Robert J. Braidwood: More Than Just One Man

Robert and Linda Braidwood
Robert and Linda Braidwood

One cannot study prehistoric archaeology without encountering the name Robert J. Braidwood. An innovator of archaeological method and inquiry, Braidwood pioneered new ways of investigating the prehistoric past. He found an interest in that unique period of human history that marks a transition from hunting and gathering into food production through agriculture (Redman 1978; Harms 2003; Zeder, et al 2006).

Braidwood began his career in archaeology in the 1930s when he signed on for field work near Baghdad and soon began working with James Henry Breasted, founder of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago where Braidwood would finally become Professor Emeritus (Harms 2003). Soon after World War II, Braidwood began to set new standards in archaeological methods for discovering the past in and around the “hilly flanks of the fertile crescent,” region of Mesopotamia and the Levant east of the Zagros mountains where there are slopping hills and fertile plains (Braidwood and Howe 1960; Braidwood et al 1983). It was here that Braidwood and his colleagues established a multidisciplinary approach to investigating the past, employing the use of scientists and researchers from cross-disciplines to examine floral and faunal remains as well as geology and culture history (Braidwood and Howe 1960; Braidwood et al 1983; Watson 2003).

One of the best known sites associated with Braidwood is Jarmo, a neolithic village in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains in Norther Iraq. Braidwood’s research questions centered around food production and, through his multidisciplinary approach, he was able to reveal a culture that domesticated sheep, goats, and dogs, grew both emmer and einkorn wheat as well as barley and lentils, and innovated the use of microliths to create sickle blades for harvesting wheat (Braidwood and Howe 1960; Braidwood et al 1983). Patty Jo Watson, friend and colleague of Braidwood, remarked of his approach to archaeology, “Braidwood’s interdisciplinary archaeological research at and about Jarmo became a double-barreled theoretical-methodological paradigm that still underlies the practice of prehistoric archaeology in and well beyond the Hilly Flanks (Watson 2003: 238).”

Theories of agriculture have found various favor since V. Gordon Childe first introduced, in 1928, his Oasis Theory of the rise of agriculture. Childe suggested that the dessication as a result of retreating glaciers forced people who were previously residing in rich and fertile regions into oases or refugia of habitation where people, plants and animals were forced to become familiar with each other, naturally giving rise to domestication of plants and animals by people. Braidwood appears to have drawn much of his inspiration from Childe’s work and very nearly enrolled in the University of Edinburgh’s doctoral program “under Childe’s supervision” (Watson 2003: 236). Even though he didn’t study directly under Childe, Braidwood assigned Childe’s books and articles for his students, regarded him highly, and acknowledged Childe’s work through his own. Braidwood referred to Childe as “one of archaeology’s few very great synthesizers” (Braidwood 1958: 733) and noted that he had a “natural gift for seeing the woods as well as the trees” and as having an “incredible grasp of detail” (734).

But Braidwood wasn’t beyond critiquing Childe’s theory, noting that a not so insignificant problem is that humans had experienced previous interglacial periods that created refugia and oases of habitation during dry spells and yet these did not result in the advent or discovery of agriculture as a means of food production. Braidwood’s interdisciplinary team found that paleoclimate conditions among the Hilly Flanks was not dry at all but conducive to agriculture with annual rainfall in the late Pleistocene that produced an “open deciduous forest, with oaks predominating but with occasional evergreens” (Braidwood and Howe 1960: 169). While Childe focused primarily on climate and environment as factors in sparking the agricultural revolution, Braidwood included human cultural elements, suggesting that the “presence of innovative cultural mechanisms for the introduction of agriculture” (Redman 1978: 96) was vital for an agricultural revolution. This meant for Braidwood that the invention of tools like grinding stones, better stone tools like microliths, and living structures that are all “related [to] developments of a fixed sedentary life and its permanents architectural forms for both living and storage space” (Braidwood et al 1983: 129).

But Braidwood wasn’t immune from critique, even though he clearly built upon Childe’s work in a positive and progressive manner. Lewis Binford took an alternative view to the advent of agriculture as a part of human culture (Binford 1968) and, while he congratulated Braidwood for recognizing the weaknesses in Childe’s theory, he went on to point out that Braidwood’s “nuclear zone,” while more likely and acceptable since it considers human culture and technology as part of the equation, doesn’t go far enough as an explanation. Binford accuses Braidwood of resorting to a vitalist approach and, thus, “unacceptable as an explanation. Trends which are observed in cultural evolution require explanation; they are certainly not explained by postulating emergent human traits which are said to account for the trends” (322).

