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Elizabeth Brumfiel, Leading Aztec Scholar, Dies at 66

Brought study of social and economic inequality to forefront of archaeology

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January 6, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Elizabeth M. Brumfiel, a leading scholar of Aztec archaeology and professor of anthropology at Northwestern University since 2003, died peacefully on New Year’s Day. 

Brumfiel brought the study of social and economic inequality to the forefront of archaeological research. As a pioneer in the field of feminist studies, she transformed the field of archaeology, ensuring that archaeological research extended to work on gender, class and other lines of social differences in society.

Brumfiel promoted an inclusive and inspiring research ethic for her students and colleagues through personal example and feminist-inspired research and teaching. “Her work ushered in a new era of archaeological research that emphasized a more humane past and the central roles that all people -- not just the elite -- played in society,” said Cynthia Robin, Brumfiel’s Northwestern colleague and close friend.

For more than 20 years, she and her students conducted archaeological research in Xaltocan, Mexico, the capital of a small, autonomous pre-Columbian kingdom conquered first by the Aztecs and later by the Spanish. The town, in 2007, presented her with the Eagle Warrior Prize for her dedication to community issues in archaeology. (Eagle warriors are the highest class of warriors in Aztec society.)

Brumfiel was the lead curator of “The Aztec World,” a large and popular exhibit at the Field Museum from Oct. 2008 to April 2009. It traced the rise and fall of Aztec culture through nearly it 300 artifacts. Of particular interest to her was the information that many of those objects shed on the lives of women under Aztec rule. 

As a past president of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the world’s largest organization of anthropologists, and in other leadership positions, Brumfiel worked tirelessly to promote anthropology as a means to further human rights and social justice. She co-authored six books and edited volumes and more than 60 scholarly articles. 

Prior to joining the Northwestern University faculty, she taught at Albion College. She earned her bachelor’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and her master’s degree from the University of California Los Angeles. 

Brumfiel is survived by her husband of 45 years, Vincent; her son Geoffrey and his fiancée Natasha Gilbert; and her sister and brother-in-law Fran and Gerald Johnson. 

Services are being planned for a later date. Donations in Brumfiel’s name can be made to The Archaeological Conservancy, (505) 266-2540 or http://www.americanarchaeology.com/. Northwestern’s department of anthropology is establishing the Elizabeth Brumfiel Award for Best Senior Thesis in her honor.

Read about Brumfiel’s work on the “Aztec World” and watch the slide show below in which she discusses her research for the Field Museum exhibit.

Slide show produced by Matt Paolelli