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By Culturekiosque Staff

WILLIAMSTOWN, MASSACHUSETTS, 30 JUNE 2012 — Summer in the Berkshires is not always about music at Tanglewood, the Williamstown Theatre Festival, or the bucolic cottages tucked away in a quiet corner of Great Barrington. For example, on Sunday, 8 July, at 3 pm, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute will present a free lecture by Stephen Houston, MacArthur Fellow and Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and Professor of Anthropology and Archaeology at Brown University, entitled "Digging the Ancient Maya: A Personal Stratigraphy of Archaeology."

The 53-year-old Houston has explored, mapped, and excavated in some of the great cities of pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica (Central America and Mexico) for the past 30 years. Working mostly in Guatemala, notably in the ancient city of Piedras Negras, which had not been explored since its initial discovery more than sixty years ago, this dig unearthed several monuments and structures. Houston’s subsequent analysis of their functions and social meaning has prompted a significant revision of the 400-year-old history of the city’s development and its fall circa 800 A.D. 

Exploring the Pre-Columbian past is about studying the life and thought of indigenous peoples before the Spanish Conquest. For most scholars, it is also a highly personal experience. In this talk, Houston will "excavate" his own life as a fieldworker against the backdrop of a civilization whose remains are threatened, yet — because of fieldwork and recent decipherment — open to scholarly insight as never before.

As an epigrapher, Houston draws on inscriptions and figural art to reconstruct the political and social structure of the dynastic civilization of the ancient Maya, including the dynamics of royal court life and the role of religion. His interpretations of stylized representations of the human body demonstrate how displays of emotion were depicted and used by Mayan elites to reinforce their status within a hierarchical society. By considering Mayan script in the context of both ancient and modern civilizations, he has proposed new arguments, as well, about how writing systems function and how they originate, evolve, and expire. Houston’s interdisciplinary approach brings into sharper focus the poetics and preoccupations of ancient Mayan texts and illuminates the relationship between histories recorded in hieroglyphic texts and those pieced together through archaeological evidence.

In addition to Guatamala, Houston has worked in Belize, Mexico, and Honduras where he has directed projects at several sites and worked at others as an excavator and hieroglyphic specialist.

Stephen Houston received a B.A. (1980) from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.Phil. (1983) and Ph.D. (1987) from Yale University. He was affiliated with Brigham Young University (1994-2004) prior to joining the faculty of Brown University, where he is currently the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and a professor in the Department of Anthropology.

Houston is the recipient of numerous fellowships and grants, including an appointment as a 2011–12 Clark Fellow. He has authored and/or edited 17 books and contributed several hundred articles, book chapters, and reviews. His grants include substantial support from the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Among his recent books are Fiery Pool: Maya and the Mythic Sea; Veiled Brightness: A History of Ancient Maya Color; The Classic Maya; and The Disappearance of Writing Systems

The Clark Art Institute
225 South Street
Williamstown, MA 01267
Tel: (1) 413 458 23 03

Headline image: Stephen Houston in 2008

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