Hailed as one of the founders of scientific archaeology, Robert Braidwood (1907-2003) is credited with a multitude of discoveries and novel research methods, including the use of interdisciplinary teams to study the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agriculture-based civilization. Through a series of important excavations in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, Braidwood and his colleagues discovered evidence of the earliest signs of food production, metallurgy, and architecture.
Braidwood studied architecture at the University of Michigan and received his MA in 1933. Later that year, he joined the University of Chicago Oriental Institute’s Syrian Hittite Expedition to the Amuq Plain, where he worked under legendary archaeologist James Henry Breasted until 1938. In 1937, he married Linda Schreiber (1909-2003), a fellow University of Michigan graduate who would later become his constant field companion and research partner. During World War II, Braidwood headed a meteorological mapping program for the Army Air Corps, and in 1943 earned his doctorate at the University of Chicago. Upon graduation, he was immediately hired by the University of Chicago, where he was professor in the Oriental Institute and the Department of Anthropology until his retirement.
Braidwood’s work in the Amuq Plain represented one of the first rigorous archaeological surveys, where researchers meticulously map artifacts in order to date them. In 1947, Braidwood was introduced to the principle of carbon dating, developed by University of Chicago colleague Willard Libby, and proceeded to use the method to date ancient artifacts more precisely.
Also in 1947, Braidwood launched the Oriental Institute’s Jarmo Project in Iraq, the first field project focused on retrieving evidence of early agricultural societies. This project is credited with pioneering a new form of interdisciplinary archaeology that requires the contributions of biologists and geologists to study such mundane evidence as bone fragments, plant remains, and sediment to learn more about the interworkings of early societies. In 1954, this cooperative program was awarded a National Science Foundation grant, one of the first such awards given to an anthropology team. However, political strife in Iraq forced Braidwood to withdraw from the country in 1958, and he subsequently conducted similar field programs in Iran and Turkey.
In southern Turkey, Braidwood and colleagues from Istanbul University extensively worked a site called Qayonu. Evidence stemming from this work suggested that the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agriculture-based civilization occurred 8,000 to 12,000 years ago in the foothills of the Vagros Mountains in southern Turkey. To rigorously test this suggestion, Braidwood uncovered some of the earliest known farming villages and studied the wild ancestors of plant and animal species that were later domesticated.
In addition to his work on the origins of agriculture, Braidwood is also credited with several additional discoveries, including the oldest known sample of human hair, the earliest example of handcrafted natural copper, and the oldest known piece of cloth. He authored several important technical papers and popular accounts of his research, among them the seminal textbook Prehistoric Men. In 1971, he received the medal for distinguished archaeological achievement from the Archaeological Institute of America.
- Braidwood, R. J. (1937). Mounds in the plain of Antioch: An archaeological survey (University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications, Vol. 68). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Braidwood, L. S. (1953). Digging beyond the Tigris. New York: H. Schuman.
- Braidwood, R. J. (1967). Prehistoric men. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman.