The SAA Archaeological Record — Sept 2011
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In Memoriam: Robert C. Dunnell
David J. Meltzer and Michael J. O'Brien

1942–2010

Robert C. Dunnell, 68, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Washington, died December 13, 2010, in Natchez, MS. Dunnell was born in Wheeling, WV, December 4, 1942, and by age 13 was classifying artifacts he'd found near the Grave Creek Mound. The Wheeling Intelligencer described this precocious teen as being more interested in archaeology than "rock and roll," which the newspaper apparently considered a good thing.

Looking to escape life in the coalfields following high school, Dunnell landed a construction job on the Barkley Reservoir project in Tennessee. After hearing the University of Kentucky was hiring archaeological workers for excavations in advance of the reservoir, he enrolled at UK. Studying at Kentucky led to a variety of archaeological experiences statewide, a stint on a Plains Paleoindian site (see Figure 1.9 in Frison [1982] The Agate Basin site), and a BA in 1964.

Dunnell went to Yale for graduate school but continued fieldwork in Kentucky in Fishtrap Reservoir, which provided the data for his dissertation, The Prehistory of Fishtrap, Kentucky: Archaeological Interpretation in Marginal Areas. His Ph.D. completed in just three years (1967), he received multiple job offers. He accepted a position at the University of Washington, and moved there with his wife Mary, a Yale-trained anthropologist (who survives him). He rose from assistant to full professor and department chair in half a dozen years and remained at Washington until taking early retirement in 1997.

A prolific author, Dunnell's earliest publications were in classification and seriation– odd topics, given that the New Archaeology was then cresting in popularity. But Dunnell was never interested in being fashionable. Rather, he had a vision for a scientific archaeology, and essential to it was reliably conceptualizing data. The result was Systematics in Prehistory (1971), a book-length treatment of classification that is hard to read and digest, but also highly original and one of the most important conceptual treatises on the topic. Yet, even while tending to such "traditional" matters, Dunnell was embarking on a more radical path. This emerged in the late 1970s from his thinking about seriation and the behavior of style over time and his exposure to the work of evolutionary biologists. He began to advocate a strictly Darwinian view of cultural evolution. Whether or not one agrees with his approach, Dunnell's contributions significantly changed the discipline-wide conversation about evolution in archaeology and will, perhaps, be his enduring legacy.

These efforts in formal and explanatory theory (as Dunnell phrased it) were end members of the rigorously scientific approach he sought to craft. They were complemented in the 1980s and 1990s by publications that probed the epistemology of an archaeological science, which were informed by a deep understanding of the history of the field and a thoughtful skepticism about the role of the philosophy of science. The efforts were accompanied as well by methodological contributions on subjects such as siteless survey and the application of photogrammetry and material sciences to archaeology. Dunnell also spearheaded the construction of the first NSF-sponsored archaeologically dedicated luminescence-dating laboratory in this country.

None of this was done independent of an abiding interest in prehistory, and throughout his career Dunnell maintained a research program in the Late Prehistoric period of eastern North America. That research involved several of the 29 Ph.D. students he advised, though in testimony to his broad interests and deep insights, the majority of his students worked elsewhere across a wide range of times and places. Dunnell's willingness to meet regularly with his students–even during the dozen years he served as department chair–made him a highly effective, albeit demanding and gruff advisor, but one who took tremendous pride in his students.

David J. Meltzer1 and Michael J. O'Brien2

1. Department of Anthropology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, TX.

2. Department of Anthropology, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO.
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