Archaeology Collections History

Like many academic institutions, archaeological materials first came to the University of Kansas due to interests of professors in various disciplines.

Like many academic institutions, archaeological materials first came to the University of Kansas due to interests of professors in various disciplines.  Samuel W. Williston, a paleontologist and dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine, possessed a profound interest in archaeology; an interest that exposed him to some of the most significant archaeological remains in Kansas.  This included perhaps the earliest (1895) recovery of a human artifact in association with extinct bison remains, the 1898 excavations of El Cuartelejo (a pueblo styled ruin attesting to the late 1600s interaction of Spanish, Pueblo, and Plains Apache populations), and the early 1900s description of human remains that were believed to represent a great antiquity for occupation in Kansas.

The first professional anthropologist/archaeologist employed within the state of Kansas was Loren C. Eiseley, who was hired by the University of Kansas in 1937.  His position was a dual appointment in sociology and in the Museum of Natural History, an arrangement that required Eiseley, as well as his successors, to properly accession, catalog, and store archaeological materials, file field notes, and handle incoming and outgoing loans.  During his 7-year stay at KU, Eiseley established good contacts with local collectors and conducted limited, but significant, investigations at area sites believed to be of great antiquity.  Most importantly however, his work resulted in anthropology and archaeology becoming firmly established in the KU curriculum.

projectile point
Paleoindian projectile point found with extinct bison remains

Eiseley’s replacement was Albert C. Spaulding, who like his predecessor, is best known for achievements accomplished elsewhere.  During Spaulding’s short stay at KU (1946-1947) he initiated the long cooperation between the University of Kansas and the River Basin Surveys (RBS).  Spaulding’s successor was Carlyle S. Smith who stayed with KU until his retirement in 1981.  Among other investigations, Smith continued the association with RBS, resulting in a substantial increase in the archaeological collections.  By the late 1950s, the Sociology Department established a master’s program for Anthropology and in 1964, Anthropology split from Sociology and established its own program.

With the addition of new Anthropology faculty, the archaeological collections increased in number. By 1965, the Anthropology faculty numbered 6 individuals, including Robert Squier, an archaeologist specializing in Mesoamerican prehistory.  Alfred E. Johnson was hired in 1965 and two years later, Carlyle Smith passed the half-time curator position to his new successor.  Anta Montet-White (Old World archaeologist) joined the faculty shortly after Johnson, and along with Smith and Squier, witnessed a significant increase in the size of the archaeological collections. Collections from Kansas, Missouri, South Dakota, New Mexico, Arizona, Europe and Mexico were accessioned in the 1960s to 1970s.

team of archaeologists at the allen site
1946 Excavations of the Archaic occupation at the Allen site

In addition to their teaching and curatorial responsibilities, both Smith and Johnson can be credited with conducting an impressive number of archaeological investigations at sites throughout the North American Plains during the 1960s to the early 1980s.  With funding from field schools, the National Science Foundation, and federal agencies for compliance projects, these investigations resulted in the accession of well-documented systematic collections.  With an increase in the number of Federal compliance projects in Kansas and surrounding states, the museum added a CRM (Cultural Resource Management) director to its staff.  This position, filled by Paul Brockington (1979-1981), Alan Simmons (1981-1985), and Brad Logan (1985-2002), was successful in generating contracts and providing support and training to KU students.  For many years, Logan also offered the KU Field School, which resulted in an increase in systematic collections from the Central Plains.  Mary Adair was hired in 1989, and held various positions in collection management, curation, and administration until she retired in 2021.  With an expertise in Paleoethnobotany and research interests in the central Plains, Adair taught and provided students with training and support in the identification of archaeological plant remains.

Olmec ceramic vessel

John Hoopes joined the Anthropology faculty in 1989 with specialties in Mesoamerica and ceramics.  Several years later, in 1993, Jack Hofman filled a faculty vacancy and a research focus on Great Plains Paleoindian.  Ivana Radovanovic was hired by the Anthropology Department in 2000 and provides expertise in Old World prehistory and lithic technology.  In 2002, a generous donation established the Odyssey Geoarchaeology Research Program.  Director Rolfe Mandel holds half time positions in the Anthropology Department and the Kansas Geological Survey. 

With the addition of Fred Sellet in 2010, the Anthropology department strengthened the focus on lithic studies and pre-ceramic cultures of the North American Plains.  The Division of Archaeology added Sandra Olsen to the staff in 2014 as a half-time Curator and half-time Professor in Museum Studies.  Dr. Olsen is a zooarchaeologist who has worked in the American Southwest, the Eurasian steppes, and most recently in the Arabian Peninsula.  She has focused on the horse-human relationship since 1985.  Since 2009, she has been engaged in research on human adaptation to Early Holocene climate change in Arabia, interpreting faunal representations in rock art to determine how climate change in the Arabian Peninsula in the early-mid Holocene impacted biodiversity and human adaptation.

The archaeology division staff and anthropological archaeology faculty remain very active in the profession, as noted by their board positions with international, national and regional professional societies; editorship positions with peer reviewed journals; presentations at national and regional conferences; publications in journals and invited chapter contributions in premier volumes; research supported by national grant programs; and constant training for undergraduate and graduate students at KU and elsewhere.  All of these efforts bring recognition to the University of Kansas, attract students to the graduate program, and promote the extensive archaeological collections.