The Shadow of Scotty MacNeish

Contributed by Marla Taylor

This month marks the 103rd birthday of Richard “Scotty” MacNeish (1918-2001) – past Director of the Peabody Institute, unconfirmed winner of the 1938 Golden Glove award (a regional amateur boxing title), member of the National Academy of Sciences, and all-around remarkable 20th century archaeologist.  When starting to pull this post together, I found this quote describing MacNeish and could not resist including it here:

A strange, bifurcated goatee decorates his chin, and there is a shimmering reddishness about his hair and face. He has spent, literally, more than 20 years in the field — longer than any other archaeologist. He has published more than 400 books and articles. Despite two heart bypass operations, he retains the pounding mental metabolism of a furious shrew. (“Bones to Pick Archaeology” by Richard O’Mara in the Baltimore Sun, May 16, 1996)

Ok, in my first draft of this blog, I listed information about MacNeish’s professional positions and tried to summarize his career.  That turned into something far too long and meandering to share.  So, instead, I will point you to the wonderful short biography from the Peabody Institute archival catalog records and the much more in-depth biographical memoir from the National Academy of Sciences.  I will use this space to highlight his impact at the Peabody Institute and my daily work.

Throughout his career, MacNeish sought the intertwined origins of agriculture and civilization.  He excavated in North America, Peru, Mexico (Tamaulipas, Tehuacán, Coxcatlan, and Palo Blanco), Belize, and China while searching for the early domestication of corn and rice.  Because of this particular interest, the Peabody Institute is home to a number of plant remains and botanical specimens.  Some of these tiny early maize cobs are an important part of a much larger story on the origin of modern corn.  I have a love/hate relationship with these specimen.  They are so fascinating but also so delicate – I want to share them, but decades of storage without climate control have left them brittle.  Gentle handling is required for sure!

MacNeish was also particularly interested in excavating sites that would push back the archaeological framework for understanding when people arrived in the New World.  I think it appealed to his pugnacious disposition to tell everyone else that they were wrong.  His work is proving relevant as Indigenous scholars push to rewrite the archaeological understanding of the Americas.  I love this aspect of MacNeish’s work and hope that more people will come to utilize these collections.

MacNeish kept EVERYTHING from his research and excavations – a double-edged sword for collections management.  This applies less to the object collections (MacNeish was not always allowed to retain the artifacts he excavated in foreign countries) but very much applies to his archivesHis archives include everything from thank you cards to financial records to drafts of publications to excavation images.  With over 100 boxes of archival material, I am confident that I can find the documentation that anyone is looking for – but I am regularly daunted by volume of material.

If all of that wasn’t enough, MacNeish continues to influence how the Peabody Institute’s collection grows.  We recently received archival gifts from his associates Jane Libby and Dr. James Neely documenting their work with MacNeish and beyond.  Once these collections are processed, I will be happy to share the relevant finding aids. Well, I haven’t even mentioned MacNeish’s reputation as a passionately supportive teacher – or what his archives reveal about his feelings toward those who disagreed with him – or his reputation as a flirt.  Alas, we must draw a line somewhere in this conversation.  Clearly there is so much to say about Scotty MacNeish!   I wish I had been fortunate enough to meet him before he passed, but I am fortunate enough to work in his shadow at the Peabody.

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