Anthropology professor emeritus leaves a legacy in pictures and documents

Sept. 6, 2011

Thomas Layton One of Thomas Layton’s latest finds for the Sourisseau Academy of State and Local History–a collection of 40,000 photo negatives detailing the city of San José from the 1940s through the 1960s—is especially notable because the photos could never be taken in modern San José.

“The photographer shot everything from the ground—all the new developments going in—but he also shot them from the air in his own airplane,” Layton says. “It’s wonderful. These are low, oblique-angle aerial photos; shots that you could never get today. You can almost see people recoiling in horror as he flies down to take the picture.”

Layton, a professor emeritus of Anthropology, taught at San José State from 1978 until retiring in 2003. That same year, he was honored as SJSU’s President’s Scholar for his years of archaeological field research. In retirement, Layton has become a driving force and major donor to the university’s Sourisseau Academy. The decision to give back to SJSU through the academy grew from years of archaeological research.

While he’s worked on a diverse number of projects, Layton has most frequently written about a shipwreck he discovered off the Coast of Mendocino in 1850. The brig, named Frolic, was carrying ceramics from China to San Francisco.

“I discovered it because I was digging a Native American site about 15 miles inland. I started finding Chinese ceramics that had been ground into beads and green bottle glass that had been flaked into arrowheads,” Layton says. “I showed it to the local folks and they said ‘oh, that looks like stuff from the pottery beach over in Casper.’ It turned out there was indeed a wreck out there.’”

Layton has published two books about the shipwreck with another on the way. According to Layton, the books would have been impossible to write without a wealth of archives from across the country including, for example, a collection of documents from the company that owned the ship and an archive of English-language newspapers from China.

Given how important historical archives have been in Layton’s research, it should be no surprise then that, in his retirement, Layton has worked to develop and expand the archives of San José State’s Sourisseau Academy, which is part of the History department and housed in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.

“So much of my writing is based on material in archives, and I saw that many early Santa Clara images and documents were being sold to private collectors where they would not be available for future researchers and use in exhibits,” Layton said. “When I started buying images and documents of San José to build the archive, I went to all of the postcard and ephemera shows and became acquainted with the vendors. I started going on eBay and buying up images. I approached retired local photographers and put together with donors to buy their collections.”

Layton continues to work with the academy developing its archive, which is now the second largest archive of documents and photos related to the Santa Clara Valley (the largest is History San José) and arguably the most focused—given that its pieces come from targeted purchases rather than general donations.

Underpinning Layton’s desire to give is a desire to make a difference at the local level, and giving to the academy is a way he can see his efforts having an effect. His charitable work is also informed by a sense of gratitude.

“I got a job here in 1978 and I’ve discovered that job has a wonderful retirement. It’s given me wonderful security in my retirement years,” Layton said. ”I’m really thankful for having had that career, and I want to give back.”

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