Associate Professor of Anthropology
James L. Fitzsimmons received his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 2002. He taught at a number of institutions before coming to Middlebury and has held writing fellowships at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, in Washington, D.C., and the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. As a Mesoamerican archaeologist, his research interests include the anthropology of death, the rise of complex societies in Mesoamerica, and the origins of writing.
Dr. Fitzsimmons has either directed or been a member of several archaeological projects in the United States, Guatemala, and Honduras. His most recent project was centered at the Classic Maya (250-850 AD) site of Zapote Bobal, Guatemala. Known as Hiix Witz, or 'Jaguar Hill' in ancient Maya times, this site features prominently in the history of famous Maya cities like Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan as both an adversary and an ally. Excavations there uncovered a rich, undiscovered history portrayed in numerous hieroglyphic texts as well as the archaeological record; this history is in the process of being documented for a volume for the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum (Harvard University). In terms of future fieldwork, Fitzsimmons is currently laying the foundation for a new project in Belize, which will involve not only excavations but also the creation of an archaeological field school.
In addition to his journal articles and book chapters, Dr. Fitzsimmons is the author or editor of five books, including Death and the Classic Maya Kings (University of Texas Press, 2009), Living with the Dead: Mortuary Ritual in Mesoamerica (co-edited with Izumi Shimada; University of Arizona Press 2011), and Classic Maya Polities of the Southern Lowlands: Integration, Interaction, and Dissolution (co-edited with Damien Marken; University of Colorado Press, forthcoming). The first two are concerned with the ceremonies, attitudes, and beliefs of peoples in their interactions with the dead, combining the results of archaeological excavations and ideas presented in ancient written texts as well as examples gleaned from ethnography and ethnohistory. His latest book explores questions on the fundamentals of Maya city-states. For example, were formal boundaries between states actually recognized by the Maya, and by whom? What was the actual relationship between kings and the villages they claimed dominion over? These are hotly contested questions in Maya archaeology, and the book includes perspectives from scholars on all sides of the debate.
Dr. Fitzsimmons is currently working on a second manuscript for the University of Texas Press tentatively entitled The Archaeology of Death in Ancient Mesoamerica, which will be the first broad synthesis of funerary practices in Precolumbian Mesoamerica. From the Olmecs to the Aztecs, this book will explore the evolution of different mortuary behaviors and their changes over time.
Dr. Fitzsimmons has offered introductory as well as upper-level courses in anthropology and archaeology. The former include courses in introductory archaeology, sociocultural anthropology, and physical anthropology, whereas the upper-level courses cover topics like mortuary behavior, indigenous writing systems of the Americas, ancient Mesoamerican societies, archaeological method and theory, and the archaeology of religion. In the classroom, he enjoys bringing archaeology and the other subdisciplines of anthropology together; he likewise draws upon general comparative material from the humanities and social sciences. He believes that a multidisciplinary approach to the ancient past not only allows students to engage archaeology from familiar angles but also permits a richer interpretation of world prehistory and the people in it.
Courses offered in the past four years.
▲ indicates offered in the current term
▹ indicates offered in the upcoming term[s]
FYSE 1255 - Collapse of Complex Societies
Facing the Apocalypse: How Complex Societies Fade and Collapse
In this seminar we will examine how and why historically complex societies have failed. We will explore the roles of population pressure, environmental degradation, warfare, and other factors in the collapse of such ancient urban societies as the Classic Maya, Chaco, and the Roman Empire. Likewise, we will explore how societies seemingly well-adapted to their geographic environments, such as the Vikings in Greenland, ultimately succumbed to extinction. Reviewing academic and popular explanations for societal collapse worldwide, we will ultimately engage the modern era and investigate the fragility of contemporary societies.
