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From the President: Happy Birthday, AIA! Volume 57 Number 1, January/February 2004
by Jane C. Waldbaum

Celebrating our 125th anniversary

In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent electric light bulb. That same year, Harvard professor Charles Eliot Norton had a light-bulb moment of his own and "invented" the Archaeological Institute of America (AIA). Norton expressed his vision for the fledgling organization in a letter to British art critic John Ruskin: "I have been occupied of late in getting up an Archaeological Society, in the hope of encouraging classical studies--Greek studies I mean; and of training some of our College-bred boys to take part in investigations in Greek regions, & regions farther east."

On May 10 of that year, Norton met with a small group of Bostonian intellectual luminaries--Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, marine zoologist Alexander Agassiz, lawyer Francis E. Parker, art historian Charles Perkins, classical scholar William Goodwin, historian of the American West Francis Parkman, and archaeologist Frederic Ward Putnam, curator of Harvard's Peabody Museum--to determine the future course of the new learned society. Almost immediately, the founders of the AIA argued about the scope of the new institute. To some, such as Parker, only the edifying ruins of classical civilization were worthy of study; to others, such as Putnam and Parkman, archaeology opened up a much larger world of human endeavor, encompassing the accomplishments of New World peoples as well as the Old. Norton was publicly diplomatic but privately remarked in a letter, dated July 26, 1880, to the British historian Thomas Carlyle: "I don't care much for our American Archaeology (though as president of the society I must say this under my breath).... My interest in this new Archaeological Institute of ours springs from the confidence that it may do something to promote Greek studies among us."

Despite this conflict of attitudes, the AIA, in its early days, sponsored excavations not only at Assos in Turkey, but also at Pecos, New Mexico. The original division is, however, still with us. The scholarly programs of the AIA--the annual meeting, fellowships, and American Journal of Archaeology--focus primarily on ancient Mediterranean cultures, though they cover a much broader chronological and geographic range than the Institute's founders could have imagined; while programs designed for the public, such as the national lecture program, and, above all, ARCHAEOLOGY, cast a much wider net, making accessible the latest archaeological news and research worldwide.

Much of the original structure of the AIA established by Norton and his colleagues is still in place 125 years later, though on a much larger scale. In true democratic fashion, from the very beginning the AIA was open to anyone who was fascinated by the past. Today, from the original single chapter in Boston, the AIA has grown to more than 100 local societies in the U.S., Canada, and Athens, Greece. That first handful of members has become a group of nearly 9,000 and includes not only scholars, professors, and students but people from all walks of life, united by a shared passion for archaeology and what it can teach us about human history.

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Jane C. Waldbaum is the president of the Archaeological Institute of America.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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