Dr. Helen Perlstein Pollard has wanted to be an archaeologist as long as she can remember. Despite her occasional thoughts of being a tightrope walker or ballerina, her focus never changed. When it came time to choose a college she decided to attend Barnard College. During the summer after her first year in college, she used her savings to pay for an archaeological field school in the Southwest through UCLA. The following summer she taught at the field school, this time in Northern California, and also worked for the California Highway Department in a salvage project studying shell midden sites near San Francisco. Her last summer in college was spent at Columbia taking classes in Spanish, and re-analyzing the collection of William Duncan Strong from his excavations in the Nazca region on the coast of Peru. By 1967 she finished her degree at Barnard and had considerable experience in the field and the laboratory, and had taken several postgraduate courses focusing her attention on prehistoric civilizations of Latin America.
Dr. Pollard remained at Columbia for her graduate work, where she gained experience in the Andes and later in Mesoamerica. Her particular focus in western Mexico was something that occurred by chance during the spring of 1969. Taking a graduate seminar entitled Ethnography and Archaeology, she dutifully immersed herself in a region that was well known for its ethnography: the Tarascan region of west-central Mexico. The semester was ending when she realized that the wealth of ethnographic data was not accompanied by an equally abundant archaeological information. Her doctoral field work in 1970 focused on making a full-coverage survey in Tzintzuntzan. Relying on the advice of Pedro Armillas and the presence of Gordon Ekholm and Pedro Carrasco on her committee, she carried out her first fieldwork in Michoacán.
Enough questions remained to fuel over forty years of research. One of her greatest joys has been encouraging a new generation of both Mexican and American students to see the possibilities and rewards of research in this otherwise neglected region.
Dr. Pollard has carried out archaeological and ethnohistoric research in western Mexico since 1970 and been a faculty member in the Michigan State University Anthropology Department since the fall of 1986. Her research and teaching deals with two broad issues: human ecology and the emergence and evolution of social, political and economic inequality. Her studies of prehistoric states focus on the emergence and evolution of social stratification, political centralization, and the political economies of archaic states and empires. Specifically, her research deals with central and west Mexico, especially Michoacán and the Purépecha\Tarascans, and the development of social theory in archaeology to understand the evolution of inequality by class, ethnicity, and gender. In addition to her work in western Mexico, Dr. Pollard has carried out archaeological research in the Andes and the U.S.
In retirement, Dr. Pollard is concentrating her efforts on completing two monographs based on field and lab research from 1990-2009 including one on the Prehispanic ceramics of the Tarascan Region, and one based on the archaeological site surveys and excavations in the southwestern portion of the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin. The second direction of the manuscripts she plans to produce will be based on archaeological and ethnohistoric research done over the last 20 years. This book will be designed to be a synthesis of our understanding of how and why this civilization emerged in a form accessible to all interested educated readers, not just archaeologists.
[This article is featured in the Winter 2014 Department of Anthropology Newsletter]01.27.14