Memories of J. Louis Giddings

My first contact with Louis Giddings and the Haffenreffer Museum came in the late summer of 1956. I had worked the previous year as a volunteer docent at the old Providence Museum, doing guided tours of the Pacific Ethnographic Collections. It was a bit of a stretch for a budding student of classical archaeology, but most people visiting the gallery knew less than I did. It also expanded my interest in museums and in material culture beyond Greek sculpture and Roman portraits.

During that time Brown announced the gift to the university of Rudolf Haffenreffer’s King Philip Museum, in Bristol, by the Haffenreffer family. The acquisition was a rather bold step for a university that had no Anthropology Department, no museum, and no real tradition of field archaeology. Brown was at that time a rather sleepy place with none of the trendy glamour of today. However, it displayed a strong interest in undergraduate education. Brown was an ideal place for a public school graduate like myself, who wanted to pursue a career in Classics and Archaeology.

Once Brown had acquired the Haffenreffer, it had to hire a scholar to turn that private collection into a public museum. The choice fell on James Louis Giddings, then at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania. His expertise in Alaskan archaeology suited a collection that was overwhelmingly North American. He had worked at the University Museum under the directorship of another Alaskan archaeologist, Froehlich Rainey, who was one of the most dynamic museum heads of the era. He arrived with his family and settled into one of the ‘estate houses’ on the Haffenreffer properties.

I first met Louis Giddings in his office in the Sociology Department. He was housed there, for there was then no Anthropology Department at Brown. He was a quiet, unassuming person, who had a special ability to make interested undergraduates comfortable. The director of the Providence Museum had recommended me. Based on that and our conversation, Giddings offered me a position as assistant. It was a challenge that I readily accepted, especially since the position was paid and my financial resources modest. We arranged that I should come out to Bristol, see the collection, and talk about the challenges we faced. My use of the term ‘we’ is intentional, for Louis Giddings had a special ability to treat even someone as young and raw as myself as a colleague, who was to play a significant role in creating the new museum.

The Haffenreffer estate, which I first visited, appeared in many respects as a transplant from the world of British country homes. Members of the family still lived in the big house on the hill overlooking the water, an elegant structure that Giddings later made his home. Around the museum building itself were houses where the estate workers had lived. Most were soon demolished by Brown. There was a private dock on the bay. Located not far from the house on the estate’s land was the site where King Philip had been killed at the conclusion of that bloody Native American-Settler War.

The Haffenreffer Museum of the American Indian, as it was then called, in Bristol, RI, about 1959. Today, these buildings are the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology’s Collections Research Center.

Giddings invited me out to visit and to talk about a potential role for me there.  The museum building itself resembled a fortress with stone walls, barred windows, and a heavy metal door that tested even my young strength. The interior had not changed since Mr Haffenreffer had passed away and the collection had been deeded to Brown. The holdings had been significantly reduced by the sale of most of a large collection of Cigar Store Indians, which Mr. Haffenreffer had acquired along with masses of archaeological and ethnographical material. Only one wooden Indian remained in the main gallery room along with the large wooden bear, which remained the delight of generations of school children. Along the walls were the elegant wooden display cases, built by craftsmen from the Herreshoff Boat Works of Bristol, one of the leading firms of high-end yacht builders.

The cases were packed with ethnographic and archaeological objects, a reflection of Mr Haffenreffer’s eclectic tastes and abundant financial resources. Labeling was almost non-existent. The main museum room had its unexpected side. If one pressed a lever under one of the cases it swung open, providing entry into a dusty, musty wine-cellar with a few dusty empty bottles still in place.

Mr Haffenreffer’s office was still intact. The central feature was an enormous carved wooden desk, a bit ostentatious for the rather unassuming Louis Giddings, let alone the students who used it during the summer, when Giddings was in the field. It also housed a useful reference collection of classic works related to North American ethnography and material culture.

