Jeffrey R. Parsons, professor emeritus of anthropology and curator and former director of the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, died March 19, 2021, at age 81.

"It is with great sadness and a deep sense of loss that we learned of the passing of our friend and colleague Jeff Parsons,” wrote Michael L. Galaty, director of the Museum. “Jeff was a giant in the world of anthropological archaeology, and he had an indelible impact on UMMAA, not only as a curator but also as a director. He will be sorely missed."

Henry T. Wright, curator of Near Eastern archaeology at the Museum, wrote the following essay in remembrance of his colleague and friend:

Jeffrey R. Parsons, professor emeritus of anthropology and curator emeritus of Latin American archaeology in the University of Michigan Museum of Anthropological Archaeology (formerly the Museum of Anthropology), died at the age of 81 after a life of innovative field research and devoted teaching.

Jeffrey was the descendant of farmers long-established in the state of Maine. He was born on October 9, 1939, in Washington, DC, where his father worked at the Department of Agriculture. From his father he learned the art of photography and received his first cameras. As a boy, he explored Washington, developing an interest in the relation between rural communities and the cities which depend upon them. This experience resulted, years later, in a personal account, Washington City in the Fifties, A Photographic Essay (2017).

Parsons earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Penn State University in 1961. Later that year he enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Michigan, where he chose to pursue his interest in archaeology (a subfield of anthropology). Students at the Museum of Anthropology worked in what was then called the University Museums Building—now known as the Ruthven Building. Jeffrey astounded his fellow students by reading and taking notes on every publication in the university’s libraries that covered Latin America’s archaeology, ethnology, history, geography, ecology, and beyond, most of which were in Spanish, Portuguese, French, or German. This was a period of innovation in archaeology throughout the world, and Jeffrey joined archaeology grad students at Michigan in questioning old assumptions and proposing new theories and methods.

Parsons’s field training was principally under the tutelage of William Sanders of Penn State University in the northern arm of the Basin of Mexico, just to the northeast of modern Mexico City and the locus of the large urban site of Teotihuacan. Sanders had a vision of cultural ecology in which increasingly complex systems of human settlement would sustain themselves by transforming and intensifying their exploitation of local environments, and he tried to develop regional archaeological survey as a way to monitor changing land use. During his years as an assistant on Sanders’s team, Parsons made a series of improvements in the survey approach. He developed better ceramic chronologies for dating the occupations of sites based on new excavations by other Teotihuacan project members. He acquired large-scale air photographs on which the exact location of every ceramic sample could be precisely located. Perhaps most important, he realized that the Teotihuacan area was too small, and that the ancient ecosystems must have included all of the Basin of Mexico, if not more. Jeff and his research collaborator, Mary Hrones Parsons—with whom he would work for the rest of his life—planned a complete survey of all of the Basin not covered by cement and asphalt.

In 1966, after completing his doctorate, Parsons became an assistant professor and was charged with building a program in the University of Michigan. He constructed a set of courses on Mesoamerican and Andean American civilizations. He took over curatorial responsibility for archaeological collections from Mexico, Guatemala, and Peru, earlier acquired by James B. Griffin during research trips to Mexico or from colleagues. With support from the University, Parsons traveled more widely in Latin America, adding to Griffin’s collections, acquiring hard-to-find publications for our libraries, and taking color images of hundreds of important sites and objects in local museums, still used today in courses at the University. Perhaps most important, in 1967, Jeff received the first of many grants from the National Science Foundation for the survey of the eastern Texcoco region of the Basin of Mexico. This was followed by grants for southern Chalco, Xochimilco, and Zumpango regions (1969–1973, with an additional NSF grant in 1980). These led to magisterial survey monographs in the Museum’s Memoir series—Texcoco in 1971, Chalco-Xochicalco in 1982, and Zumpango in 2008—which set publication standards now followed throughout the world. In 1979, Parsons, Sanders and others published The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization (1979), an overview of all their research in the Basin. No less important are the databases, with quantitative information on more than 2000 sites.

In 1983, the Museum published Archaeological Settlement Pattern Data for the Chalco, Xochimilco, Ixtapalapa, Texcoco, and Zumpango Regions, Mexico in the Technical Reports series. (These have recently been confirmed, revised, and made available by geographer Larry Gorenflo as a web resource.) Because many of these sites have been destroyed by the expansion of Mexico City, Jeff’s work—his monographs, databases, and air photos (archived in the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan)—and the collections stored in Mexico are all the evidence we have of the emergence of state, urban, and imperial systems in the region.

Parsons and his students also took his new approach to archaeological survey to Andean America. In 1973, again with NSF support, Parsons, Charles Hastings, and Ramiro Matos initiated survey in the Upper Mantaro Valley in the high puna of central Peru. The Museum published the basic study of the data from this large region as two Memoirs, one in 2000 and the other in 2013. This was followed by other surveys with similarly rigorous methods in the high Andes near Lake Titicaca, near Cuzco, and along the North Coast in the Santa, Casma, and other valleys.

Jeff also visited the regional projects of colleagues in other parts of the world, helping other people with their surveys. Among these visits were Guatemala (1966), Iceland (1985), Egypt, where he worked with Janet Richards (1999), Australia (2000), Mongolia (2000), and southern Italy (2002). He also took seriously the obligation to build science-based archaeology throughout the world, serving as a visiting professor in Mexico City (1987); Buenos Aires, Argentina (1994); Tucuman, Argentina (1996); Catamarca, Argentina (1996); and La Paz, Bolivia (1999).

During and after his years as the director of the Museum of Anthropology (1983–1986), Jeff and Mary undertook a completely different and most useful series of research projects using ethnographic methods to document Mesoamerican crafts which were disappearing even faster than archaeological sites. They studied maguey fiber harvesting in 1984, salt extraction in 1988, and the harvesting of edible insects in 1992. The Museum published all these studies in the Anthropological Papers series in 1998, 20o1, and 2007, respectively. In recent years, Jeff and Mary also found time to research Jeff’s Maine family and publish Letters from the Attic: A Compilation of Letters and Other Documents Found at the Robinson-Parsons Farm in South Paris, Maine…. 1818-1982 (2018).

Finally, while digitizing his archaeological photos for the University archives, Jeff assembled his images in a book, Remembering Archaeological Fieldwork in Mexico and Peru, 1961–2003: A Photographic Essay (2019), which the Museum published in its Special Publications series.

In 1998, Parsons received the A. V. Kidder Award from the American Anthropological Association for lifetime achievement in Mesoamerican archaeology. In 2002, he received the Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award for contributions in scholarship, teaching, mentorship, and service at the University of Michigan.

The work and memory of Jeff are carried on by his wife Mary, his research partner of 56 years, and their daughter Apphia, also a veteran of many field seasons, as well as by hundreds of colleagues who study ancient landscapes throughout the world and who studied with him both in Ann Arbor and in the field, where so much education in archaeology, a field science, must be done.

Henry T. Wright
22 March 2021


In Jeff’s honor, the Museum is making his most recent book, Remembering Archaeological Fieldwork in Mexico and Peru, 1961–2003: A Photographic Essay (2019), free to read. 

In early 2020, soon after Remembering Archaeological Fieldwork in Mexico and Peru was published, Jeff gave an interview at an author event on the U-M campus. Watch the interview here

To read more about the books Jeff wrote and co-wrote, visit the Museum books website and search on Parsons.