Bill Rathje

Bill Rathje died last Friday.

Inventor of garbology, pioneer in anthropological approaches to contemporary material culture, expert in ancient civilizations, prescient, daring, and, above all, a great and warm person, larger than life.

He had been ill for a long while, but I always thought he’d get better when his doctors found the right medication, and we’d share many more of the wonderful conversations that were the heart of our friendship.

We had just put the finishing touches to our book with Chris Witmore – Archaeology in the Making – now in production with Routledge and due out in the summer. I know Bill saw this as his greatest contribution to understanding what archaeologists get up to.

I’ll have more to say when I feel more composed. – ([Link] to a later post)

Bill loved this photo he took of me and Lew Binford back in 2002. I had been quizzing Lew about a comment he had just made about some archaeologists denying the validity of science, asking him to name them. “Well, you for a start!” he barked back, not altogether seriously. I have found myself increasingly taking the role of a champion of strong scholarship and argument, and yes, science. This irony, given the way some have read my earlier work as a kind of postmodern relativism, was not lost on Lew or Bill – we talk about it in the new book I just mentioned above. Bill’s own work was exemplary in its negotiation of social science, empirics, and subtle negotiation of crucial contemporary political agendas. It was the conversations we had with friends and colleagues over the years that led us both to appreciate the human face of science.

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10 thoughts on “Bill Rathje

  1. Bill Rathje was a good man and a great colleague. His work has influenced my thinking throughout my career and continues to guide it now. I will miss him. I have to think that, as a translator of the Heart Sutra, he believed in the pervasive presence of being. I do and I will alway hear him.

  2. I am a director of a Keep America Beautiful affiliate and heard Dr. Rathje speak many years ago. He was dynamic, funny, and educational. I learned a lot that I was able to take back to our community.

  3. Hi Mike,
    This is one of the first post I am seeing related to Bill’s passing away. He’ll be sorely missed. Thanks for posting the picture.

  4. I knew Bill well for more than 40 years since we first met when I was an 18-year-old undergraduate and he was a newly minted Ph.D. from Harvard. I took his “Intro to Anthropology” class merely as an elective, and was immediately “converted.” Bill was hard to describe in just a few words, but he was definitely a Renaissance man with a dizzying area of interests, ideas and goals, and a gifted and hilarious teacher whose classes at the University of Arizona were always packed. He was also a devoted mentor, a loyal friend, a passionate communicator, a brilliant and incredibly creative person (in every aspect of his life), and a complex and highly sensitive man who found it increasingly difficult to navigate life as ill health took hold. He will be missed, but I know we’ll see him again — and I’m sure he’ll take off like a rocket in his next “iteration.”

  5. I was traveling this last May when Bill died and I did not hear about it until today. He was my teacher at Arizona when I was a grad student, he was on my PhD committee, perhaps the strongest influence on my intellectual development. He taught me that anthropology could be fun, that good scholarship was a form of creative artwork as well as rigorous science.

    I was his teaching assistant one semester, and I remember him calling me on Sunday night to tell me he was in Poland or Prague or somewhere like that, and could I give the Monday lecture? Just do something on GI Joe! That was the lecture I was giving! GI Joe and archaeology – all the slides are in my office. They’ll love it!

    He had absolutely no respect for disciplinary boundaries, and along with JJ Reid and Mike Schiffer, he gave the grad students of my generation a sense of infinite possibilities, intellectual excitement, and a sense that what we were doing as anthropologists actually made a difference in the world. I don’t think any of us realized at the time what a rare and special energy we were sharing. Big Bill, as we called him (sometimes “honk if you have seen Rathje”) was larger than life, a totally unique person who was 100% himself.

  6. Wow, I just heard this news. I used to own a small business and Bill would come in everyday, have a snack, and watch people outside. I never knew what he did (always thought he was a fisherman because of the vest) until an employee of mine said he was taking a college course and the book they were using was written by Bill. I asked him about it and he said jokingly, “Oh yes, I’m very big in the world of garbage.”

    He once left a notepad in my store and the next day, when I saw him and returned it, he was so wide eyes and grateful. He offered me a reward, but when I declined, he thanked me profusely and left. From then on, Bill would come in almost every day. He was a big tipper and when we were busy, he’d open and close the door instead of putting his order in. Sometimes he would spend 30 minutes opening and closing the door for customers and saying hello to them.

    Bill was a big guy, but moved very gently and spoke as if he were whispering. I only looked him up because I promised him years ago that I would read something he wrote and for some reason, he sprang up in my mind. Very sad news indeed.

  7. We feel very sad about Bill. We knew him back in the 80s, as I was a co-worker of his wife Mic. He was always charming and we enjoyed his company immensely.He was extremely intelligent but was always approachable . You could ask any question of him and he would answer you but also include some kind of funny line to make you laugh!! We were not aware of his illness struggles which I know is a very difficult battle. I might of been able to help him because of the extensive medical information I have discovered as an airline crew member fighting AERO TOXIC DISEASE, an immune failure disease caused by the chemical exposures and radiation during our many years of flying.
    RIP my friend….as in this life, you lead the way and the rest of us will follow!!
    God bless
    Sincerely, Mike & Dana Gilliland

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