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COLLECTION Identifier: 2005.16.1

Alexander Marshack papers


The Alexander Marshack Papers include correspondence, notes and publications written by Alexander Marshack during his career of researching Paleolithic peoples.


  • 1957-2004

Conditions Governing Access


Conditions Governing Use



1 collection (4.6 linear feet)
The Marshack Collection consists of papers and photographs (primarily 35 mm slides). The slides are processed and stored separately as 2005.16.2.

Biographical Sketch

Alexander Marshack was born in the Bronx on April 4, 1918 and received a bachelor's degree in journalism from the City College of New York. In his 40s he became interested in early notational calendar systems after reading an article on the discovery of an ancient African bone fragment in Scientific American. He spent much of the 1960s studying incisions on Paleolithic plaques of bone, in pursuit of his theory that the notches represented early lunar calendar systems, demonstrating complex thought patterns in early humans. In 1963 he became a Research Associate at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. Eventually, Marshack developed a method he called 'internal analysis' by which a microscope could be used to determine the order and structure of markings on Paleolithic objects. Using his background in photography, he also used infrared and ultraviolet techniques to analyze the materials and construction of cave paintings in France.

Marshack published over 200 articles and numerous books during his career, most notably The Roots of Civilization: The Cognitive Beginnings of Man's First Art, Symbol, and Notation (1972), which had a lasting impact on both the archaeological profession and the public. His later work focused on the evolution of human thought and the neuropsychological content of early symbol systems. Although some critics disputed his structuralist theories and lack of formal training, his scientific approach to looking at artifacts and his portrayal of early humans as intellectually complex were notable contributions to our understanding of Paleolithic peoples. Marshack died on December 20, 2004, at the age of 86.

  1. "Alexander Marshack." Times Online 22 Jan 2005
  2. Bayot, Jennifer. "Alexander Marshack, 86 is Dead; Studied Stone Age Innovations." New York Times 28 Dec 2004.
  3. Van Gelder, Leslie, and KevinSharpe. "Alexander Marshack, 1918-2004." 27 April 2005.


This collection of papers includes correspondence, notes and publications written by Alexander Marshack during his career; broken down into seven series arranged by date or alphabetically by subject.
  1. Series I. Correspondence: Alexander Marshack's original correspondence to and fromfriends, colleagues and the general public; includes discussions of research questions, academiccontroversies, lectures, and routine business. There is also considerable "fan mail" regarding hisarticles and television appearances.
  2. Series II: Notebooks, including initialdrafts of book chapters.
  3. Series III: Research notes: a record of Marshack'sthoughts and ideas for articles and books he authored about a variety of topics, including earlycalendar systems, the Americas, Mesolithic art, language, symbols, and mythology.
  4. Series IV: Publications and drafts: Marshack's existing drafts and proofs detail earlierversions of articles that appeared in popular magazines (i.e., Science and National Geographic ) and at academic conferences. Marshack also madeseveral drafts of his 1972 book The Roots of Civilization.
  5. Series V: Oversized items: Transparent overlays of cave paintings and calendar systems usedfor Marshack's research on early notation systems. Other notes include Marshack's lectureaudiotapes and manuscripts and a copy of The Roots of Civilization.
  6. Series VI: Offprints with notes: A sampling includes Marshack's recorded notes withinoffprints on numerous topics related to his research, including astronomy, mythology,communication, Native American picture writing, Australian rock art, Olmec civilization, andanthropology.
  7. Series VII: Computer data disks: Marshack retained electronicdata of his letters and research notes stored on various computer disk formats.
  1. Note: Series V and Series VII are not included in the itemlisting of this inventory.

Physical Location

Peabody Museum Archives

Immediate Source of Acquisition


These papers are a gift of Elaine F. Marshack

November 2005

Related Peabody Museum Collections

  1. 2005.16.2 Alexander Marshack slide collection

General note

Collections records may contain language, reflecting past collecting practices and methods of analysis, that is no longer acceptable. The Peabody Museum is committed to addressing the problem of offensive and discriminatory language present in its database. Our museum staff are continually updating these records, adding to and improving content. We welcome your feedback and any questions or concerns you may want to share.

Processing Information

Processed by: Sarah Bertovich, Simmons College intern; edited by India Spartz, Senior Archivist

May 2006
Link to catalog
Alexander Marshack papers, 1957-2004: A Finding Aid.
Peabody Museum Archives

Repository Details

Part of the Peabody Museum Archives Repository

The Peabody Museum Archives contains primary source materials that reflect the Museum’s archaeological and ethnographic research and fieldwork since its founding in 1866. Archival collections contain photographs, documents, papers, and records of enduring value that were created or collected by the Museum, its individual affiliates, or other related entities. The collections also document the history or provenience, as well as the creation of many of the Museum’s artifact collections. To learn more about research visits at the Peabody Museum, please see

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