With the passing of Robert Sharer, Maya scholarship has lost not only one of its most respected but one of its most beloved figures. For over 40 years this consummate professional was a model to students and working archaeologists alike, admired not only for the breadth and quality of his work, but for his example as a thoroughly decent man.
Born in Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1940, Bob gained his bachelor's degree at Michigan State University and his master's and doctorate in the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania in 1963 and 1968 respectively. He began his teaching career at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, but in 1972 he returned to his alma mater as an assistant professor, also taking up the post of Assistant Curator at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Rising through the ranks of both institutions, he was made a full professor in 1984 and Curator-in-charge of the American Section in 1987. In 1995 he was given a named chair as the first Sally and Alvin V. Shoemaker Professor in Anthropology. Upon his retirement in 2009 he became emeritus in both academic and museum positions.
Bob first made his mark as an archaeologist at the site of Chalchuapa in El Salvador, where he worked on social complexity in the Formative period, before moving to do similar work in the Salama Valley in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. In 1974 he began excavations at the Classic-period site of Quirigua, Guatemala, in what would become an important six-year study exploring not only its central core but its wider environs as well. It was the first project to explicitly attempt to integrate the dynastic history emerging from hieroglyphic texts with archaeological remains.
After Quirigua he returned to his interest in the Formative era with spells working on a settlement study at El Mirador, Guatemala, in 1982, an investigation of the earliest habitation and farming at La Venta, Mexico, in 1987, and salvage excavations at Sakajut, Guatemala, in 1988. While still working at Quirigua in 1975, Bob was invited by Gordon Willey to join Willey and William Coe in developing a master plan for archaeological investigation at Copan, commissioned by the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH). This became the template for the next three decades of research at Copan, one of the most significant and productive studies in all Maya archaeology.
In 1989 Bob returned to Copan at the invitation of William Fash, who was by then directing a major new phase of study: a large-scale, multi-institutional investigation of the Copan Acropolis. Here Bob took on the huge stratigraphic cut created by the erosion of the Copan River on the east side of the Acropolis with a program of tunneling which he had proposed in the original plan. He initially agreed to a three-year excavation program, but stayed on for the better part of the next two decades.
The scale and complexity of this undertaking is hard to put into words. His team excavated thousands of meters of tunnels, documenting the evolution of the Copan Acropolis from its origins until its end in a fashion unparalleled at any other Maya center. In the process, he discovered a series of important early structures, including the buildings now known as Ante, Margarita, Yehnal, and Hunal. Within the last of these he discovered and excavated what is sure to be the tomb of Copan's dynastic founder: K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo'.
Bob already leaves behind an impressive number of publications, being the author, co-author, or editor of 25 books and over 100 articles and book chapters. In 1983 he followed in the footsteps of Sylvanus Morley and George Brainerd and took on their great standard work of undergraduate studies, The Ancient Maya. Bob updated and progressively rewrote the book through its fourth, fifth, and sixth editions, the last of these together with Loa Traxler. The ability to write clearly and succinctly was his perennial hallmark, reflecting his many gifts as a teacher. This is no less true of Archaeology: Discovering Our Past, written together with Wendy Ashmore in 1987, and his Daily Life in Maya Civilization of 1996. In partnership with Christopher Jones, Bob recently completed the central volume of the Quirigua Reports series, Excavations in the Quirigua Site Core. His dearest wish was that his program of publicationsespecially those concerning Copanshould be completed and fully published. To that end the University of Pennsylvania Museum has established a fund to which it invites gifts and donations to honor Bob's life and legacy (address given below).
Bob's contributions to Maya scholarship are not only to be counted by his excavations and writing. He must also be credited with producing a fine cadre of young scholars, a number of whom he brought to Copan as students. Many have gone on to positions in major academic institutions and leadership roles in Maya research. As his academic offspring they have all been tutored in his fastidious attention to detail, organizational prowess, and clear ethical standards.
Bob received various honors, fellowships, and academic titles over his career, including membership in the exclusive American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Society of Antiquaries of London. He was a Senior Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington D.C. (1992-1998), acting as Chair (1996-1998), as well as a Senior Fellow of the Kolb Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania Museum (1996-2012). He also served on the Executive Board of the Society for American Archaeology (1986-1989), on the Advisory Board of the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress (2004-2012), and the U.S. Foundation for the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (1987-2012). Additionally, he sat on the editorial boards of the journals Ancient Mesoamerica (1988-2012) and Mesoamérica (1982-2012). In 1990 he helped to found the Copan Association (Asociación Copán), a non-profit organization to protect and conserve the cultural and natural patrimony of Honduras.
A list of achievements, however long, can never convey the full measure of the man. We should add that his was no anodyne character: he had a ready wit, a mischievous laugh, and was a raconteur of skill and prodigious memory. Suitably prodded, he had a legion of stories from the field featuring self-combusting refrigerators, motorcycle-riding tuition, and pranks involving fake bats in tunnels, each involving the many foibles of humanityincluding his own. He was intolerant of humbug and argued with a steady determination for the ideas, and ideals, he held dear. To those fortunate enough to who have known and worked with him he will be remembered as a steadfast colleague and friend, full of wise words and kindness in times of trouble.
He was, in a description that is undoubtedly old-fashioned but entirely fitting, a true gentleman. He will be greatly missed, and Maya studies is much the poorer for his leaving. Bob passed away on September 20, 2012, and is survived by his wife Loa, his children Jon Daniel, Michael, and Lisa, and his first wife Judith.