Adams, former Oriental Institute director and anthropology professor, honored with Alumni Medal
The Alumni Association has bestowed this year its highest honor, the Alumni Medal, on Robert McCormick Adams, a former Chicago faculty member and administrator (Ph.B.,’47, A.M.,’52, Ph.D.,’56), who is retired from the anthropology department of the University of California, San Diego.
Created in 1941, the Alumni Medal is awarded to recognize achievement of an exceptional nature in any field, vocational or voluntary, covering an entire career. Because the recipients of the medal define its value, it has been given sparingly. The medal is awarded to no more than one person each year and need not be awarded on an annual basis.
In 1950, Adams was working the swing shift at a South Chicago steel mill while studying part time at the University. At 24, he already had helped build some of the original ski trails in Aspen, Colo., and studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before dropping out to serve in World War II.
At Chicago, Adams wrote regularly for the Chicago Maroon—edited by his friend David Broder (A.B.,’47, A.M.,’51)—and thought he would probably become a journalist.
Then one of his professors, the renowned archaeologist Robert Braidwood (Ph.D.,’43), invited him to go on a dig in the Kurdish foothills of Iraq. A member of Braidwood’s team had dropped out at the last minute; Adams was chosen as a replacement because he knew how to fix cars.
During the dig he fell in love with anthropology. Adams spent the next three decades at the University, serving on the faculty from 1955 to 1984; he was named the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Anthropology in 1975. His administrative roles included Director of the Oriental Institute (1962–68, 1981–83), Dean of the Social Sciences Division (1970–74, 1979–80), and Provost (1982–84).
Adams’ research has taken him to Mexico, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but he is best known for his work in Iraq. He pioneered the use of aerial and satellite photographs to trace ancient settlement patterns between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, in order to understand long-term cycles in the growth and decline of civilizations.
Recognized as one of the most influential figures in the archaeology of ancient complex societies, Adams has fundamentally transformed theories about the origins of urbanism.
After the overthrow of the Iraqi monarchy in 1958, however, the area became increasingly difficult and dangerous for Westerners. By the early 1980s, Adams found fieldwork in his region of specialty to be all but impossible. In 1984, Adams became the ninth secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. During his decade-long tenure, he brought a new focus on cultural diversity, overseeing the creation of the new National Museum of the American Indian and the National African American Museum.
Over the course of his distinguished career, Adams’ seminal publications on early urban societies have continued to hold preeminent positions in his field. A prolific scholar, Adams takes an interdisciplinary approach in his current research, asking questions on topics both ancient and modern—from shepherds at Umma in the Third Dynasty of Ur, to the limits of state power on the Mesopotamian plain, to providing context of Iraqi lootings and lessons on terrorism.
In 2006, the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, published Settlement and Society: Essays Dedicated to Robert McCormick Adams, written by his students and disciples. According to its introduction, the book “is offered as a tribute to the breadth and depth of his research and as an appreciation of the influence he has had on everyone in the field.”