This Brown archeologist and genius grant winner travels distant jungles and ancient worlds, and brings what he finds back to share. Just don’t call him Indiana Jones.
Photography by: Dana Smith
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Stephen Houston walks his own path. It sometimes puts him in harm’s way. But that’s as much a part of his career turf as jungle muck sucking at his boots.
In 1986, for example, at the height of local guerilla activity in northern Guatemala, one of Houston’s coworkers was taken by local insurgents as he scouted for ancient house mounds. He was interrogated, his captors demanding to know what the gringos were doing at the Mayan ruins, before being released unharmed.
Many workers left the dig. Houston, then twenty-six, stayed—“perhaps stupidly,” he admits. But the work came ﬁrst, and the work continued, which is why it’s not so strange that in the same area in 1990, Houston and a colleague chatted atop a pyramid to the sound of mortar and machine gun ﬁre popping nine miles off. It was civil war, but the two were unfazed; in that dense jungle, Houston says, the bloodshed might as well have been a world away.
Then there is the harm possible around every corner, behind every leaf, under every rock in the jungle. There is the danger of malaria, dengue fever, chiclero’s ulcer (a slow rot of the ﬂesh).
Dig your ﬁngers under a promising earthbound artifact and run the risk of igniting the anger of a slithering beast disturbed.
“That happened to me once. I turned it over and there was a coral snake,” says Houston, archeologist, anthropologist, epigrapher (or scholar of ancient inscriptions) and world-renowned Mayan expert, from the comfort of his Cranston home. “I almost got bitten, but didn’t.”
Houston (pronounced “House-tun”) does not readily talk about the dangers of the work, saying they can be over-emphasized. And he downplays any likening to swashbucklers like Indiana Jones, saying “you’re not swinging on vines or opening storehouses of treasure.” That kind of analogy “seems cheap and self-promotional” and doesn’t sit well with colleagues. Or with himself.
For the record, Houston, ﬁfty, is no movie star (he’s a man of average build and unimposing looks). Rather, he’s a professor at Brown University—speciﬁcally a professor of anthropology and the Dupee Family Professor of Social Sciences—and an academic who takes to Central American jungles and slogs through mud and insects on a quest to decode ancient symbols left by Mesoamerican civilizations.
He does it for the love and science of it and he’s very good at what he does. And he recently earned the prestigious notice of those who notice such things; in September, Houston was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. The genius grants, as they’re called, carry a $500,000, no-strings-attached prize. They are given to people who “have shown exceptional originality in and dedication to their creative pursuits.”
It seems as if Houston found the right path.
Born in carlisle and raised in Chambersburg in rural central Pennsylvania, Houston grew up in a decidedly academic environment that would shape his future. His father was a professor at Dickinson who took his son to museums, where the boy became fascinated by runes, ancient characters used in Teutonic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian inscriptions. The exhibits hit home because Houston’s mother is Swedish, and the family had a summer home in Sweden.
“My mother’s family were farmers and they’d farm plots of land that churned up artifacts,” says Houston. “Occasionally my father and I would go out and look for them.” The best time would be after heavy rains when the ﬁelds were freshly plowed, but success was never guaranteed. And coming home empty handed was ﬁne. “It was a lesson in tenacity,” he says, “about being in the ﬁeld rather than having any success at it.”
His grandfather’s collection of stone tools now shares space at Houston’s comfortable home off Narragansett Boulevard with exotic treasures such as Guatemalan masks Houston has purchased (the artifacts he ﬁnds on digs stay in their country of origin).
His grandfather was a remarkable man, Houston says, a farmer and entrepreneur. He was one of the ﬁrst to grow tobacco commercially in Sweden; was an owner of timber lands and a smoked eel factory; a man of brawn and brain, he had every issue of National Geographic magazine.
“There are many people in my family who walk their own paths,” Houston says.
Houston pursued a degree at the University of Pennsylvania, initially studying European archeology. He’d walk by Mayan stelae at the university museum, ornately carved towering stones that fascinated him. Then someone gave him Michael Coe’s book The Maya. Houston was taken by the work; Coe was one of the ﬁrst people to look at the ancient imagery and make sense of it, he says.
So Houston pursued his advanced degrees at Yale, where Coe, a foremost Mayan scholar, became his adviser.
“The word ‘brilliant’ can be used, yes,” says Coe, seventy-nine. “He was fantastic as a student; he came very well prepared from his undergrad work at Penn. He was part of a cohort of students here, and they were the brightest students I’ve ever had.”
The cohort included Karl A. Taube, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside. Along with another standout in the ﬁeld, David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas at Austin, Taube and Houston published a book together in 2007, The Memory of Bones: Body, Being and Experience Among the Classic Maya.
Houston is unselﬁsh in a ﬁeld where many scholars keep what they ﬁnd close to their chest, Taube says, at least until they’ve had a chance to publish it in journals.
“Sharing information unpublished takes a certain amount of mutual trust and respect, and Steve has that,” Taube says. “Instead of waiting to publish, he freely shares things via email, which allows for a much more rapid dissemination of information as well as generating new ideas.”
