William T. Sanders, 82, Anthropologist, Is Dead
July 16, 2008
William T. Sanders, an anthropologist whose influential studies of early civilizations in Mexico and Central America included a vast and invaluable aerial survey of ancient archaeological sites, died July 2 in State College, Pa. He was 82.
The cause was complications after a fall, said a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania State University, where Dr. Sanders taught from 1959 to 1993.
Late in his career, Dr. Sanders achieved a degree of popularity as a co-host of a PBS series on ancient cultures. But in the field of Mesoamerican archaeology, he was best known for a landmark survey of central Mexican sites in the 1970s.
With his colleagues Jeffrey R. Parsons and Robert S. Santley, Dr. Sanders conducted an aerial survey of the vast Basin of Mexico to try to identify and photograph the remains of temples, dwellings, outbuildings and farming terraces built by Aztec and Teotihuacán civilizations before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.
Their work, accomplished before the advent of global positioning systems, infrared imaging and other advanced tools, produced a seminal inventory of ancient sites that had not been studied.
They published their findings in 1979 in what became an influential book, “The Basin of Mexico: Ecological Processes in the Evolution of a Civilization.”
The book included an analysis of the interplay between landscape and culture; for example, the relationship between soil fertility and the growth of population centers.
Deborah L. Nichols, a professor and chairman of the anthropology department at Dartmouth College, said that the book, in recording the history of human occupation of the region “from the earliest farming villages to the Spanish Conquest,” represented “a whole new idea for using aerial images.”
Dr. Nichols, who has studied Teotihuacán sites in central Mexico, said the survey continued to be invaluable; an estimated 80 percent of the sites recorded in the survey have been covered under Mexico City’s urban sprawl.
In the 1980s and ’90s, Dr. Sanders helped direct Penn State’s excavations of an important Mayan city site known as Copán, which flourished between A.D. 400 and A.D. 800 in what is now Honduras.
At Copán, he looked at Mayan social classes and the design of their households, helped map the limits of the city and compared modern agricultural practices in the region with those of the past. He also studied pre-Columbian sites in Guatemala and contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entry on Mesoamerican civilizations.
William Timothy Sanders was born in Patchogue, N.Y. In part inspired by reading William H. Prescott’s classic book “History of the Conquest of Mexico,” he earned his doctorate in anthropology from Harvard in 1957.
Dr. Sanders is survived by his wife, Lili, and three daughters. The couple lived in Julian, Pa.
Late in his career, Dr. Sanders was a familiar guide to anthropology and archaeology as a host of “Out of the Past,” an eight-part public television series in the 1990s. The project was financed by the Annenberg Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
In the series, Dr. Sanders and his co-host, David L. Webster, an anthropologist and a colleague at Penn State, explored the intricacies of Central American civilizations and their similarities to ancient cultures in Rome, Egypt, Morocco and other places. The series as well as a companion college textbook are still used in introductory courses in comparative archaeology.