From Long Island to the Great Plains

By Smith, Carlyle S. | Plains Anthropologist, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

From Long Island to the Great Plains


Smith, Carlyle S., Plains Anthropologist


I think I should give you some background as to how I got into archaeology. Sometime back, Waldo Wedel published a paper on the making of a Plains archaeologist (Wedel 1977). My interest in archaeology was not initially in the Great Plains. I am a native Long Islander, a suburban parasite, neither urban nor rural, and I became interested in archaeology as an antiquarian in the nineteenth century sense of the term.

I began collecting old guns and coins at the age of eight (still do), read extensively in history, loved languages, and geography. I used to devour the National Geographic. I always headed for the travel and history sections of the local library, which was good. My interest in mathematics was less than zero, if that is possible, and my aptitude the same. In fact, when I was in school, I never could understand how anybody could get interested in it. I took everything that was required through intermediate algebra, even though I had to take that twice. But in the meantime I breezed through four years of Latin, three of French, and two years of German before I even got to college. I have always loved languages. At Columbia I continued with French and German and picked up Spanish and some Norwegian along the way on Thor Heyerdahl's Easter Island expedition much later.

I was initially interested in the local archaeology on Long Island. This is a land mass 119 miles long with small shell heaps which produce a wide variety of pottery, stone, and bone. Most of the stone artifacts are of quartz. I took some of these into the American Museum of Natural History and Bella Weitzner, author of The Hidatsa Earthlodge (Wilson 1934), incidentally, directed me to NeIs C. Nelson, who hemmed and hawed a great deal and mumbled a great deal in Danish while looking at my things and concluded that I had found a Woodland site on Long Island. I already knew this. But, the thing that disturbed me the most was that in all the big institutions on the east coast there was not a single solitary archaeologist devoting his professional career to the local scene. It was in the hands of amateurs only.

In the process I met such people as Clark Wissler and I enjoyed the museum atmosphere and I sought the advice of various people. One Columbia student in my hometown made an arrangement for me to meet an archaeologist. The appointment was with Professor A. V. W. Jackson, an expert on the Iranian plateau, who dressed in the nineteenth century style: a black suit with a white edge on his vest. He informed me that, if I were going to be an archaeologist, I should have an independent income. I didn't agree with him then but I do now!

I had all the qualifications to enter an Ivy League college, because that is the only kind of training that high schools gave you in the east then. If you took the college entrance track you were qualified for Yale, Harvard, Columbia, or Princeton. So in 19341 went to Columbia College, Columbia University. I chose Columbia College, an Ivy League college for men, because my grades, courses, and "profile" were acceptable there. Furthermore, I could live at home and commute via the Long Island Railroad and IRT subway in onehour travel time.

The first two years were taken up in required courses, and I took more languages, history, classical archaeology, and a great deal of geology. The geology students in Columbia in my classes boiled down to about ten who had a strong interest in the subject. By the time I graduated, we were informed that we now knew just enough geology to be dangerous. I caution people who do archaeology to call on the professional services of the specialists and not to rely on what they may have learned in a few undergraduate courses.

The big revelation came when I took some courses in anthropology and decided that that was what I wanted to do. The first course I took was under Gene Weltfish, who is known to many as the author of The Lost Universe, a study of Pawnee culture (Weltfish 1965). …

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