Of course it’s not all ﬂashes of inspiration. The work is often tedious and hard. Because he has to time his travels to the academic calendar, he goes in the gut of the rainy season, spending weeks or months at a time in heat and rain. “It’s pretty arduous,” he says. “And it has a psychological toll; you’re not eating well, you’re not sleeping well, you’re usually uncomfortable physically.”
The heat has an upside, however; “it’s a great weight-loss strategy,” he says with a shrug.
There’s a further psychological burden born of harming the thing you love. Archeology is, by its nature, destructive. You destroy sites getting to the good stuff, which Houston analo-gizes to a journalist killing his story subject every time he interviews one.
“Imagine a surgeon about to take a scalpel to human skin for the ﬁrst time. That’s kind of the scary sensation you get when about to dig,” he says. “Do I have it in me? Do I interpret properly? It takes a certain degree of self-conﬁdence to pull it off.”
But pull it off it he does, as the MacArthur Fellowship proves. Each year, it’s given to twenty-four people across the country. In his ﬁeld, Houston says, there is no greater award I’ll ever get in my lifetime.” The committee awards the prize after soliciting dozens and dozens of letters from people. Winning it, Houston says, “is like a lightning bolt. It’s good for Brown, and it’s good for archeology.”
It’s also, he says, an endorsement of his colleagues and the collaborative work they’ve done with him.
He doesn’t know what he’ll do with the money, payable in $100,000 chunks over ﬁve years. Some could go to funding research, some to scholarships.
“A MacArthur changes your life, but not in the ways everyone thinks,” says Sue Alcock, director of the Joukowsky Institute for Archeology and the Ancient World at Brown, and a MacArthur winner in 2001. “The money is manifestly wonderful, but it is the validation that lasts longer and empowers.”
Houston is a genius beﬁtting the fellowship, Alcock says, and one who will use it well.
“The trick is to use the validation as a catalyst and not as a pillow,” she says. “Go do something academically risky! Think outside the box! Steve will do this.”
Another Houston colleague and friend, Mary Miller, an acclaimed art history scholar and Mayan expert at Yale, says Houston’s research “is so much broader, and so cross-cutting, because he is trying to get inside the ancient Maya mind through epigraphy. There is no other archeologist today who is both a stand-out archeologist and one of the world’s leading epigraphers.
“There are a few others up on the top of each of those mountains with him,” she adds, “but he is the only one to straddle both worlds.”
We get up, go to work and provide for our family and ourselves. We are united by the commonality of species, divided by the strictures of class. We attend ritualistic ceremonies that make us feel part of something bigger than ourselves.
We are human and so were the Mayans, different from us in many ways, but fundamentally similar. “Most people, I’m sure, were simply concerned with getting enough food to eat and making sure their lives had a certain degree of constancy,” Houston says. “Most would have risen before dawn, gotten ready for kitchen or ﬁeld work, worked arduously until the sun rose too far and the blistering heat became a problem, taken a break, perhaps returned to their homes for a meal, and then chatted and entertained themselves until nightfall, and perhaps slightly later.”
There were craftspeople, kings and queens, courtiers, farmers and the like, he says, living together in urban communities, separated by great differences in status, duties, labors and birthright.
Their technology was limited compared to ours. For instance, without draft animals, everything was carried using tumplines, straps that were placed over the top of the head so that, bending forward, an individual could use the strength of the spine to bear the weight. They achieved architectural feats that must have required almost unimaginable amounts of manpower.
Like us, they liked to record their lives, both in books (the rarely found codices, made of concertinaed paper that could be inscribed on both sides) and on memorial stones.
Those stones are the subject of Houston’s “Ancient Mayan Writing” class. Ten Brown students, from undergrads to post-docs, sit at a chaotic jumble of desks beneath a dirty dimpled-glass dome ceiling in an alternately freezing and hot classroom in aging Metcalf Hall.
Houston fairly bounces in, wearing a thin-wale, dark green corduroy jacket, blue shirt with slim white striping, dark gray jeans and walking sneakers. His voice is radio-announcer baritone as he salutes his students’ academic progress: “You’ve all grown nicely.”
He shows photos taken at Dos Pilas in Guatemala, where “I spent many, many miserable months. It was swampy, incredibly snaky, but there were some of the most interesting inscriptions of Mayan culture I’ve ever seen.”
He points out a hieroglyphic stairway he calls a Declaration of Independence from the dynasty creating it. He outlines the glyphs of two other royal families that lived an hour away from each other by foot and, with different political systems, were often at war.
The group settles down to interpreting the swoops, swirls and squiggles and what they signify, from extruded eyeballs—associated with gods of the underworld—to the more mundane.
“This could be a water drinker,” he says, pointing to an inscription on the screen. “Or it could be gook for all we know.”
Before class ends, he warns the students about the Wednesday quiz, saying with a smile: “It’s one of the few predictions that always come true. Not the stock market, but Houston’s quizzes.”