Smithsonian Olmec Legacy

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Matthew Stirling and Tres Zapotes Monument G. Tres Zapotes, 1939. stirling_19. Photograph by Richard H. Stewart, National Anthropological Archives

Robert Fleming Heizer
1915 - 1979

Portrait of Heizer
heizer_142 (detail), R.F. Heizer Collection, National Anthropological Archives

Robert Heizer was born on July 13, 1915, in Denver, Colorado, and spent much of his youth in Lovelock, Nevada. He began his college career at Sacramento Junior College in 1932 and moved on to the University of California at Berkeley where he met and married Nancy Elizabeth Jenkins, and received a B.A. in 1936 and a Ph.D. in 1941.

Heizer's academic career began in 1940 with a one-year appointment at the University of Oregon, although for most of World War II, he worked as a marine pipe fitter in the Richmond, California shipyard. He became an instructor at UCLA from 1945 to 1946, when he was appointed assistant professor at the University of California at Berkeley, gaining tenure in 1952. During a 30-year academic career, Heizer organized and directed the University of California Archaeological Survey from 1948 to 1960, and was the coordinator of the Archaeological Research Facility from 1960 until his retirement.

Robert Heizer's bibliography includes more than 500 publications, mostly on archaeology and the prehistory of the Great Basin and California. He also published widely on Mesoamerica, in particular Olmec archaeology, an area of interest that began with his collaboration with Philip Drucker, Robert J. Squier and Eduardo Contreras at La Venta in 1955, continuing through the late 1960s. He wrote books on archaeological method, historical archaeology, ethnohistory, dating techniques and cultural ecology.

Heizer was interested in the transportation of heavy monuments, and explored this topic in his work with Olmec colossal sculpture, and continued this work in Egypt. He wrote extensively on the ethnology and ethnohistory of the Indians of California and Nevada and was a consultant to the Legal Assistance Program for California Indians. He was also the editor of the California volume of the Smithsonian's Handbook of North American Indians.

Among a number of donations to various institutions, Heizer gave a special collection of publications on Olmec archaeology and an archive of obsidian research to the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of his personal notes, professional letters and research notes are now in the archives at Berkeley. Many of his papers pertaining to his fieldwork at La Venta are in the National Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian Institution. Robert Heizer died on July 18, 1979.

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