Giddings offered me a student assistant job, and for three years the Haffenreffer Museum was a major focus of my life at Brown. Our mission was to turn a private collection organized around the interests and tastes of a collector into a university museum, which served a variety of constituencies. That involved the creation of displays that made the rich collection more understandable for the general public, the expansion of the range of objects on view beyond the core North American holdings, the creation of a rudimentary educational program, and the preparation of a catalogue of the objects held by the museum. I became involved in all aspects of those developments.

Giddings felt that the museum should have at least some exhibits that offered visitors material beyond the rich North American collection. He decided to turn one empty room (I believe it was where the Cigar Store Indians had been displayed) into such a cross-cultural display. New exhibit cases were built. Giddings returned to his old haunts at the University Museum and raided their rich storerooms. Those objects, largely forgotten in the bowels of the Penn Museum, became the core of a very creative, cross-cultural ethnographic display.

Gradually the public discovered that the old Haffenreffer ‘fortress’ had become a museum open to the public. One of my tasks was to give gallery talks and explanations and to develop school programs.  We tried to remain open for long hours over the weekends and to do special programs during the weeks. During the summer, while Giddings and his crew did fieldwork in Alaska, I ran the museum. It was a heady responsibility for a young student, whose major was Classics, not North American archaeology and ethnography!

The time spent at the museum had two special appeals for me. The first was the isolation and the freedom that went with the job. Its distance from Brown has always been a liability for the Haffenreffer. But for an undergraduate in the rather restrictive world of a 1950’s educational institution, that freedom was most appealing. No rules applied. One could wander the estate, which after hours was generally your domain. Bristol had its own fascination. It was not the trendy, upscale, super New England town of today, but a blend of faded Yankee gentility, varied ethnic communities, and the last remains of a once vibrant fishing culture.

My experience at the Haffenreffer was mainly shaped by the opportunity of working with Louis Giddings. I regard him as the best thinking archaeologist, whom I have known in my long career. The long years of living and researching in Alaska had taught him the importance of integrating environmental studies, archaeology, and ethnography. It represented a totalizing approach to understanding how man had lived in the challenging environment of the circumpolar North. He did his research before the discourse of theory came to dominate archaeological narrative. He expressed himself with clarity and with a certain elegance, for he took pride in his writing style.

Giddings had no real colleagues in the university, and until relatively late in my career at the Haffenreffer, no graduate students. Like any good scholar he liked to test his ideas, and undergraduates like Bill Simmons and myself became the beneficiaries of his thinking processes. He was a disciplined worker, putting in long hours at the great desk in the museum office. He would take breaks, and then test his evolving ideas on his student audience. One of my last sustained conversations with him, long after I had moved on to graduate school, centered on his theories about using beach ridges to help better determine Alaskan occupational sequences. The approach recalled elements of the dendrochronological research that had been an early part of his career.

Louis Giddings, 1959

Louis Giddings with his disciplined, wide ranging intellect and his gentle manner well fitted the ideal of the ‘scholar and the gentleman’. His tragic death at the height of his powers ended not only a fine life and a flourishing scholarly career, but also an important future direction for the Haffenreffer. Another decade under his guidance would have provided necessary stability and direction.

I went onto a career in Classical Archaeology, first at Wesleyan University and now at the University at Buffalo. I did field work, both excavation and survey, mainly in Italy. Throughout my career, I have maintained a dialogue with my colleagues in Anthropology. My first published article was entitled ‘Caesar as an Anthropologist’ and my current research still reflects that cross-disciplinary perspective. I owe much of this to the time spent with Louis Giddings. Even after many years he remains a respected, beloved figure in my own memory.


Stephen L. Dyson is the SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Classics, University at Buffalo.  He has conducted archaeological field projects in France, mainland Italy and Sardinia. A former president of the Archaeological Institute of America, Dyson twice has held the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Lectureship of that organization. He has served as the Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the Intercollegiate Center for Classical Studies in Rome and has held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

He is also the author of “The Roman Villas of Buccino,” “The Creation of the Roman Frontier,” “Community and Society in Roman Italy” and “Ancient Marbles to American Shores”, among other books, as well as innumerable chapters, reviews , publications in peer-reviewed journals, catalogs, and books. For more information,