Binford goes on to posit his own theory, which is one that incorporates demography as a likely factor in why humans moved from hunting-gathering to food production strategies for subsistence. Binford argues that populations have equilibrium states in which the size of the population is optimal to sustain the culture and will rely on donor and recipient systems to maintain equilibrium. As populations grow and more groups occupy a region, groups begin to impinge on each other, upsetting equilibrium states, invoking selective pressures that, in the case of prehistoric populations, led to developing food production strategies to cope with forced sedentary lifeways.

That Binford was able to critique Braidwood’s work at all is still a testament to the extensive investigation and research that Braidwood and his colleagues applied to the question of food production and prehistoric life just prior to and during the emergence of agriculture. The methods and achievements of Robert J. Braidwood still remain noteworthy and their legacy is one that is worth sharing with each new generation of archaeologists.

But Robert J. Braidwood was hardly a single person. Married in 1937, his wife Linda was a “constant companion” (Harms 2003) and perhaps his closest colleague. Their 66 year partnership and collaboration produced many “important firsts” in the field of archaeology, such as “the oldest sample of human blood, the earliest example of hand-worked natural copper and the oldest known piece of cloth” (Harms 2003) and Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute, remarked that “[t]hrough the years, it is impossible to disentangle Bob Braidwood’s contributions from those of his wife, Linda. The two of them were true intellectual partners in addition to their deep personal commitment to each other” (Harms 2003).

Robert J. Braidwood and his wife Linda both passed away on the same day, just hours apart, on January 15, 2003.

Notable Publications

Braidwood, Robert J.

1958 Vere Gordon Childe, 1892-1957. American Anthropologist, New Series 60(4):733-736.

Braidwood, Robert J., and Bruce Howe

1960 Prehistoric Investigations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, no. 31. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Braidwood, Linda, Robert J. Braidwood, Bruce Howe, Charles A. Reed, and Patty Jo Watson, Eds.

1983 Prehistoric Archaeology Along the Zagros Flanks. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications, 105. Chicago, Illinois: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Braidwood, Robert J.

1957 Prehistoric Men, 3rd Edition. Fieldiana, Popular Series, Anthropology, 37. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Natural History Museum.

Braidwood, Robert J.

1960 The Agricultural Revolution. Scientific American 203:130-148.

References Cited

Binford, Lewis

1968 Post-Pleistocene Adaptations. In New Perspectives in Archeology. L. Binford and S. Binford, eds. Pp. 312-341. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Braidwood, Robert J.

1958 Vere Gordon Childe, 1892-1957. American Anthropologist, New Series 60(4):733-736.

Braidwood, Robert J., and Bruce Howe

1960 Prehistoric Investigations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization, no. 31. Chicago, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Braidwood, Linda, Robert J. Braidwood, Bruce Howe, Charles A. Reed, and Patty Jo Watson, Eds.

1983 Prehistoric Archaeology Along the Zagros Flanks. The University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications, 105. Chicago, Illinois: The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Harms, William

2003 Robert, Linda Braidwood, Pioneers in Prehistoric Archaeology. Electronic document. The University of Chicago Chronicle 22(8). http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/030123/braidwood.shtml.

Redman, Charles

1978 “The Origins of Agriculture: A Giant Step for Humankind.” In The Rise of Civilization: from early farmers to urban society in the ancient Near East. Pps. 88-140. Redman, C. Freeman.

Watson, Patty Jo

2005 Robert John Braidwood: 29 July 1907 – 15 January 2003. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 149(2 June):233-241.

Zeder, Melinda A., Daniel G. Bradley, Eve Emshwiller, and Bruce D. Smith

2006 Documenting Domestication: Bringing Together Plants, Animals, Archaeology, and Gentics. In Documenting Domestication: New Genetic and Archaeological Paradigms. Melinda A. Zeder, Daniel G. Bradley, Eve Emshwiller and Bruce D. Smith, eds. P. 1. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

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About Carl Feagans 313 Articles
Professional archaeologist that currently works for the United States Forest Service at the Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area in Kentucky and Tennessee. I'm also a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army and spent another 10 years doing adventure programming with at-risk teens before earning my master's degree at the University of Texas at Arlington.

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