Why the Daughter of an American Archaeologist Sent Her Father’s Collection to Peru

Unlike many of his peers, John Howland Rowe viewed the country as a source of partnership, not a laboratory to play in

An illustration of John Howland Rowe in front of one of his books
Ann P. Rowe transferred around 88 books and 4,556 archaeological specimens from her father’s collection to Peru. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Images via Harold C. Conklin, National Library of Peru and Wikimedia Commons under public domain

When archaeologist John Howland Rowe died in May 2004 at age 85, he didn’t leave behind instructions on what to do with his archives and other research materials. Rowe’s widow was similarly silent on the matter, so when she died last year, Ann P. Rowe, one of the archaeologist’s daughters from his first marriage, realized it was up to her to determine the fate of these items, which she wanted “to be curated and available to students and scholars for study.” Ultimately, Ann decided to send the materials to Peru, the country that had captivated Rowe throughout his six-decade career.

“The collections needed to have a final destination,” says John W. Rick, an emeritus anthropologist at Stanford University who helped Ann coordinate the transfer. “I was involved in contemplating what those destinations might be. A number of universities within the [United States] considered them. A number of museums considered them. But in the end, it made the best sense for them to return to Peru. In many senses, it was just like a traveler returning home.”

Rowe was an archaeologist and anthropologist known for his extensive research on Peru, specifically the Inca civilization. He earned a PhD from Harvard University in 1947; started teaching at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1948; and founded the Berkeley-based Institute of Andean Studies in 1960. He conducted excavations in Puno, Cuzco, Ayacucho and other parts of Peru and discovered a significant site linked to the pre-Inca Chanapata civilization.

One of the donated books from Rowe's collection
One of the donated texts from Rowe's collection National Library of Peru

Peru has recognized this American scholar who made such valuable contributions to the study of its past: The government made Rowe an Officer of the Order of the Sun of Peru in 1957 and gave him the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit for Distinguished Services in 1981.

The materials transferred to Peru from Rowe’s collection include around 88 books and 4,556 archaeological specimens, among them pottery fragments, animal bones and a ceramic vessel that will be studied and exhibited to the public. As Ann explains, these artifacts were used by Rowe, his associates and his students to construct a chronology of the Peruvian highlands and coast.

“At a time when getting dates in years was virtually impossible, [Rowe’s] work specified time periods there as narrowly as 25 to 50 years, with a relative chronology that remains the most widely used in Andean studies,” noted the University of California, Berkeley, in a 2004 statement.

Christine Hastorf, an archaeologist at Berkeley whose research focuses primarily on the Andean region of South America, says she teaches Rowe’s chronology to her students, showing them the pottery that Rowe and his colleagues “created that sequence on.”

Archaeological specimens from Rowe's collection
“The importance of these items lies in their role in establishing the chronology and stylistic developments of early cultures in Peru,” says Evelyn Centurión Cancino. Ministry of Culture of Peru

Rowe “did a lot of really important, early work, especially his work with documents. He really opened that up and wrote out things that were just sitting there hiding, and he brought them out,” says Hastorf. “That allowed people around the globe, but especially in South America, to really get to know” the region’s history, from pre-Inca civilizations to the postcolonial period.

Rowe spent most of his summers in Cuzco, where he split his time between the field and the archives. As former student Richard L. Burger wrote in a 2007 journal article, Rowe “viewed Peruvian archaeology as a joint venture” between local and foreign scholars. He surrounded himself with Peruvian friends, students and colleagues, all of whom held him in high esteem.

Burger added, “His attitude toward Peru could not have been further from that of many archaeologists in the 1960s and 1970s who viewed Peru as their laboratory to study cultural processes.”

Rowe’s books traveled to the National Library of Peru in San Borja in two shipments. The first installment—a set of 28 books—arrived in late 2022. The materials ranged in date from 1607 to 1949, per a statement. Of particular interest were three books printed in Lima at the beginning of the 17th century, says Jorge Huamán Machaca, a member of the National Library’s collection protection team. The texts included Quechua grammar and vocabulary manuals by Jesuit priest Diego González Holguín, as well as a second edition of a chronicle of the Inca Empire by Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.

To help sort through her father’s books and decide which volumes to donate, Ann turned to Charles Walker, a historian at the University of California, Davis, who is familiar with the National Library’s staff and holdings. He contacted the Consulate General of Peru in San Francisco, which arranged the initial shipment’s transfer to Peru in a diplomatic pouch, a sealed package intended for official use. The process took more than a year to complete.

