Jeffrey Quilter, AB’72, digs into the history of human societies for deeper insight into who we are.
Archaeologist Jeffrey Quilter, AB’72, studies centuries-old cultures. But questions about our own society,—“questions of the origins of inequality,” for instance—are never far from his mind. A child of public housing in Queens, New York, Quilter was first set on his path of historical discovery by his parents.
With his father, who was originally from South Africa, Quilter toured New York City’s museums. And his mother, a “GI war bride” from England, often took him back to visit family, where he saw the castles, ruins, and museums of a country with a tangible connection to its premodern roots.
The possibility of unearthing understanding about the modern world from such artifacts took hold. Quilter, the William and Muriel Seabury Howells Director of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, has spent the past four decades excavating and analyzing pre-Columbian societies of Peru and Costa Rica.
An awareness of social, political, and economic disparities in contemporary society inspired a curiosity about such conditions in history and led him to focus on the Moche people of northern Peru from 350 to 900 AD.
He studied widely in the College, including a class with anthropologist Friedrich Katz on pre-Columbian topics. Quilter also learned from professors such as the historian and writer Mircea Eliade and pored over primary texts in numerous disciplines to acquire the tools “not only to be a scholar but to be a productive citizen.”
The first in his family to go to college, Quilter has followed his father’s autodidactic style in his life beyond the university. “I didn’t know how this all worked,” he says, meaning his career and professional life, “and nobody ever told me how it all works.” But he steadily advanced in his field, earning a master’s degree and PhD in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, then teaching for 15 years at Ripon College in Wisconsin before a decade as director of pre-Columbian studies and curator of the pre-Columbian collection at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC.
He was recruited to the Peabody as deputy director for curatorial affairs in 2005. In 2012 Quilter became director, moving into a corner office overlooking one of Harvard’s crisp walkways and tucking against a window a wooden postcard with a daily reminder: “Abuse of power comes as no surprise.”
On a high shelf across from the postcard sits an image of the swashbuckling Indiana Jones, the pop culture icon of the discipline, modeled after UChicago’s James Henry Breasted. But the cinema archaeologist’s popularity has not translated into public interest and support for archaeology. It remains one of the most underfunded scientific fields, Quilter says, even though the study of the “science of the human past” offers insight into the future for a species constantly repeating its history. “How did people react the last time there was a dramatic change in climate?” he asks. “Why do we live in societies in which we’re seeing extreme poverty and extreme wealth and extremely asymmetrical distributions of power? … Archaeology is the only discipline of inquiry that can really address that.”
In his work on the Moche people, including The Moche of Ancient Peru: Media and Messages (Peabody Museum Press, 2011), he offers a study of the culture and an analysis of its artifacts in the Peabody collection. His book also covers “the sociopolitical, economic, ideological worlds of the Moche as best we can interpret them,” Quilter says.
At the museum, he tries to apply as broad a lens as possible to the study of ancient cultural objects and societies. He chooses artifacts for display and study based on what they reveal about human experience on the one hand, Quilter says, and to appreciate their aesthetic value on the other. “We need to be able to span that range.”
One of the museum’s newest exhibits, open through October 2017, is Arts of War: Artistry in Weapons across Cultures. The display challenges visitors’ assumptions about warfare by drawing attention to the high artistry of weapons made by cultures around the globe. Rows of glittering swords and delicately carved wooden clubs demonstrate a collective fascination with warfare from Europe to the Americas and beyond, one that extends past military necessity to specialized craftsmanship.
In the way art museums explore the meaning of art itself, Quilter says, the Peabody raises the question, “What is culture?” through the exploration of similarities and differences between ancient and modern societies. To him the issues addressed at the Peabody represent an important element of understanding what it means to be human.
“Much of it, if done right,” Quilter says, “is related to major aspects of why we are the way we are.”