Elizabeth Brumfiel, a widely recognized scholar in the field of feminist archaeology who studied Aztec culture, examining not only the functional and economic significance of ancient relics but what scholars learned about changing gender roles and relations in society, has died. She was 66.
Brumfiel, a past president of the American Anthropological Assn., died of cancer Jan. 1 at a hospice in Skokie, Ill., her family said.
In 2007, the Mexican village of Xaltocan presented her with the Eagle Warrior Prize — named after the highest warrior class in Aztec society — for her dedication to the Xaltocan community.
The next year, she was lead curator for "The Aztec World," an exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago that traced the history of the last of the great Mexican civilizations through nearly 300 artifacts on loan from Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology and Templo Mayor Museum and other institutions.
"We wanted to include objects that would be used by all the different kinds of people who contributed to the Aztec world: fanners, artisans, women, merchants and warriors," Brumfiel told Americas magazine before the exhibit opened in the fall of 2008.
Born Elizabeth Stern on March 10, 1945, she grew up in Chicago. After graduating from the University of Michigan, she earned a master's from UCLA before returning to Michigan for her doctorate. She began teaching anthropology at Albion College in Michigan in 1977 and moved to Northwestern University in 2003.
In 1987 Brumfiel made her first trip to Xaltocan, where she studied ancient ruins in what is now a suburban community near Mexico City. She often had to persuade residents to let her dig in their backyards.
"I told them, 'You have a very illustrious history. I can tell you about it, and you can tell your children and grandchildren,' " she said in a 2001 interview with the Associated Press.
"History is always focused on 'This king married this princess,' " she said. "But you don't get that cultural history. There's much more than political events."
Through Brumfiel's efforts, a museum honoring Aztec culture was established in the village of Xaltocan.
"Her work is really important for the community where she worked in Mexico," said Enrique Rodriguez-Alegria, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.
"I think she affected us — meaning archaeologists and anthropologists here — but she really had a strong impact in the community in Mexico, in Xaltocan," Rodriguez-Alegria said. "People are very interested in history and in archaeology now, in great part because of her."
Brumfiel is survived by her husband of 45 years, Vincent; her son, Geoffrey; and a sister.