You know, one of the things I love about Island history is that it simply never ceases to amaze. At every turn there always seems to be a new story to tell. Some of my favourites involve those Islanders whose dreams of striking it rich, becoming famous, or leaving their mark on the world took them to distant lands and on some pretty incredible adventures. Because let’s face it: who among us has not entertained precisely that notion at one time or another?
This week’s post is about one such individual. From New Perth to the heights of Ivy League academia, from the Honduran jungles to wilds of Alaska, allow me to introduce you to an erudite, globetrotting scholar of the ancient world: Dr. George Byron Gordon.
Make no mistake – although he never went around laying the beat down on Nazis, outrunning homicidal boulders, falling into snake pits, or swinging from a bullwhip, if anyone on the Island (past or present) can lay claim to most closely approximating the personage of the world’s most famous fictional archaeologist, I dare say it would be Gordon. He entered this world on August 4, 1870, one of six children born to parents James and Janet (McLaren) of New Perth. We don’t know much about his upbringing other than that he spent it in a rural community dominated by agriculture and a traditional lifestyle. All well and good for some, but Gordon was wired a bit differently than most. His was evidently an adventurous spirit yearning to break free.
And break free he did.
We pick up Gordon’s story in earnest in 1888, when he began undergraduate studies at the University of South Carolina. After only a year, he opted to transfer to the hallowed halls of Harvard, which ultimately proved fortuitous and set him on the road to earning his Ph.D. in Archaeology (1894), ranking among some of the first to do so.
Clearly of a strong academic bent, Gordon had already begun to make a name for himself even before obtaining his doctorate. In 1892, he was tapped by John G. Owens to serve as assistant on a Harvard-sponsored excavation at the ancient Maya city of Copan in Honduras. Tragically, before fieldwork wrapped up that season Owens died of fever. Upon his death, Gordon became de facto leader of the expedition at only 22, and would go on to serve (in an official capacity) as Site Director for another four field seasons until 1900, when an unstable political situation coupled with an expired permit brought the project to a halt. During this time, Gordon’s work focussed mainly on the excavation of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan, investigation of which would lay dormant until the 1930s.
Following his work at Copan, Gordon switched gears. Bidding farewell to Harvard, he accepted a gig as Assistant Curator of General Ethnology at the Free Museum of Science and Art (later renamed the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, or Penn Museum). By now an established authority, it wasn’t long before Gordon was bumped up to Director, a position he would hold for the rest of his days. Under his stewardship, the museum’s collections of antiquities from the Middle East, Asia, and the Americas were greatly expanded.
Gordon, though, was clearly not content to spend his days wandering the corridors of his museum. In 1905, he travelled to far flung reaches of Alaska in order to seek out artefacts, spending the entirety of a summer living among different Inuit tribes. In 1907, he returned to Alaska for a second time, along with his brother, McLaren. The purpose of the venture was experiment with new ways of exploring the Arctic, which resulted in the “discovery” of Lake Minchumina, the source of the Kuskokwim River. It also set the standards for similar expeditions in the future.
On the heels of his Alaskan adventures, Gordon transitioned to the lecture hall. From 1907 to 1915, he taught both undergraduate and graduate courses in Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, on top of his duties at the museum and contributing a goodly amount of scholarly literature to his field. When not teaching or publishing academic papers (and even a couple of books), or working tirelessly to grow the collections of the Penn Museum, Gordon somehow found the time to walk in a number of prestigious social circles. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Ethnological Society, the American Anthropological Association (of which he was twice Vice President), the Franklin Inn Club, the Lenape Club, the Rittenhouse Club, the Explorer’s Club of New York, the Author’s Club of London, and last but not least, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
For someone whose life was generally marked by good fortune, Gordon’s untimely death in late January 1927, aged only 56, proved rather ironic. He had been attending a function at the Racquet Club in Philadelphia on the evening of Saturday, January 29 when, upon ascending a flight of stairs to fetch his coat, he suddenly became paralysed, falling backwards down the steps and striking his head against the marble floor. He died the next day without ever regaining conciousness. At the time, he was co-directing a joint expedition of the British and Penn museums in Mesopotamia and Ur (present-day Israel and Iraq, respectively), which in 1924 had succeeded in discovering the oldest standing building in the world at Tel el Obeid in Babylon.
For someone as influential in his field as Gordon, and an Islander to boot, his tragic passing was somehow overlooked by print media on the Island, and over time his story faded into obscurity. A confirmed bachelor, he never married and left no progeny; he did, however, impart an amazing legacy in the contributions he made to his field, and for some reason I get the sense that that is precisely what he wanted.
Anyway, that’s all for this week. I’ve recently started work on a new contract which will be requiring the majority of my attention throughout March; I will, however, continue putting material up on here, but you can expect the next few posts to be lighter reads like this one.
PEI History Guy
P.S. – For further reading see:
Pezzati, Alessandro. “The Excavation of the Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan” Expedition Magazine 54.1 (April 2012): n. pag. Expedition Magazine. Penn Museum, April 2012 Web. 02 Mar 2016 <http://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/?p=14155>