The River Basin Surveys Collections: A Legacy for American Archeology

By Thiessen, Thomas D.; Roberts, Karin M. | Plains Anthropologist, May 2009 | Go to article overview

The River Basin Surveys Collections: A Legacy for American Archeology


Thiessen, Thomas D., Roberts, Karin M., Plains Anthropologist


The Smithsonian Institution's River Basin Surveys (RBS), hailed as "an event of transcendent importance" to American archeology, was a major part of the Interagency Archeological Salvage Program from its inception in 1945 to the end of the RBS in 1969. The RBS was a highly organized program in terms of both its field and laboratory operations, and it left an invaluable legacy of systematically-generated collections and records resulting from the extensive research of its staff. These materials continue to have research value more than 35 years after the program ended. Following the end of the RBS, some of its collections and records became dispersed and neglected. With a focus on the RBS program within the Missouri River basin, this paper discusses locations where RBS collections and records presently reside, points out advantages and problems with their management since the RBS program was terminated, and reviews National Park Service efforts to complete analysis and reporting of collections that were unanalyzed when the RBS was ended.

Keywords: Smithsonian Institution, River Basin Surveys, National Park Service, museum collections, archives.

The Smithsonian Institution's (SI) River Ba- sin Surveys (RBS) was a major component of the Interagency Archeological Salvage Program, the largest and longest-lived archeological salvage effort ever undertaken in the United States (Jennings 1985; Snyder et al. 2000; Thiessen 1 994a, 1 999). For nearly 30 years, the Interagency Archeological Salvage Program (IASP) involved the cooperation of several governmental agencies and many state and local colleges, universities, museums, and historical societies. For nearly two dozen of those years, the SI participated in the IASP through the RBS, the primary field research arm of the total salvage effort (Figure 1). In his review of the RBS more than 1 5 years after it ended, Jennings (1985:281) characterized the RBS as "an event of transcendent importance to American ar- chaeologists." During its lifespan RBS archeologists conducted surveys and excavations in at least 273 reservoir areas, recorded more than 5,000 archeological sites, and conducted excavations at more than 576 of them (as of 1965; Stephenson 1967:4).

The RBS made many contributions to American archeology over the lifespan of the program, which have been often acknowledged (cf. Fowler 1986:148; Glenn 1994; Grosser 1981; Hill et al. 1996; Jennings 1985, 1986:57; Krause 1998; Mitchell 2006; Nowak 1994; O'Brien 1992; Petsche 1968; Scott 1998; Toom 1996). Its researchers illuminated the culture history of many regions of the United States, especially in the Missouri River basin where the program operated the longest. They advanced archeological methods through the use of aerial reconnaissance and photography and powered earth-moving equipment. Some RBS investigations were models of interdisciplinary research involving the fields of geology, zoology, and botany in conjunction with archeology. RBS projects gave practical field and laboratory training and research experience to a future generation of professional archeologists. They also helped promote the establishment of graduate education programs in anthropology and archeology at institutions of higher learning. The RBS and the IASP set the stage for the resource preservation and conservation ethic that later blossomed into the legislative mandates of cultural resource management. RBS researchers pioneered, in cooperation with National Park Service historians, the archeological study of historical sites in the Plains region. Among the many important legacies of the RBS was a highly organized system of collections and records that documented virtually all aspects of the RBS operation and still constitutes an invaluable resource for research endeavors.

The RBS established a field research office in Lincoln, Nebraska, which operated from 1946 to mid1969 (Glenn 1994; Jennings 1985; Thiessen 1999). From that office, called the Missouri Basin Project (MBP), dozens of field crews were sent to planned reservoir areas throughout the vast Missouri River basin over a span of 23 years.

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