Bruce Trigger

Just a brief note that the archaeologist Bruce Trigger passed away this weekend. He was sixty-nine years old. His, A History of Archaeological Thought was one of the best textbooks I ever read on any subject.

A few short notices on the blogsphere are all that I found (here and here), nothing yet in the papers. However, the recent publication of the festschrift The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger did offer an occasion for some comments on his legacy:

Indiana Jones’s adventures in archaeology had nothing on McGill Professor Bruce Trigger’s, whose achievements were celebrated recently with the launch by McGill-Queen’s University Press of The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger. Armed with his keen intellect and theoretical empiricism, Trigger, in a career spanning almost 50 years, didn’t need a bullwhip or the Raiders of the Lost Ark to make his mark on how archaeology is practiced around the world.

The book, edited by Ronald F. Williamson and Michael S. Bisson, contains articles written by an international Who’s Who of archaeologists outlining Trigger’s influence. It originated in a 2004 symposium at the Annual Meeting of the Society of American Archaeology. “There were at least 600 people there. I’ve attended these events for 30 years and I’ve never seen anything like it,” recalled McGill anthropologist Michael Bisson. “It was so easy to get contributors.” His co-editor, Ronald Williamson, a former student of Trigger’s and now president of Archaeological Services Inc. in Toronto, said, “Just look at Bruce Trigger’s bibliography. No other scholar has one like it. He’s a role model for all of us. An unattainable one, but a role model nonetheless.”

In a field full of almost arcane specialists, Trigger was truly a Renaissance man. His work ranges from ancient Egypt to the aboriginal cultures in northeastern North America. His two-volume The Children of Aataentsic (1976) was a revolutionary study of the Huron. It was groundbreaking because it placed the Huron at the centre of a reconstruction of the past and depicted them as a living, breathing people who were not merely the sum of their pot shards, but active participants during a process of colonization. Trigger’s ability to contextualize early cultures within European interpretations both predicted and contributed to the current thinking about including minorities who are outside the power centres of Western thought. The culmination of this approach is evident in his 1989 A History of Archaeological Thought, which traces how the discipline evolved from the politics of power. It has become the definitive textbook for students of the distant past.

Trigger, who has been seriously ill, said at the book launch hosted by MQUP publisher Philip Cercone, “This last year has been one of the happiest of my life. First of all, I’ve been able to spend time with my wife and family, which is always very pleasant. In June, I was made Professor Emeritus and now this book, The Archaeology of Bruce Trigger, is evidence in print of my colleagues’ appreciation.”

The last chapter of the book, “Retrospection,” written by Trigger himself, is a very personal autobiographical essay about how his early childhood preoccupations led to his life’s work. He writes of his sense of wonder at seeing pictures of Ancient Egypt in a book his father shared with him. When asked what it was about the ancient world that fascinated him, he replied, “I guess it was the mystery. My career has been about resolving mystery.”

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