The Plymouth Colony Archive Project

Remembering Jim

Pilgrim scholar Deetz
dies after his holiday

By Coy Barefoot

Published in Charlottesville Weekly
December 5, 2000, p. 11.
James F. Deetz

Internationally renowned archaeologist and University of Virginia professor James Deetz has died after a short illness. He was 70 years old and had just celebrated the publication of his latest book, which debunked many myths about the English settlers of Massachusetts in 1620.

Recognized as one of the founders of modern historical archaeology in America, Deetz was a path-breaking theorist whose work has profoundly affected the fields of anthropology, history, and folklore.

Coincidentally, his death came just two days after Thanksgiving, the holiday whose heralded traditions he so famously demystified. In The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony, published last month, Deetz and wife Patricia Scott Deetz write that instead of turkey, pilgrim platters were more likely filled with eels, lobster, duck, geese, and venison.

Hailed by Library Journal as a "fascinating narrative" and "highly recommended" for inclusion in all public and academic libraries, at press time last week, the book was #7 in sales on Amazon's list of education titles.

"Jim and I were most excited about the book's success," says Patricia Scott Deetz. "We wanted to write something that would make the reality of life at Plymouth accessible to the general public."

She says she plans to complete a children's book about the Plymouth Colony, an endeavor the couple recently started together. "I want to finish that book," she says, "for Jim."

A native of Cumberland, Maryland, James Deetz attended Harvard University -- a feat which he humbly described as "an early case of affirmative action for hillbillies" -- and went on to earn his Ph.D. there in 1960. For decades, he led research at the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, revolutionizing our understanding of the way people lived in colonial America.

Deetz's books include the best-selling Invitation to Archaeology (1967) and the celebrated classic, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life (1977). During his long academic career, he taught at many universities, including Harvard, UC Santa Barbara, Brown, and Berkeley, before coming to the University of Virginia in 1993.

Fraser Neiman, Director of Archaeology at Monticello, was among those captivated by Deetz's unique style of teaching in the early 1970s.

"I was one of the hordes of starry-eyed undergraduates at Brown University who took Jim's introductory archaeology class," recalls Neiman. "There were hundreds of students, and the class was fondly known as the 'Jimmy Deetz show.' He was enthusiastic, clever, and really funny. Jim is one of the main reasons I'm an archaeologist today."

The Director of Archaeological Research at Colonial Williamsburg, Marley Brown, was also a Deetz disciple. "Jim was an amazing teacher," says Brown. "I first met him my junior year when he came to give a guest lecture in my Introduction to Anthropology class. He was mesmerizing. That one lecture turned out to be a pivotal moment in my life."

Not content to rest on his laurels, until his death, Deetz remained an energetic scholar, publishing over 60 articles and books. Yet, for Seth Mallios, an archaeologist with the Jamestown Rediscovery project, it's the human being he'll miss. "I'm mourning the loss of Jim the person," Mallios says, "not Jim the legend."

Jim Deetz has been and will continue to be a powerful force in archaeology, anthropology, and history for years to come.

© 2009 Copyright and All Rights Reserved
Photograph and Text by Coy Barefoot

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