SOAN 0107 - Introduction to Archaeology ▲
Introduction to Archaeology
Archaeology is the scientific analysis and interpretation of cultural remains. Archaeologists examine artifacts, architecture, and even human remains in order to answer questions about the growth and development of societies worldwide. In addressing these issues we not only illuminate the past but also explore patterns relevant to contemporary social concerns. From the tropical lowlands of Central America to the deserts of ancient Egypt, this course provides an introduction to world prehistory. We proceed from humanity's earliest beginnings to the development of complex societies worldwide and use case examples to explore the major topics, methods, and theories of contemporary archaeology. 2 hrs. lect./1 hr. lab. (Anthropology)
Fall 2011, Fall 2012, Fall 2013, Fall 2014
SOAN 0159 - Human Origins and Biodiversity
Human Origins, Culture, and Biodiversity
This course will provide an overview of the field of physical anthropology. The topics to be addressed include the mechanisms of genetics and evolution, human variability and adaptation, our primate relatives and fossil ancestors (hominins), as well as bioarchaeology. Through a combination of lectures and discussions, we will explore human origins and the overall development of the species through time. Likewise, we will look at how language, art, and religion emerge as well as the interplay between environment and biology in human evolution. The course finishes by examining contemporary issues in human biodiversity, from molecular genetics and biotechnology to problematic categories like race, gender, and sexuality. 2 hrs. lect./1 hr. lab. (Anthropology)
Spring 2012, Spring 2014
SOAN 0327 / HIST 0327 - Aztec Empire/Spanish Conquest
The Aztec Empire and the Spanish Conquest
This course centers around the rise and fall of the Aztecs, the first state-level society encountered by the Spanish in 1519. Although primarily known today for their military exploits for what today is Mexico, the Aztecs produced great artisans, artists, and philosophers whose contributions endure in contemporary Mexican culture. We will trace the origins and development of Aztec civilization to its encounter with the Spanish in 1519. The course also covers the Spanish background for the Conquest, from the martial and political expulsion of Moors and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 to the Spanish Inquisition. 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology)/
Spring 2012, Spring 2014
SOAN 0328 - The Ancient Maya
The Rise and Fall of the Ancient Maya
As perhaps the most famous of all of the cultures of Mesoamerica, the Maya are best known for soaring temples, portraits of kings, a complex hieroglyphic writing system, and a dramatic collapse when their ancient kingdoms were abandoned or destroyed. In this course, we will view their accomplishments through the archaeology of the Classic Period (250-850 AD) and examine how the Maya built cities within the tropical jungles of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, and Honduras. We will also explore the history of the Maya after the “fall,” from their revival in the post-Classic Period to the present day. Limited places available for students to satisfy the College writing requirement. 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology)
SOAN 0357 - Death and the Body ▲
Death and the Body
This course will provide an overview of how archaeologists and anthropologists encounter and interpret death in societies worldwide. We will look at death and the body from the perspective of burials and tombs, discussing ancient and modern conceptions of souls, afterlives, and identities. Drawing upon my own research in the tropical lowlands of Guatemala and Honduras, we will compare Maya attitudes towards death with those of other world societies, from the mummies of ancient Egypt to modern jazz funerals in New Orleans. We will explore different ideas about death, social boundaries, and even what it is to be human. 3 hrs. lect. (Anthropology)
Spring 2013, Fall 2014
SOAN 0379 / RELI 0379 - Indigenous Religions
Indigenous Religions of the Americas
This course focuses on the religious traditions of the Americas, from native North America to the Andes, with the focus being on the practices of ancient urban societies like the Mississippians of the American Southeast, the Maya of Mesoamerica, or the Inka of the Andes. In this course we will look at the types of religious ideas and practices common in the Americas prior to the Colonial Period, including concepts of ancestors, sacrifice, and cyclical time. We will also examine how those traditions have changed, particularly following the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century. 3 hrs. lect./disc. (Anthropology)
SOAN 0492 - Archaeology Method & Theory
Archaeological Method and Theory
Archaeology is more than just excavation. It is interpretation. As a discipline, archaeology relies upon different methods and theories in order to 'read' human prehistory from the remains of past societies. In this seminar we will survey archaeological methods and theories, with an emphasis on field techniques and the intellectual history of the discipline. We will explore the problems archaeologists face when confronted with incomplete data, the ways in which sites are researched and excavated, and the complex ethical issues that arise from simply asking the question, "who owns the past?" As a result, in this seminar we will look behind the intellectual curtain, where past societies are revealed, interpreted, and even contested. (Anthropology)
SOAN 0500 - Advanced Individual Study ▲ ▹
Prior to registering for SOAN 0500, a student must enlist the support of a faculty advisor from the Department of Sociology/Anthropology. (Open to Majors only) (Approval Required) (Sociology or Anthropology)
Fall 2011, Winter 2012, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Winter 2013, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015
SOAN 0700 - One-Semester Senior Project ▲ ▹
One-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a student will carry out an independent, one-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 25-40 pages, due the last day of classes. (Sociology or Anthropology)
Fall 2011, Spring 2012, Fall 2012, Winter 2013, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015
SOAN 0710 - Multi-Semester Senior Project ▲ ▹
Multi-Semester Senior Project
Under the guidance of a faculty member, a senior will carry out an independent multi-semester research project, often based on original data. The student must also participate in a senior seminar that begins the first week of fall semester and meets as necessary during the rest of the year. The final product must be presented in a written report of 60-100 pages, due either at the end of the Winter Term or the Friday after spring break. (Sociology or Anthropology)
Fall 2011, Winter 2012, Fall 2012, Winter 2013, Spring 2013, Fall 2013, Winter 2014, Spring 2014, Fall 2014, Spring 2015