The Plymouth Colony Archive Project

Remembering Jim

By Mary Beaudry

An edited excerpt of a tribute
published in the journal Antiquity,
Cambridge, UK, June 2001.
Prof. Deetz contemplates a feature at the Flowerdew Hundred site; photograph by Eugene Prince

James Deetz's intellectual contributions focused on culture change and on the ways in which changes affected the lives and minds of ordinary people. He will be long remembered as a man whose scholarship and teaching galvanized many, but who set an example that few can follow. He was both a scholar and a family man, and accomplished what academics seldom achieve: a private life as rich and rewarding as his professional career. He married first Eleanore Kelley Deetz; they had six sons and four daughters. Jim's second wife and widow is Patricia Scott Deetz, a social historian who collaborated with Jim in his most recent research efforts.

After receiving his BA (1957), MA (1959) and Ph.D (1960) from Harvard University, Jim taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara from 1960-1978, at Harvard University (1965-1966), at Brown University (1967-1978), at the College of William and Mary (1977-1978) and at the University of California, Berkeley (1978-1993); most recently he was the David A. Harrison Professor of New World Studies at the University of Virginia. Deetz was acclaimed as a masterful teacher who entertained and inspired students who flocked to his ever-popular courses.

Author of over 60 articles and books influential in both historical and prehistoric archaeology, Jim was admired for his clear and accessible writing. His Ph.D dissertation, The dynamics of stylistic change in Arikara ceramics, published in monograph form in 1965, was heralded for its innovative statistical analyses of artefact variation as a means of delineating shifts in social organization and patterns of kinship among the Arikara before and after European contact. His first book, Invitation to archaeology (1967), was used extensively as a text for introductory classes in archaeology, and his popular introduction to historical archaeology, In small things forgotten (1977), remains in wide distribution and has had multiple printings. Deetz's 1993 book, Flowerdew Hundred, received the 1994 James Mooney Award from the Southern Anthropological Society and the 1995 Distinguished Book Award of the Society of Colonial Wars, New York.

From 1967-1978, Jim served as Assistant Director of Plimoth Plantation, conducting excavations at a number of historical sites in and around Plymouth (MA), including 17th-century Pilgrim settlements. During this time he also published what many consider his most influential and provocative contributions to historical archaeology, a series of innovative studies of New England gravestones, co-authored with colleague and friend Edwin Dethlefsen. Deetz and Dethlefsen offered a compelling demonstration of the efficacy of seriation studies in archaeology, and in his own later work Deetz related gravestone carving to broader changes in the lifestyles and world view of colonial New Englanders.

Jim Deetz and excavation team at Parting Ways site, July 2, 1976; photo from Plimoth Plantation Museum archives.

From 1982, he was Director of Research and a member of the Board of Directors of Flowerdew Hundred Foundation, Hopewell (VA), where he directed field schools and Summer Institutes in American Historical Archaeology, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, at 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century sites at Flowerdew Hundred Plantation. Deetz since 1984 held the post of Honorary Visiting Professor of Historical Archaeology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and from 1983 conducted research on the British colonial frontier of the Eastern Cape as part of his broader investigation of the comparative archaeology of English colonialism.

Most recently, he teamed with his second wife, Patricia Scott Deetz, to write The times of their lives: life, love and death in Plymouth Colony (2000). The book appeared only shortly before Jim's death, bringing his professional life full circle by returning to and reconsidering his first ventures into historical archaeology at the home sites of the religious separatists later known as Pilgrims who founded New England's first permanent settlement.

In 1997, the Society for Historical Archaeology recognized Jim's contributions to the field by awarding him its lifetime achievement award, the J.C. Harrington Medal in Historical Archaeology. For his pioneering work at Plimoth Plantation, where he not only brought archaeological investigations into the foreground of the museum's research into 17th-century life but also initiated the first-person approach to 'living history' involving costumed interpreters 'in character' that continues to expose Plantation visitors to unexpected encounters with 17th-century customs and beliefs -- Deetz always stressed that people needed to be made aware that if they were somehow transported back in time they would experience severe culture shock -- in 1999 Deetz was awarded the Harry H. Hornblower Award.

Grounded in structuralism, Deetz's approach was synthetic, working from data outwards, emphasizing qualitative as well as quantitative evaluations, incorporating multiple and complementary lines of evidence, allying historical documents closely with excavated evidence. His interest was in the details of everyday lives among early settlers, indigenous peoples, colonists and African Americans, and his method consisted of probing diverse categories of material culture -- houses, gravestones, ceramics, musical instruments, clay pipes -- examining the productions of individuals to bring to light underlying cultural rules that generate patterns of thought that are manifested in social behaviour and material culture.

An intellectual history of Deetz's early work appears in: Anne E. Yentsch, Man and vision in historical archaeology, in A.E. Yentsch & M.C. Beaudry (eds.), The art and mystery of historical archaeology: essays in honor of James Deetz, pp. 23-47. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 1992.

© 2001 Copyright and All Rights Reserved
Text by Mary Beaudry
Illustrations added by Plymouth Colony Archive editor.
Photograph of Jim Deetz in a tobacco field
at Flowerdew Hundred by Eugene Prince.


A memorial fund has been established in Jim's honor to further promote the efforts of the Plimoth Plantation Living History Museum. Donations may be sent to:

James F. Deetz Fund
Plimoth Plantation
P.O. Box 1620
Plymouth, MA USA 02362

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