Dr. John Rick (2004)

Prof. John Rick,  2000-2003 Chair dept. of anthropological sciencesJohn W. Rick is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University and the Curator of Anthropology Collections at the University’s Cantor Center. Born in Davis, California, he received his B.A. degree in Anthropology from the University of California in 1972, and his Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1978.
Dr. Rick came to Stanford University in 1978. He is the 1988 recipient of the Hoagland Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Education and in 2001 was awarded Stanford’s Allan V. Cox Medal for Faculty Excellence in Fostering Undergraduate Research. In 2002, he received the Richard W. Lyman Award for his contributions to Stanford alumni education and its travel study program.

His research interests include the archaeological record of prehistoric hunters-gatherers; processes of archaeological site formation; lithic technology (decoding of stone tools); non-complex cultural systems; adaptations of prehistoric hunter-gatherer populations to their natural environments; exploration and preservation of Stanford’s prehistoric sites along the San Francisquito creek; human evolutionary history; and digital technologies in archaeology. Dr. Rick has conducted fieldwork in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, France, Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala and Peru. His dissertation work and much of his early research has focused on cave sites from the hunter-gatherer period in the Peruvian highlands or puna. Following a harrowing encounter with Peru’s Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) guerrillas in the central highlands in 1987, Dr. Rick relocated his research efforts to the World Heritage site of Chavín de Huántar in the northeastern highlands. Today, he is well known for his work on the origins of social complexity at Chavín, where he works in collaboration with his archaeologist wife Rosa Mendoza de Rick. It was here in 2001 that he found a spectacular cache of ceremonial Strombus shell trumpets.

An engraved Strombus shell discovered by John Rick at Chavin, appears to show trophy heads of sacrifice victims and spear-like weapons. Photo courtesy of John Rick.

An engraved Strombus shell discovered by John Rick at Chavin, appears to show trophy heads of sacrifice victims and spear-like weapons. Photo courtesy of John Rick.

Dr. Rick is the author of numerous publications on archaeology, including his well known book, Prehistoric Hunters of the High Andes (Academic Press, 1980).

Dr. Rick was the Awards Banquet Keynote Speaker at the 2004 SCA Annual Meeting in Riverside. The title of his presentation was, “Exploring the Foundations of Authority at Chavín de Huántar, Peru.”

The following interview was made possible through the efforts of SCA members Breck Parkman and Greg White.


SCA: Can you tell us where you were born, and a little about your early childhood?

JR: California born and bred, faculty brat from Davis. Grew up in the academic environment of the 50′s-60′s, lived through the San Francisco-Berkeley scene of the 60′s. I traveled to Peru a number of times with my parents, and was directly exposed to archaeology. My father was a well-known expert in tomatoes, particularly wild species, which took us plant-collecting up, down, and across the Andes in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Chile; also to the Galapagos Islands. My early, burnt-in memory of archaeology was at the age of 6 when my mother stumbled upon a wonderfully preserved, textile-wrapped mummy on the Peruvian coast; probably the critical moment in determining my future career. After deviating from archaeology in late high school, due to advice from teachers and counselors, I returned to this original lifetime passion in college.

SCA: Who are the people that most influenced you?

JR: Clearly my father as a model scientist, workaholic, expert traveler and explorer. A few high school teachers were influential in improving my thinking, but really it has been archaeologist mentors who meant a great deal to me — in order, Jim O’Connell, John M. Fritz and Meg Conkey, Paul S. “Pottery” Martin, Michael Schiffer, Stuart Struever, Francois Bordes, Kent Flannery and Jeff Parsons. In my professional life I have been a bit more of a loner (dictated in part by what was a meager faculty at Stanford), but Luis Lumbreras in Peru has been a major influence and a person to admire.

SCA: Do you have any hobbies or special interests that you’d like to tell us about?

JR: I used to be a pretty good auto mechanic, prior to the digital car age; I have a love-hate relationship with cars; just can’t justify being dedicated to something so actively destroying our world, but I grew up a Central Valley hot-rodder – “American Graffiti” wasn’t quite autobiographical, but not too far off; dragging J and K in Sac on Friday nights… Luckily my Peruvian field vehicle (74 Toyota FJ-55) is still very much in the “analog” world, and I can put in my time on it. Stone tool making used to consume me, but time doesn’t permit as much knapping as it used to. Currently I have a passion for raising and consuming citrus and chilies, when field seasons allow.

SCA: What do you like to do when you want to get away from archaeology?

JR: That’s irrelevant – I don’t want to get away from archaeology. Give me more.

SCA: Have you read a book or seen a movie recently that you really enjoyed and can tell us about?

JR: I consume historical documentaries with a passion. I recently saw most of the series “The New Zealand Wars” about the history of Maori-European relationships and was, as usual, fascinated. Although a bit superficial, I’m also enjoying my way through the California Gold Rush book “The Age of Gold” by Brands.

SCA: If you hadn’t become an archaeologist, what career might you have chosen?

JR: Two real options, both of which I’ve hinted at — car mechanic, or historian. I like car mechanics because causes are finite — you can eventually figure out a problem completely, although it may take quite some time. History I like because it is intellectual pornography — it hits all the pleasure points in my mind; I wallow in it. I’ve enjoyed a bit of delving into, and speculation about the history (and archaeology) of the Stanford family; that’s as close as I have come to living out the history tendency.

SCA: Can you tell us a little about your training, where you went to school, and what you remember about that time in your life?

