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John Howland Rowe


John Howland Rowe

Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus

UC Berkeley



John Howland Rowe was born June 10, 1918 in Sorrento, Maine, and died May 1, 2004 in Berkeley. His father, Louis Earle Rowe, aspired to be an archaeologist, worked a season with George Reisner in Egypt, but settled for a career as director of the Rhode Island School of Design. His mother, Margaret Talbot Jackson, was assistant director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and later Curator of Textiles at the Yale University Art Gallery. Reisner sometimes visited the family, and with the elder Rowe stimulated young John’s interest in archaeology. John studied classical archaeology at Brown University from 1935 to 1939 (A.B.) and anthropology at Harvard University from 1939 to 1941 (A.M.). From 1941 to 1943, he conducted archaeological research and taught in Peru, and from 1944 to 1946 served as sergeant in the U.S. Combat Engineers in Europe. From 1946 to 1948 he worked in Colombia on the ethnography of the Guambía for the Smithsonian Institution, returned briefly to Harvard in 1946 to complete his doctorate in Latin American history and anthropology (1947), and began teaching at the University of California, Berkeley in 1948. He retired in 1988 but continued his research until a few years before his death from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He is survived by two daughters, Ann Pollard Rowe and Lucy Burnett Rowe, from his first marriage to Barbara Burnett, by a sister, Edith Talbot Rowe, and by his wife, Patricia Lyon.


From the beginning, Rowe exhibited strong independence and a reluctance to rely on authority. At age 10, when the family was in Rome for a year, he began serious study of Roman ruins on his own initiative. At Harvard he was a cofounder of the student Excavators’ Club and excavated sites in Massachusetts, Maine, and Florida. His independent excavation of the Waterside shell heap in Maine, while he was still a student, clarified stratigraphic questions in that area and was the basis of his first publication (1940).


His education in the classics is key to understanding his intellectual approach and contribution. For Rowe, archaeology was a form of history: archaeologists should treat material evidence as historians treat text. For Rowe, context, order, association, stratigraphy, the nature of producers’ deviations from apparent norms, and above all, style, were more important than typology. His attention to style and context allowed him to establish temporal boundaries for some periods in southern coastal Peru of perhaps a quarter-century, an unheard-of achievement in the absence of written documentation, outside of classical archaeology.


Rowe’s training in classics also developed his affinity for languages and linguistics. Indeed, while in the U.S. Army he began technical analysis of the Armenian spoken by some of his second-generation fellow soldiers. His first trip to Peru was financed by money he had earned in prize examinations in Latin and Greek. One of his earliest linguistic papers was on sound patterns in Inca dialects (1950), and he became proficient in Quechua. At Berkeley, he developed strong links with linguists in other departments and continued Alfred Kroeber’s tradition of anthropological descriptive linguistics. He expanded the definition of anthropological linguistics to include broad social phenomena and may be said to have founded at Berkeley what later came to be known as sociolinguistics, with particular emphasis on politically-driven linguistic revivals such as those of Czech, Irish, and Hebrew.


Rowe’s scholarly papers and editorial productions number more than 300 from 1940 to 2005, with a large proportion in Spanish. Especially important in archaeology are those on the relationships between stratigraphy, seriation, period, stage, and relative and absolute chronology. His paper on Inca culture at the Spanish conquest (1946) is a monument unsurpassed by any other contribution in the 5,000 pages of the Handbook of South American Indians. His paper on the Inca under Spanish colonial institutions (1957) is similarly an internationally standard reference and starkly details the destructive effects of exploitative colonial institutions. Rowe was a staunch defender of the rights of Native Americans.


Rowe was an institution-builder, starting with his participation in founding the Excavators’ Club at Harvard. At Berkeley, he encouraged students to organize the Kroeber Anthropological Society, which publishes its own journal. It was in the founding of anthropological libraries that he most excelled. He established these in Cuzco, Popayán (Colombia), and most notably Berkeley. At Berkeley he early began to assemble a research library for the use of graduate students, and his vigorous pursuit of this goal led to the establishment of what is now the George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library. To recognize his success, The John Howland Rowe Endowed Chair for the Director of the Anthropology Library was established in 1998. He also founded the independent Institute of Andean Studies, which draws Andean scholars from a range of disciplines to annual meetings in Berkeley.


As a teacher, Rowe was supportive, demanding, but held a loose rein, encouraging independent thinking. When he suggested the founding of the Kroeber Anthropological Society, he showed the first steps, then withdrew to the sidelines, advising only when asked. In supervising graduate students, he followed the same philosophy. It was only on reflection that a successful student realized how much he actually owed to Rowe’s guidance. In the time of political troubles on the campus in the 1960s and 1970s, Rowe often took his bag lunch to the commons room, where he listened to the students, argued points of fact, but never told people what to think.


Rowe served as chair of anthropology (1963-67), and as Curator of South American Archaeology in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology (1948-88). He was a Senior Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks (1984-90). He was widely honored: The Robertson Prize of the American Historical Association (1957); Oficial de la Orden “El Sol del Perú” (1968 - only one other U.S. citizen has been so honored); Gran Cruz de la Orden “Al Mérito por Servicios Distinguidos” (Peru, 1981); Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London; Corresponding Member of the Academia Nacional de la Historia, Lima; Corresponding Member of the Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut; member of the Société des Américanistes de Paris; The Berkeley Citation (1988); Profesor Honorario, Departamento Académico de Humanidades, Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, Lima (1996), among others.


Further details on Rowe’s life and work can be found on the Anthropology Emeritus Lecture Series page at:


Christine Hastorf

Suzanne Calpestri

E. A. Hammel