Six Decades at the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Professor William Simmons (Part II) – Professor of Anthropology, Brown University


Professor Giddings was a very gentle person who loved his work—and was very good at it. In my case, having worked weekends at the Bristol museum site regularly during the academic year and having participated in three summers of field research in Alaska as his student assistant, I had the opportunity to learn from him about the discipline of anthropology and especially archaeology through conversations beyond the classroom setting. This was invaluable. If I had a question or wished to discuss some topic, even personal, that was on my mind he was always there. If he had opinions about particular scholars or lines of thought he would express them. This helped me at an early age to understand that it was OK to respect my own thoughts, not to seek trends however elite they may seem to be, and decide for myself how to approach the discipline. This served me as a graduate student during the years when ethno-science and French structuralism dominated the field and grad students were eager to sign on to one or the other of these. I felt inclined to be a listener, to learn what was to be learned, even to be moved and smitten by it, but to not personally identify with intellectual cliques. At graduate school I saw that happening among my peers and regarded it as a kind of disassociation from reality.

Lunch in the field, Alaska, 1959. Bill Simmons (l.), Tyrone Downy (center), and J. Louis Giddings taking a break at Cape Krusenstern, Alaska, 1959

As a teacher, Professor Giddings was very matter-of-fact. If I misspelled something in a term paper, he would correct without comment. One case I recall was the word “pursue”, (spelled by me as “persue”). Little things like that added up. If I didn’t get something as well as he thought it should be gotten on a mid-term or final, he gave me the grade that he felt appropriate, usually a B or B+ without comment. That left me knowing that I had to do better, usually by trial and error, knowing that I could always and sometimes did seek direction. A good example was my choice of a topic for my honors thesis at Brown. I had been learning a lot about the Native cultures of North America and came up with the idea of doing it on the Peyote cult. He wondered what I thought I could contribute to the subject that was so well studied in the literature. I moved on to proposal 2, to study the faunal remains from the Choris site on the Kotzebue Peninsula, where I had been part of the excavation team, and where anything I learned about the faunal collection would be a new contribution. Since I was a Human Bio major and had taken Comparative Anatomy I was well-enough prepared. He and Professor Jack Bressler (of Human Bio) showed visible relief when I switched to the Choris project.

With regard to Arctic archaeology, he really liked Froelich Rainey’s work at the Ipiutak site (on Point Hope, Alaska). We spent the first night on our drive from Providence to Fairbanks in the summer of 1958 at the Rainey’s home near Philadelphia (as I recall, to pick up Bob Ackerman who joined the expedition that summer). Others whose work he liked were Frederica De Laguna, Jim Campbell, Otto Geist, and Ivar Skarland. He had numerous stories about the lives of Geist and Skarland, (and their prodigious work on Saint Lawrence Island) whom I also met when we arrived at U. Alaska, Fairbanks. Geist and Skarland were imprinted in my mind as something like the mischievous giants of Nordic and Germanic folklore. Meeting them, my expectations were confirmed.

Bill Simmons – Alaska, 1959

Dr. Giddings believed strongly in the importance of pure research, a concept that was new to me as a formal distinction. He gave a talk on pure research to the Brown student body at a weekly Chapel Meeting in Sayles Hall. I recall sitting in the audience with Judy Huntsman and others from the Museum and how proud of him we were. The concept of pure research freed me in a way, because since my experience as a child member of the Narragansett Archaeological Society of Rhode Island people would ask me, “What is the use of that?” I had assumed that the value of such knowledge was self-evident and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t self-evident to others. I was not an inherent functionalist and content with that. This to me is a fundamental distinction. To Giddings as an anthropologist, any dimension of the human record—archaeological, ethnographic, folkloric, oral historical—was valuable in itself. With respect to understanding race in contemporary life, he was careful to distinguish between race and culture.

J. Louis Giddings examining stone tools of the Denbigh Flint Complex of the Arctic Small Tool tradition, 1954

At the Museum, Dr. Giddings spent long hours at his desk with a Bausch and Lomb jeweler’s glass, studying the amazingly intricate stone tools of the Denbigh Flint Complex. These were among the most skillfully and beautifully flaked stone tools in human prehistory. When my father picked me up at the Museum at the end of a weekend, he would often show him something interesting about the Denbigh collection. My father, a working man from Providence, always appreciated that respect.



[Editor’s note: Bill Simmons has had a distinguished career in anthropology, archaeology, education, and university administration. He began his career as an undergraduate at Brown, and was among the first students to work with the Haffenreffer Museum, which had been donated to the university by the Haffenreffer family just two years before he matriculated, as he describes in the piece below. As an undergraduate student, he accompanied J. Louis Giddings on several seasons of fieldwork in Arctic Alaska, where he made discoveries that continue to guide and challenge our understanding of western Arctic prehistory. Over the course of his academic trajectory, Bill went on to complete post-graduate degrees, to teach, do research, and oversee administration in several major universities before returning to Brown, in the 1990s, as Provost. He has since returned to teaching within Brown’s Department of Anthropology – which had not been formally founded by the time he graduated in 1961 – and served as Acting Director of the Haffenreffer Museum from 2012-2013. Due to his long career with the Museum, he has asked to put down his memories in several installments, the second of which appears here. The first installment can be accessed here.  – Kevin Smith]

1 Comment

  1. Barry Bainton

    Bill’s lose was a sad moment for me. I attended his viewing. There I met his family exchanging a few memories. Ours has been a strange friendship beginning one day in Manning Chapel when Dr. Giddings introduced his former student who was now at Harvard studying for a PhD in Anthropology. Bill gave us an overview of his experience there and at Brown.
    Years later when I was a graduate student at the University of Arizona I ran into him at the American Anthropological Association meetings. We might meet for a drink and chat. When he became Head of the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley. He told me about A. L. Kroeber’s bench and how Kroeber, who founded the Berkley Program had take his afternoon naps on it. Bill had it in his office and used it in the same way. We had a few laughs. And then, we lost touch as our careers went there different ways.
    When I returned to RI years later, one day I went to the Coffee Exchange near campus and ran into Bill. He had come back to Brown as Provost. We would see each other at the Exchange from time to time sharing a coffee and a little time going over the latest in our lives.
    I was shock when I read about his passing but I feel lucky to have known him as a friend and attend his viewing.

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