SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va.—Bruce Dahlin and his team of professional and student archaeologists weren’t looking for bones and pottery chips in a Mayan dig in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula a dozen years ago.
They were following Dahlin’s hunch that there were traces of phosphates in the soil. He was trying to prove that the Mayas had a market, not an agrarian economy.
Dahlin, who died at home on Turner Road from cancer Thursday, one day before his 70th birthday, was being mourned by professional colleagues and his host of friends over the weekend.
“When Bruce died, he was wearing his MoveOn.org T-shirt,” said longtime friend Dorothy McGhee of Washington, D.C. “Not only was he a prolific academic, he was really a man committed to and sensitive to the cause of social justice.”
“He was a good friend, a constant friend,” said Hali Taylor of Shepherdstown. “We shared a lot of good meals and our love of Mexico. That was a big thing between us. Bruce was always ready for a good argument or a good laugh. He cared a lot about the state of the earth and humankind.”
Dahlin’s life took many turns after he graduated with a degree in philosophy from Roosevelt University in Illinois. He served a hitch in the Navy, during which he became a master deep-sea diver. His duties included helping to raise ships, rescue astronauts and lay underwater cables.
One job he used to reminisce about was in the mid-1960s when he was part of a dive team that had to find a live nuclear bomb off the coast of Spain. Two U.S. Air Force planes had collided. One was carrying four nuclear bombs, two of which landed on land, one in shallow water and one in deep water.
During the undersea search, Dahlin found part of a Spanish scabbard, which proved to be from the 9th century.
It was that artifact that turned Dahlin’s attention to archeology and what would become his lifetime passion, said Tony Ranere, 69, fellow archaeologist and best friend of 40 years.
Dahlin earned a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Ph.D. from Temple University.
He began his archaeological career as a graduate student on projects in Pakistan, Panama and Belize before he launched his own research effort in El Mirador, an early Mayan city dating to 600 B.C. in Guatemala. He closed the project in 1982, but not before he proved that the city’s residents were self-sustaining through their agriculture and central water systems, Ranere said.
He often included soils scientists on his project teams.
“Bruce was a master at securing grants over the years,” Ranere said. “He got money from the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, colleges and universities, even NASA.”
A highlight of Dahlin’s career began in 1994 when he set up shop in Chunchucmil in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula where he set out to prove that the ancient Mayas turned to a market economy after extensive droughts ruined their agriculture.
Dahlin, in a December 2007 story in the Shepherdstown Chronicle, said food leaves phosphates in the soil, even centuries later, and that provides archaeologists “with a map of sorts to learn how ancient civilizations like the Mayas survived.”
Finding phosphates in the Chunchucmil digs proved Dahlin’s theory.
“Our research created a new tool that archaeologists can now use for reconstructing and analyzing soil chemistry,” he said in the Chronicle story.
The New York Times wrote about Dahlin’s findings in the Yucatan.
Aline Magoni was a second-year grad student when Dahlin recruited her to work on the Chunchucmil project.