Obituary — Jeffrey R. Parsons


Jeffrey R. Parsons, professor emeritus of anthropology and curator emeritus of Latin American archaeology in the U-M Museum of Anthropological Archaeology, died March 19 at the age of 81, after a life of innovative field research and devoted teaching.

Jeffrey Parsons
Jeffrey Parsons

“It is with great sadness and a deep sense of loss that we learned of the passing of our friend and colleague Jeff Parsons,” wrote Michael L. Galaty, director of the museum. “Jeff was a giant in the world of anthropological archaeology, and he had an indelible impact on UMMAA, not only as a curator but also as a director. He will be sorely missed.”

Parsons was born on Oct. 9, 1939, in Washington, D.C. He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from Penn State University in 1961 and a master’s and doctorate in anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1963 and 1966, respectively. This was a period of innovation in archaeology, and Parsons joined other graduate students at U-M in questioning old assumptions and proposing new theories and methods. He joined the faculty in 1966.

Parsons trained in the field with William Sanders of Penn State University. They worked in the Basin of Mexico, northeast of modern Mexico City, near Teotihuacan. During his years on Sanders’s team, Parsons developed better ceramic chronologies for dating the sites. He also acquired large-scale air photographs on which every ceramic sample could be precisely located.

From 1967 to 1983, Parsons received a series of grants from the National Science Foundation to survey in the Basin of Mexico. Those surveys led to monographs still available in UMMAA’s Memoir series. In 1979, Parsons, Sanders and others published “The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization,” an overview of all their research in the Basin.

Parsons also worked for years in Peru. With Charles Hastings and Ramiro Matos, he surveyed the Upper Mantaro Valley in central Peru and wrote two monographs on the project. In subsequent years, he conducted surveys near Lake Titicaca, near Cuzco, and along the North Coast in the Santa, Casma, and other valleys.

Parsons helped colleagues with surveys in other parts of the world, including Guatemala, Iceland, Egypt, Australia, Mongolia and southern Italy. He served as a visiting professor in Mexico City; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Tucuman, Argentina; Catamarca, Argentina; and La Paz, Bolivia.

From 1983-86, Parsons was director of what was then the Museum of Anthropology. Around that time, he and his wife, Mary, documented disappearing Mesoamerican crafts and lifeways. They studied maguey fiber harvesting in 1984, salt extraction in 1988, and the harvesting of edible insects in 1992. All these studies were published by UMMAA in the Anthropological Papers series. They also researched Parsons’s Maine family and published “Letters from the Attic: A Compilation of Letters and Other Documents Found at the Robinson-Parsons Farm in South Paris, Maine. … 1818-1982.”

In 1998, Parsons received the A.V. Kidder Award from the American Anthropological Association for lifetime achievement in Mesoamerican archaeology. In 2002, he received the Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award at U-M.

Parsons’s final publication was a collection of 40 years of archaeological photos, “Remembering Archaeological Fieldwork in Mexico and Peru, 1961–2003: A Photographic Essay.”

His work and memory are carried on by his wife, Mary, his research partner of 56 years, and their daughter, Apphia, also a veteran of many field seasons, as well as by hundreds of colleagues throughout the world.

In Parsons’s honor, the museum is making his most recent book, “Remembering Archaeological Fieldwork in Mexico and Peru, 1961–2003: A Photographic Essay,” available to read for free at

Written by Henry T. Wright


Leave a comment

Commenting is closed for this article. Please read our comment guidelines for more information.