Robert McCormick Adams, anthropologist, former provost and Oriental Institute director, 1926-2018

By 1950, University of Chicago student Robert McCormick Adams had already been a steel mill worker, a physics student and a Navy radio technician, and thought he wanted to be a journalist. Then one day his professor, renowned anthropologist Robert Braidwood, had a sudden opening on an archaeological dig in the foothills of Iraq that would change Adams’ life.

Adams, PhB’47, AM’52, PhD’56, was picked because he knew how to work on cars, but the chance trip would lead to decades of digs in Iraq, Mexico, Iran and Saudi Arabia. It opened a wide-ranging career at the University of Chicago, where he spent nearly three decades and served as director of the Oriental Institute and provost of the University before leaving to direct the Smithsonian Institution. 

The Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Adams died Jan. 27 at age 91. Colleagues remember the prolific scholar as one of the most influential figures in the archaeology of ancient complex societies, who fundamentally transformed theories about the origins of urbanism before leaving to shape museums in the nation’s capital.  

“Bob was a towering figure of Near Eastern archaeology and a pioneer of innovative methods of landscape archaeology,” said Christopher Woods, director of the Oriental Institute. “He was fundamentally interested in the reciprocal interaction between humans and their environments—how civilization and geography are inextricably intertwined.”

Adams’ scholarship focused on the relationships between societies and their environment, with particular interest in social evolutionary theory and how innovation is connected to societal structure. He was an early pioneer of the technique of using aerial photography and satellite images, which he combined with historical and ethnographic data to investigate settlement patterns, irrigation structures and early urbanism. Later in his career Adams was renowned for his lucid observations about the responsibilities of archaeologists—and science itself.

Adams later served as director of the Oriental Institute from 1962-68 and 1981-83. He was dean of the Division of the Social Sciences from 1970-74 before being appointed provost of the University in 1982.

“As a student, a scholar and an administrator, Professor Adams made contributions to the University of Chicago throughout his life,” said Amanda Woodward, interim dean of the Division of the Social Sciences and the William S. Gray Distinguished Service Professor of Psychology. “His many achievements are a testament to his dedication to this institution, and his leadership not only influenced the Division of the Social Sciences and the Oriental Institute but also enriched the reach of the social sciences to people across the nation.”

During his decade-long tenure at the Smithsonian, Adams oversaw the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian, the National Museum of African Art and the National Postal Museum. He also headed renovations to aging infrastructure, encouraged digitization of its research, made a point to involve indigenous communities in museum planning, and oversaw a shift to spotlight darker or more controversial points of American history and science, such as an Enola Gay exhibit in the National Air and Space Museum.

His numerous books include The Evolution of Urban Society, Paths of Fire, Heartland of Cities and The Land Behind Baghdad. After his retirement in 1994, he continued his research as an adjunct professor at the University of California in San Diego.

In an American Antiquity article reviewing Adams’ work, Norman Yoffee wrote, “Few archaeologists have had the power to influence the course of their times as has Adams, nor to have done it so well.”

His honors include the distinguished service award from the Society of American Archaeology and the UChicago Alumni Association’s Alumni Medal, bestowed for achievement of an exceptional nature.

At the University he met and married Ruth Salzman Adams, who became the editor of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. She died in 2005.