JR: U.C. Santa Cruz at the end of the 60′s-early 70′s was my undergraduate institution, and could not have been a better place for me, moving me into more of a social consciousness, getting me away from cars, allowing me to go barefoot all the time, and giving me the time to explore archaeology in an unparalleled setting. University of Michigan in the mid 70′s was my graduate institution, magical in very different ways. The excitement of the evolving processual and explanatory archaeology that ran through the faculty and grad students is even yet a standout in my experience. The camaraderie and endless collegial sharing allowed me entrance into so many new dimensions, theoretical, statistical, and proto-digital. Life was typical of the times, I think, except that I went five years without a summer in grad school, alternating between Michigan winters and frigid dry seasons at 14,000 ft. in the Andes — a lot of time to go without ever feeling really warm.

SCA: What are some of your most memorable experiences as an archaeologist?

JR: There’s no question that discovery is what engages me and keeps me going. Honestly, it’s both intellectual and material. The intellectual thrill of ‘cracking’ a dataset or putting a digital model into analytical operationality is just fabulous. Alas, I don’t get the time to immerse myself in numerical data for weeks at a time as I used to, which is ironic, given the potential of the impressive digital tools we now have at our fingertips. We still need the massive time-consuming exposure to our own data that no amount of computing power can bypass (although it can be a great help). But discovering the stuff of archaeology — sites, artifacts, and their implications is still a really big one for me. The 2001 discovery of 20 intact, decorated, and playable conch shell trumpets in an underground gallery in the monument of Chav?n de Hu?ntar still puts a shiver through me, and I’m still realizing the ramifications of these dramatic chunks of material culture.

SCA: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as an archaeologist?

JR: People are the biggest challenge for me, beyond a doubt. Trying to understand and get into the minds of those who are involved or impacted by the archaeological research one does, especially in well-removed cultural settings, is a strain on my limited perceptions. How does one distinguish between being the manipulator or manipulated? When do you roll with the flow and when do you hold fast to your own perspective, especially when the long-term survival of the archaeological record is at stake? Anyone on a public interface of any type in this profession has dealt with this; I find it rewarding but extremely wearing to act as cultural arbitrator between agencies and people in the present as they deal with the resources left us from the past.

SCA: What do you enjoy most about teaching archaeology?

JR: Introductory teaching, in which many students attend a class primarily for satisfaction of degree requirements rather than interest, is my favorite venue for trying to evoke change in thinking. Seeing the initial interests develop and blossom in some students is a great thrill; I never tire of the intro courses.

SCA: What is the most important thing you’ve learned from your work at Chavín de Huántar

JR: In addition to the immense importance of working with the local community, I’ve labored at two big realms of understanding. The first is how to deal with a site that is monumental in scale, tremendously spatially differentiated (in terms of construction, sedimentation, and content), and went through huge changes in strategy and function as authority evolved. The second is the nature of human authority and what it took to institutionalize and naturalize the idea that humans could have tremendously unequal position in society. Chav?n is a lesson in redesigning the human perspective on sources of power and authority; I argue that the long formative trajectory of this site illustrates a level of human originality and ingenuity in rebuilding society, based on the manipulation of belief systems that transforms the world of humans. In the end, Chav?n makes me ask big questions about humanity and the way culture has evolved; I honestly do not rest easily with some of the answers that seem to loom large.

SCA: What would you recommend to those who are just beginning their careers as archaeologists?

JR: (1) Learn to work digitally in every sense possible — it will offer chances to do things impossible otherwise, and many of the digital skills have broad marketplace value, no matter where you end up. (2) Get a very solid but broad theoretical background to allow you to form a perspective and hopefully understand humans, past and present. (3) Look for big picture understandings in addition to knowing the details; don’t be afraid to go out on limbs, but always acknowledge speculation as just that. Understand the broad importance of your data; push it to its limits, and be prepared and content to be wrong. We don’t advance knowledge if we don’t take chances. (4) Tune your social and political skills for dealing (in an honest way!) with a broad range of communities.

SCA: In your opinion, what are the greatest successes and failures of archaeology to date?

JR: We have made great gains in knowledge of the past, and in knowing about how we know. We have reasonably good arenas for professional debate, and fairly effective ways that our understandings are updated and corrected. But both by our own directions, and the structure of knowledge in our society, there is little possibility of transfer of information to the public. The degree to which we have advanced knowledge is great, but the level of general perception of this knowledge is pitiful.

SCA: How might we make archaeology more relevant to the public?

JR: We must learn to be able to make archaeological knowledge and training available to directly benefit descendant and geographically contiguous communities. We must encourage economically viable and socially meaningful archaeological careers that will help communities make archaeology their own, and when archaeology doesn’t look so terribly much like what we thought it should be, we must still have the flexibility and wisdom to learn from it.

SCA: Do you believe that the past will continue to have relevancy in the future?

JR: Absolutely, but it will not be a simple relevance that we, as archaeologists, declare. Archaeology is going to be much more public if it is to survive. We used to say that archaeology will have to become more relevant if we expect people to pay it attention. Now, I think in many places we face a much more serious challenge — people will go out of their way to deny archaeologists their profession if we don’t make it inclusive, not just relevant. Archaeology is going to become increasingly political, whether we like it or not, and we have to become much more competent and sophisticated about our abilities to work cooperatively in an undertaking that has major economic, social, and political impact — so much so that we may become small players if we don’t find a way to contribute to the larger processes, and meet some expectations the public has.