Obituary for R.E. (Erv) Taylor, 1938-2019

by Robert Sternberg, General Secretary Emeritus

Rob Tykot and Erv Taylor, after the International Symposium on Archaeometry in Los Angeles, May 2014

We sadly note the passing on May 9, 2019, of R. E. “Erv” Taylor, co-founder of the Society of Archaeological Sciences, the first General Secretary of our organization, and a major figure in the history of radiocarbon dating and archaeometry.

Erv was born January 15, 1938 in Los Angeles, California. He received his bachelor’s degree from Pacific Union College in 1960, and an M.A. from UCLA in 1965. He received his Ph.D. in anthropology at UCLA in 1970 with an emphasis on archaeology and archaeological sciences/archaeometry. His doctoral research, under the direction of C. W. Meighan, was undertaken in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Willard F. Libby. 

From 1969 to 2005, Erv rose to the rank of professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Riverside, serving as chairperson of that department from 1993 to 2000. He was director of the radiocarbon laboratory at UCR from 1973 to 2003. After 2003, he was a visiting professor at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, and, after2004, a visiting scientist at the Keck Accelerator Mass Spectrometer Laboratory, University of California, Irvine.

Taylor authored over 100 journal articles in a wide range of scholarly journals including ScienceNatureAmerican AntiquityAntiquityHistorical ArchaeologyWorld Archaeology, and RadiocarbonHis research focused on  the application of dating and analytical techniques to archaeology, with particular emphasis on radiocarbon. 

In the early part of his career, Erv published a series of papers focused on the evaluation of C14 data from various sites in West Mexico. He published some of the first papers concerned with defining marine reservoir effects in the C14 dating of shell from the Pacific coasts of North, Central, and South America, and the first large suite of C14 dates on organics extracted from ceramics.

In the 1980s-early 1990s, Erv was involved in pioneering applications of the use of accelerator mass spectrometry technology to C14 dating of archaeological materials, in association with the newly established AMS laboratory at the University of Arizona. Later, he was instrumental in developing support for establishing the Center for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry for the University of California at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. 

Taylor initiated studies with a number of collaborators resulting in major downward revisions in the Pleistocene ages assigned to a series of California Paleoindian skeletons. The Riverside laboratory was  responsible for C14 dates on the Calaveras Skull, the “Piltdown” of the New World. His laboratory obtained the first C14 age determinations on the Kennewick skeleton, was involved in continuing studies focused on the accuracy of C14 dates from the site of Monte Verde in Chile, and possible regional offsets in C14 calibration data.

In the 1970s, Taylor was also involved in early studies in obsidian sourcing and hydration dating. He edited the first volume addressing archaeological and geochemical issues involving obsidian.

Erv was the author/editor of several significant books: Chronologies in New World Archaeology; Radiocarbon Dating: An Archaeological Perspective; Radiocarbon After Four Decades: An Interdisciplinary Perspective; and Chronometric Dating in Archaeology. He also wrote on the history of the development of C14 dating, with particular attention to its early applications in archaeology.

Taylor’s career accomplishments were recognized with the awarding of the 2004 Fryxell Award for Interdisciplinary Research from the Society for American Archaeology. He was a fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Anthropological Association. 

Erv was a co-founder of the Society for Archaeological Sciences, as well as its first president (1980–1981) and then its first general secretary for 20 years (1982–2002). More recently, Erv co-organized – along with his SAS General Secretary successors, myself and Kyle Freund -- two sessions at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Washington, D.C., in 2018 -- “Advances and Prospects in the Archaeological Sciences on the 40th Anniversary of the Founding of the Society for Archaeological Sciences, I and II.” SAS honored Erv in 2002 by re-naming student poster awards presented at SAA conferences and the International Symposia of Archaometry as the R.E. Taylor Student Poster Awards.

I was fortunate to first get to know Erv when I worked as a grad student in the lab of Paul Damon at the University of Arizona in the 1970s. Erv commissioned me to generate a couple of graphs for his Radiocarbon Dating book. He later recruited me as an SAS officer, and eventually convinced me to replace him as SAS General Secretary. He was always of good cheer, and full of helpful suggestions and broad thinking about our discipline, profession, and Society.

We extend our sincere condolences to Erv’s family, friends, former students, and colleagues.

This piece draws upon the following:

1. Jim Walters; Remembering Erv Taylor - homily delivered at Erv Taylor’s funeral, 21 May 2019;; accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

2. Rob Sternberg; SAS History 40 years; SAS Bulletin 42(1), 6-9, 20, Spring 2019

3. Rob Sternberg; Taylor, R. E. (Erv); Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (Claire Smith, ed.); 2014