Aveni Awarded H.B. Nicholson Medal

Chris Nickels

Russell B. Colgate Professor of Astronomy and Anthropology and Native American Studies Anthony Aveni received the H.B. Nicholson Award for Excellence in Mesoamerican Studies on October 2. Aveni is one of Colgate’s most distinguished instructors, and the award is one of many honors that he has received in his long, accomplished career. The H.B. Nicholson Award recognizes Aveni’s work on Mesoamerican astronomy and cosmology, which has spanned the last 35 years. The award was presented to him during a conference at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University – where he was the keynote speaker. Aveni was prepared to give a lecture on the sky in Mayan literature and was very excited when he was notified about the award. “I think recognition by your peers is always very satisfying,” Aveni said. “I think it’s part of why we do our work. We do our work perhaps to convince our peers about the validity of ideas. When either a peer journal or peer group approves what you do – or finds something of value in it for their students or for their research – it’s a satisfying feeling. You certainly don’t do these kinds of things for the money -that’s for sure!” Professor of Latin American Studies at Harvard David Carrasco gave the introductory speech and presented Aveni with the award. “It is our highest pleasure to award the H.B. Nicholson Medal for Excellence in Mesoamerican Studies to Anthony F. Aveni because his teachings, writings and public lectures personify the meaning of the word excellence,” Carrasco said. Receiving the medal was a great honor for Aveni. “I think in academics we work with ideas, and when our ideas are – god knows our ideas very often are rebuffed or criticized or rebuked,” Aveni said. “But when our ideas are accepted and [other scholars] give you a prize for it or a reward for it, it’s a great feeling.” This award is only one of many in a long list of honors that have been accredited to Aveni. In 1991, he was in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of 10 best university professors and was voted National Professor of the Year in 1982. That award is the highest national award for teaching and is considered by Aveni as one of the highlights of his career. Aveni has lectured for a number of universities and has been interviewed by Newsweek, The New York Times and CNN – just to name a few. He has written over two dozen books on astronomy-related subjects. His latest book, entitled Madrid Codex, which came out this fall, was a collaborative effort by him and several of his colleagues. Aveni has plans to write three children’s books in the near future and is currently working on a book on the history of science. Shortly after receiving his PhD at the University of Arizona, Aveni began teaching here at Colgate in 1963. When he came to Colgate, there was not much of an Astronomy program. “There were only a couple courses,” Aveni said. “I started the program, I got the telescope and I established a program in Astrogeophysics and an Astronomy/Physics major, which still exist.” Aveni’s interest in Mesoamerican Archeoastronomy was not really planned. It started when he took a group of students to Mexico to study the orientation of pyramids. “I got interested in it really on a whim,” Aveni said. “I have to think maybe if the climate wasn’t so bad here, maybe I wouldn’t have gone. It was a thing to do in January.” Even though his work in Mesoamerican Astronomy has seemingly random beginnings, it has turned out to be a great success. Aveni is said to be the founder of the field – a title which he accepts with great humility. “I think if [I am called] father instead of grandfather at my age, that’s okay,” Aveni said. “It’s an honor to be regarded as having contributed to founding a discipline.” Through Aveni, Colgate started the first courses on Archeoastronomy and developed the first textbook in the field. Aveni maintains that Colgate is what has allowed him to succeed. “What I like about my work is that I’m very lucky because I can combine what I teach with what I write about,” he said. “It’s so great to be able to do that – but I wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for the fact I was at Colgate. [The University] gave me the opportunity to do it.”