Joanne Baron

Joanne Baron

Joanne Baron (ΦΒΚ, University of Pennsylvania) is an archaeologist and epigrapher of the Ancient Maya. She currently serves as a postdoctoral fellow in Pre-Columbian art and archaeology at the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Her research focuses on Maya religion and economics. She is the author of the book "Patron Gods and Patron Lords."


As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

I think I went through a lot of different phases. I remember wanting to be an oceanographer, and then an architect. When I was in high school, I got really into history and languages so I thought I might like to be an archaeologist or an anthropologist. The University of Pennsylvania was my top choice for college because it has such strong programs in those fields and the fabulous Penn Museum.

What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?

I was already interested in anthropology and archaeology when I started, but I got hooked on studying the ancient Maya after a course by Dr. Charles Golden on the more recent history of the Maya people. Dr. Golden was a Penn graduate student at the time and is now a professor at Brandeis. It was a very small class, so it was a great opportunity to have a an in-depth seminar experience. Once I knew I wanted to study the Maya, I took Dr. Robert Sharer’s class on Maya archaeology, and he eventually became my undergraduate thesis advisor and later my dissertation advisor. Dr. Sharer encouraged me to get in touch with Dr. Simon Martin, who is an Associate Curator and Keeper at the Penn Museum. He and I did a series of independent studies in which he taught me to read ancient Maya glyphs. I continued to work with Dr. Martin as a graduate student as well.

You currently serve as a Postdoctoral Fellow at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. What types of projects do you work on in this position?

I work in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives at Dumbarton Oaks. I am working on one particular collection that was donated by a photographer named Justin Kerr. Over the course of his career, Justin Kerr photographed thousands of Maya artifacts in museums and private collections all over the world. He recently donated his entire collection—over 60,000 images—to Dumbarton Oaks. He was especially interested in painted pottery from the Maya Late Classic Period (around 600-900 AD). These ceramic vessels were decorated with elaborate mythological scenes and many also have hieroglyphic texts.

My work with this collection has several parts. First, I am working to create a controlled vocabulary with which to describe these images. This can be challenging because of disagreements in the scholarly literature, and because of the tendency to use European concepts to describe Maya art, rather than indigenous contepts. At the moment, I have a list of 730 terms, in English and Spanish and, when known, in Classic Mayan. This dovetails with my other major responsibility: to read and translate all of the hieroglyphic texts that we see on the pottery. Often, these texts serve as captions to the painted images, which allows me to read the ancient Maya names for things. When the project is complete, each vessel photographed by Justin Kerr will be made available online in high resolution, described using the controlled vocabulary, and translated.

What role has your liberal arts education played in the development of your career? Why do you think a well-rounded arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?

I have thought a lot about this, since I not only have a strong liberal arts education myself, but have also taught in the liberal arts for many years. I was lucky to attend excellent public schools all the way through grade 12, which allowed me to develop my interests and prepared me to attend college. My early exposure to foreign languages, especially Latin, is what drove my interest in the ancient world (thanks Mrs. Chaffee of Essex High School).

As a nation, we are grappling with critical questions about education: what should be taught? How much should it cost? Is it supposed to be about job preparation or something more? In my opinion, education should be a pathway to upward financial mobility, and that means that it needs to involve practical career training. But it also needs to be about preparing future generations to maintain a self-governing democracy. Voters cannot make informed decisions about environmental, budgetary, or immigration policy if they don’t have at least some background in science, economics, history, or sociology. I often am left wondering if any of the recent tech pioneers have any understanding of the impacts of their innovations on society; when dropping out of college is somehow a rite of passage for aspiring entrepreneurs, you get disasters like Theranos. I want to emphasize that since many Americans do not attend college, it is important that a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education be available in K-12 classrooms as well, just as it was for me.

Phi Beta Kappas motto is the love of learning is the guide of life,and we are dedicated to life-long learning. What do you want to learn next?

To take this postdoctoral fellowship, my family and I moved to Washington D.C. We are loving all of the museums and parks available for free in the nation’s capital! D.C. is also home to a large population of indigenous Maya people who have come here as immigrants. One of my goals in the next year is learn about the artistic and cultural output of Maya folks in the D.C. area. I have already had the opportunity to see some great examples around town, but I want to get more involved and build connections between my work on ancient Maya art and Maya artistic expression today.

What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you? 

“Just say yes.” One summer when I was an undergraduate on a archaeological project in Belize, a graduate student on the project gave me this advice. The idea is that if an opportunity arises that might be out of your comfort zone—whether a career opportunity or a social opportunity—and it’s not actually physically dangerous, then you should go for it. Was it a little weird and awkward to go to a singles mixer at a bar with my friend (I’m an introvert)? Yes! But that’s where I met my husband. Taking this position at Dumbarton Oaks was also a risk—I left a permanent position for one that is temporary. But I am so much happier now, and it’s made my family life much happier too. And I’m pretty sure that it will lead to many more interesting opportunities down the road.

What book(s) are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend? 

My reading right now is pretty academic—I’m on the Book Prize Committee for the Society for Economic Anthropology, so I have to read lots of books under consideration. So far, I can recommend A Feast of Flowers by Christopher Krupa. I’m currently listening to the Normal Gossip podcast, which I strongly recommend. My husband and I are on season 2 of The Bear, which is about a restaurant in Chicago. He really had to push me to get through season 1, since I found all of the shouting quite stressful, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

Published on August 8, 2023.