“I started going through his books and found all of these lovely, lovely brochures, and very rare 19th-century dictionaries, and instruction manuals on how to learn Quechua,” Walker says. “Many of them [were] cheap paper editions, not collector’s items, but … books sold for $2 in the streets of Cuzco. I started separating books that were valuable: rare 17th-century books.”

In July 2023, Peru declared four of the books from this transfer cultural patrimony of the nation, meaning they are of vital importance to Peruvian identity and will be protected and preserved. All written by Rowe, the selected texts are Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest (1946), Sound Patterns in Three Inca Dialects (1950), Inca National Movement of the 18th Century (1955) and The Incas Under Spanish Colonial Institutions (1957).

Four of Rowe's books
Peru declared four of Rowe's books (pictured) cultural patrimony. National Library of Peru

“These four books are investigations that focus on the history of the Inca,” says Huamán Machaca. “The books hold additional value, as they were dedicated to intellectuals of that time, such as Paul Rivet and Raúl Porras Barrenechea. They’re also valuable because they’re first-edition books … and the combination of all of these criteria, along with the significance the author … holds for Peru, is what elevated the books to the category of cultural patrimony.”

In September 2023, a second shipment of around 60 books from Rowe’s private collection arrived in Peru. This time, Walker—concerned about potential delays—personally transported the books to the country.

Walker met Rowe in Cuzco in the 1980s. He remembers the archaeologist’s generosity regarding his book collection. Rowe would always bring books to donate to a university in Cuzco when he visited the city every summer, Walker recalls.

“I felt a responsibility,” Walker says. “I thought, ‘These books have to go to Peru.’ I’m so glad it happened. This is what we need to be doing. I was happy to contribute.”

Dedication to Paul Rivet
This donated copy of Rowe's Sound Patterns in Three Inca Dialects is dedicated to Paul Rivet, a French ethnologist who founded the Musée de l'Homme. National Library of Peru

When it came to repatriating the 4,556 archaeological materials collected by her father, Ann requested Rick’s assistance. Rick had previously contacted the San Francisco consulate “about his own affairs and knew the people there and how they worked,” Ann says. He also knows staff at the Lima-based National Museum of Archaeology, Anthropology and History of Peru.

With the assistance of four other individuals, Rick photographed all of the pottery sherds and artifacts over a two-week period. Then, he sent the materials to the consulate, which forwarded them on to the Ministry of Culture of Peru. As Ann points out, Rowe made sure to carefully record “the site provenance of the materials, which makes the collection valuable to preserve.”

Evelyn Centurión Cancino, director of the ministry’s Recovery Division, says, “The importance of these items lies in their role in establishing the chronology and stylistic developments of early cultures in Peru.” The repatriated collection arrived in Peru in March and will soon be transferred to the National Museum’s warehouse, where experts will conduct analyses of the artifacts. Some of the items will be exhibited in September at the ministry’s central headquarters in Lima.

Archaeological specimens from Rowe's collection
The archaeological specimens include pottery fragments, animal bones and a ceramic vessel. Ministry of Culture of Peru

Ann, who followed in Rowe’s footsteps by studying Andean archaeological textiles, says her father’s approach to constructing a chronology of Peruvian history was a potent method for gaining a highly accurate understanding of events in the region. Rowe demonstrated that “ceramics could be used not only to describe the order in which things happened but also the influences of one style on another so that the relationship of one place to another at the same time could be characterized,” she adds.

In addition to preserving and studying Rowe’s collection of books and archaeological artifacts, the Peruvian government plans to look into the artifacts’ background. The government will try to find out how the objects initially left the country decades ago, determining whether they were moved out of Peru as a whole or in parts. Centurión says Peru was not aware of the existence of Rowe’s archaeological collection prior to the donation.

Ann’s donation arrives amid a global push to return cultural artifacts to their countries of origin. Since the 1990s, museums and governments have repatriated millions of objects, some of which were acquired under dubious circumstances prior to the late 20th century.

John Rowe interview

In a statement announcing Peru’s acquisition of Rowe’s collection, as well as dozens of artifacts repatriated from Europe and the United States, Peruvian Minister of Culture Leslie Urteaga Peña said that the country has recovered more than 7,014 cultural assets since 2019.

She added, “We will keep moving forward to make sure we protect our precious heritage, because Peru’s cultural legacy constitutes a fundamental pillar for the formation of our identity as Peruvians.”

That Rowe’s work and artifacts are now included in that patrimony is a testament to the collaborative approach that defined his career.

“He made it clear to all of his students that working in Peru was a great privilege,” his former student Burger wrote, “as well as a serious responsibility.”

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