AIYS Lifetime Achievement Award
Mac Gibson in his office at the Oriental Institute
Photograph by Stephen Lintner
A biography of Mac was written for his festschrift, published in 2021. Born in November, 1938 in St. Mary's County, Maryland, he was the eighth of nine children in a family of tenant farmers. He contracted infantile paralysis (polio) as a child, but has persevered in a distinguished career of archaeological fieldwork, ancient Near Eastern languages and teaching. He received his B.A. in 1959 from Fordham. As noted in the biography in the festschrift, "Mac loved New York, but his Fordham years are largely a blank to us, though he once told a story about a (priest) theology instructor who began all his classes with the phrase “God is good,” and tossed Mac out of the class when he replied “Good for God!”
"With his BA in hand, Mac moved on to the University of Chicago and enrolled in the Department of Anthropology, later switching to the Department of Oriental Languages and Civilizations (as it was then known) because of his interest in Mesopotamian archaeology," continues the biography. "In his first year he took classes with Robert McC. Adams, Clark Howell and his co-teacher Francois Bordes. In that year and subsequently, he took socio/cultural courses with Fred Eggan and Eric Wolf, whom he found extremely stimulating. His second year, he took classes with Lewis Binford. He initially worked under the supervision of P. P. Delougaz, and in his second year, Thorkild Jacobsen, completing an MA on weapons in 1964. His thesis, entitled The Mace, the Axe and the Dagger in Ancient Mesopotamia, sought to synthesize archaeological and philological data, an integrative approach he always espoused and instilled in his students. With Jacobsen’s going to Harvard, Mac then switched to I. J. Gelb because of his keen interest in social/economic history and its relationship with archaeology."
Mac's archaeological career began at the site of Nippur in Iraq, which he first visited in 1964-65 during the ninth season of excavations by the University of Chicago. In addition to his supervision work at Nippur he also traveling from Nippur to Abu Salabikh by camel. It was in Iraq that he met Selma al-Radi, a representative from Iraq's Department of Antiquities at the time. It was later in a visit to Selma in Yemen that he formed the idea of creating an institute for Yemeni studies. In 1968 he defended his PhD dissertation at Chicago entitled "The City and Area of Kish." Before coming to the Oriental Institute, he taught at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle Campus and also as the last Annual Professor of the Baghdad School of the American Schools of Oriental Research in 1969–70. In 1973, after teaching at the University of Arizona, arrived at the University of Chicago, where he taught for almost half a century.
There are many aspects of Mac's personality that his colleagues and students enjoyed. "Not the least of Mac’s talents in the field was his unique talent as a conversationalist, storyteller and provocateur, particularly at the Nippur breakfast table. As his students generally sat mute, waiting for the caffeine from the fresh brewed coffee that was always on the table to kick in, he would feed them an astonishing concatenation of fact and fiction, including the folklore that deep inside the ziggurat, which locals call bint al-amir (daughter of the prince), is a magnificent golden boat. Or, sometimes he’d put out challenges like naming the dumbest parable in the New Testament," as noted in the festschrift biography.
AIYS is pleased to honor Dr. McGuire (Mac) Gibson of the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago with the first AIYS Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022. Dr. Gibson was the impetus for the creation of AIYS in 1978, served as its first President and has been a board member since its inception.
A copy of the festschrift for Dr. Gibson is available for download here.
Mac at the Oriental Institute
Photography by Jason Ur
After forming AIYS, Mac began an archaeological survey of the Yarim-Dhamar region, some 60 km south of Sanaa. He received funding from the National Geographical Society for this. Raymond D. Tindel, a Chicago graduate student, was Field Director, and Stephen Lintner served as geomorphologist. In 1994 Mac returned to Dhamar, along with collaborator Tony J. Wilkinson for a project investigating landscape, especially the systems of ancient terraced fields on the mountain slopes of highland Yemen. Given his involvement with Yemen's institute, Mac saw the need for an umbrella organization that could support the various American research institutes like AIYS. This led to the creation of CAORC, housed in the Smithsonian Institution. He served as the first chair of CAORC from 1984-88. Soon after he established a research institute for Iraq, despite the difficulties brought on by the Iran-Iraq war and the subsequent American invasion of Iraq.
As the festschrift biography concludes, "All throughout these wonderful contributions Mac has made, he has also been a great supporter for his students. Many of his students have gone on to obtain jobs at well-known academic and research institutions. While we are not keeping tabs, Mac just might be among the most successful ancient Near East scholars in recent memory in getting his students research employment after their PhDs."
Daniel Martin Varisco
The information in this brief biography was obtained from the festschrift for Mac, entitled From Sherds to Landscapes.
I thank several colleagues for help in providing materials for this webpage, including Krista Lewis, Stephen Lintner , Dan Mahoney and Jason Ur.