The Missouri River Basin Surveys: Archeology without the Middle "A"

By Wood, W. Raymond | Plains Anthropologist, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Missouri River Basin Surveys: Archeology without the Middle "A"


Wood, W. Raymond, Plains Anthropologist


For an aspiring anthropologist, the year 1949 was an exciting time to arrive at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The headquarters for the Smithsonian Institution's Missouri River Basin Surveys (MRBS), of the Inter-Agency Archeological Salvage Program, earlier had been established in the Department of Anthropology in the basement of Bumett Hall at the invitation of John L. Champe. It was small space indeed for a group responsible for salvaging prehistory from the postwar flood control that was to affect streams across the entire Missouri River basin. Paul L. Cooper, its director, had his office there in a suite, which included that of John Champe, Chair of Anthropology and director of the university's Laboratory of Anthropology.

Anthropology's end of the Burnett Hall basement included two classrooms and a large open room containing desks occupied by John E. Mills (a historical archaeologist, ribbed as being a "tin can archaeologist"), Franklin Fenenga, Robert B. Gumming, and others, both transient and whom you've forgotten. A very large adjoining open space was used for laboratory tables both by MRBS and Laboratory of Anthropology projects. The tables were cleared off and the room filled with chairs every fall when the Plains Conference (then called the Plains Archaeological [or Archeological] Conference) convened in Lincoln. At one side of the great room was a table occupied by the Coffee Klatch that met during twice-daily breaks. It was a varying mixture of university and Smithsonian personnel.

Archaeologists serving with the MRBS, and those archaeologists working at cooperating institutions that submitted manuscripts to the National Park Service, were required to use the spelling of archaeology without the middle "a." This ruling by the United States Government Printing Office (GPO), beginning about 1890 or 1891, had been in force since the early years of the Bureau of American Ethnology, because the "ae" in the original spelling was commonly printed as a ligatured symbol (i.e., ae), and this modification was an economy move and a convenience to the printers (Rowe 1975). The GPO spelling became widespread, for federal involvement in reservoir construction and salvage was intense not only in the Great Plains but in Texas and the Columbia Basin. A number of university presses and boards of editors also came to use the GPO spelling. Use of this "government spelling" was to persist for many years among those indoctrinated with its use, and pockets of it endure to the present time-as in the Archeology Office at the Kansas State Historical Society and even the Society of Professional Archeologists (SOPA).

Having been interested in physical anthropology since the fourth grade when I read about Pithecanthropus erectus and its discovery, there was no doubt that I would major in anthropology from the day I enrolled at the university. That was predetermined. My older brother had been a premedical student at the University of Nebraska before he enlisted on December 8, 1941, to become an Army Air Corps casualty during World War II. During high school I'd read and re-read his college notes, especially those from his anthropology courses from John Champe. Having already purchased and devoured E. A. Hooton's Up From the Ape and Roy Chapman Andrews' Meet Your Ancestors, I entered eagerly into college life. I took Anthropology 1 as a freshman-a course usually reserved for sophomores and above-and volunteered for laboratory projects. My first task was cataloguing artifacts from the Leary site, an Oneota village that had recently been tested. (It had been dug extensively in 1935.)

The Anthropology Department then consisted of two archaeologists: John Champe and E. Mott Davis, who was then conducting excavations for the University of Nebraska State Museum at the Lime Creek and Red Smoke sites in Medicine Creek Reservoir, Frontier County, Nebraska. My first fieldwork experience was a weekend dig near the base of the deep bulldozer cut at the Lime Creek site. …

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