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William T. Sanders

19th April 1926 - 2nd July 2008

Appreciation by
Jeffrey R. Parsons

The death of William T. Sanders ends a long and distinguished career in Mesoamerican archaeology. At the time of his death he was Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at the Pennsylvania State University, where he taught from 1959-1993. Beginning in 1960 he directed major archaeological field projects in the Valley of Mexico, at Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, and at Copan, Honduras. In the 1950s he participated in field projects in Morelos, Tabasco, Quintana Roo, Veracruz, and Chiapas in Mexico, and at Etowah in Georgia (USA). In 1964, as a Fulbright scholar in Peru, he carried out a path-breaking study of the Pikillaqta site near Cuzco. His first archaeological field experience came in 1947 and 1948 at the University of Michigan's summer fieldschool in archaeology at Kilarney Bay, Ontario.

Bill's numerous professional awards include the Kidder Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Mesoamerican Archaeology (1980); appointment as Evan Pugh Professor, Penn State's highest honor (1983); Penn State's Faculty Scholar Medal (1984); and membership in the US National Academy of Science (1985).

In 1951 he was as a student at the Escuela Nacional de Antropología e História in Mexico City. There he met Pedro Armillas, who inspired Bill's life-long interest in agricultural ecology and in what is now sometimes called landscape archaeology. Bill's research in the Valley of Mexico in the early 1960s pioneered the regional settlement pattern approach - an innovative research strategy that has since been widely emulated and adapted. This approach provided sound archaeological evidence for estimating prehistoric populations and for comprehending ancient urban centers as nodes in regional systems. He also valued the use of ethnographic analogy in archaeological interpretation, and undertook important studies of traditional agriculture in Mexico and East Africa. His classes emphasised the importance of comparative ethnology, and he was among the first archaeologists to apply the chiefdom concept to the interpretation of archaeological cultures.

William Timothy Sanders was born in Patchogue, NY. He grew up poor during the Great Depression, the oldest of seven siblings in a working class family. During highschool he encountered Prescott's History of the Conquest of Mexico, a book that fired his life-long passion for ancient Mesoamerica. After military service during World War II, Bill attended Harvard University on the GI Bill, earning BA (1949) and PhD (1957) degrees there. At Harvard he was particularly influenced by the works of Carlton Coon and Gordon Willey.

Since 1952 Bill's numerous publications have provided important conceptual and empirical works that have contributed greatly to the substance and theory of anthropological archaeology. At the time of his death he had nearly completed a major study of the archaeology of Mexico City (Aztec Tenochtitlan). Some of these publications are co-authored with younger colleagues and graduate students who worked with him in the field. Bill's energy, enthusiasm, and generosity, and his strong commitment to graduate education, provided many budding professionals over five decades with opportunities to work things out for themselves in the field at early stages in their careers. Just as important, he continued to take an interest in their work, often in the form of vociferous (but always productive) debate in many formal and informal settings in subsequent years.

Bill is survived by his widow, Lili, three daughters, eight grandchildren, three great-grandchildren, one brother, two sisters, and several nephews and nieces.