldest known terrazzo floor, which was produced with concrete made of burned lime.

    Braidwood was the author of numerous articles on prehistoric archaeology as well as Prehistoric Men, which was published in eight editions and translated into Turkish and Chinese. He received the medal for distinguished archaeological achievement in 1971 from the Archaeological Institute of America.

    Linda Braidwood received a B.A. from the University of Michigan in 1932, and an A.M. in archaeology from Chicago in 1946. She joined her husband on expeditions throughout the Middle East, beginning in 1937, and was a frequent collaborator on his projects.

    She was a Fulbright Research Fellow in Turkey from 1963 to 1964 and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the journal Archaeology from 1952 to 1967.

    She published extensively with her husband and other scholars and wrote Digging Beyond the Tigris.

    Survivors include a daughter, Gretel Braidwood of Chicago; a son, Douglas Braidwood of Virginia Beach, Va.; two grandsons and one granddaughter.