Alumnus Profile: Professor Richard Burger ‘72

Professor Burger (right) poses with Yale University Provost Peter Salovey and officials from the University of the Cuzco at the opening ceremony of the new exhibit. Photo courtesy of Richard Burger.

Looking back on his life, Professor Richard Burger can pinpoint the exact moment when he chose to dedicate his life to archeology. Or perhaps, more appropriately, when archeology chose him. “I was eight,” he reflects. “There was a book I read called Introduction to Archaeology by Anne Terry White.” While most leave their childhood dreams in the past, Burger’s have not only become his profession but also his passion. Burger credits much of his interests and successes to his parents who, although neither of whom were archeologists by title, both had a passion for the subject. His father, a New York businessman, served as a president of the Long Island Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America, and as a family they traveled often, exploring the remains of the past.

At age 15, Burger took part in an exchange program to Peru. It was over this summer that he fell in love with the region – the physical beauty, the food, the history, and most of all, the people. When choosing a site to investigate, Peru thus remained at the forefront of his mind, and after enrolling as an undergraduate at Yale, Burger pursued this focus in his studies and forged a strong connection with Professor Tom Patterson, an archeologist who concentrated in Latin America. After graduating from Yale in 1972, Burger pursued a doctorate in archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley.

After receiving his doctorate, he began his first large scale excavations in the highlands of Peru. Since these first digs, Burger has completed at least 15 field seasons in this region, focusing on the origins of civilization and the emergence of complex societies in the Callejón de Conchucos and Callejón de Huaylas. His pioneering research of the development of Peruvian society between 2500 B.C. and 300 B.C. contributes to the understanding of why and how small localized societies transition into civilizations with rich culture and elaborate infrastructure.

When asked about his most exciting discovery, Burger simply smiles, reveling in the unexpected nature of the field. “Archaeology is great because you never know what you are going to find. You will always find what you do not expect.” While excavating near a ceremonial pyramid, Burger’s team came across what at first appeared to be a mural. However, after a careful excavation process, they identified the relic as a two-foot tall doll resembling a modern marionette with a gourd constituting the body and a paper-machete sculpture serving as the head. It was constructed entirely of perishable materials, yet had been preserved by the arid landscape and thus, it was a surprise to discover that the doll, decorated with vivid colors and intricate detailing, such as six blood-dripping fangs, was radiocarbon dated to be over 3000 years old.

Burger played an important role in the excavation of a ceremonial hearth in 1981 at Huaricoto in the Callejón de Huaylas. Photo courtesy of Richard Burger.

Recently, Professor Burger’s efforts have been geared towards the Machu Picchu negotiations with Peru over the destiny of the 40,000 plus artifacts collected by Yale alumnus Hiram Bingham during his excavations in the early twentieth century. When asked to elaborate on his role in the situation, Burger sighs, acknowledging the delicacy of the issue. With his unique vantage point, Burger sympathizes with both parties. On one hand, as a Yale professor, he has studied the documentations and “knows in fact that Yale has acted honorably.” He explains that many accusations are based on a lack of understanding. However, on the other hand, Burger has deep ties with Peru – he has studied extensively in the country, has taught in two Peruvian universities, and is also married to a Peruvian archaeologist. Thus, Burger can empathize, explaining that to Peruvians, having priceless relics from Machu Picchu on exhibit in the United States would be the equivalent of having “someone purchase the Statue of Liberty and move it to Dubai.” Burger hopes the results of the negotiations and return of the artifacts are viewed not as a loss but rather as the foundation of a “multifaceted collaboration” involving an international partnership and collection of shared knowledge. Burger hopes that with the implementation of the negotiations, he will be able to continue his excavations in the Peruvian highlands, including a proposed Yale-Cuzco dig.

As Anne Terry White’s book inspired Burger, he, in turn, hopes to pass on this inspiration and passion to his students, colleagues, and others in the field. When speaking of his favorite childhood book, he still vividly recounts the “stories of great discoveries, great archaeological discoveries.” And today, there is no doubt that Burger now has some great archaeological stories of his own to share with the world.