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James Deetz, pioneering archaeologist and former director of UC Berkeley's anthropology museum, dies at 70
28 Nov 2000

By Patricia McBroom, Media Relations

Berkeley - James F. Deetz, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1978 to 1994 who helped build the field of historic archaeology, died Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. He was 70.

Famous for his original interpretations of Pilgrim life in Plymouth, Mass., Deetz was director of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley from 1979 to 1988. Known then as the Lowie Museum, the anthropology museum provided a foundation for Deetz to carry out his innovative explorations of early American life, which also included excavations in the mining town of Somersville in Contra Costa County.

But it was early American life at Plymouth that captured Deetz's real passion. Through imaginative reconstructions of social life based on such small things as tableware, Deetz was able to revolutionize images of the Puritans from dark, sober, religious settlers to lusty Elizabethans who wore colorful clothing, drank heavily and often got into trouble.

He was interviewed frequently at Thanksgiving because of his discoveries concerning the food probably consumed at the first Thanksgiving feast - goose and perhaps eel, but not turkey.

"He was a leader in re-envisioning the Colonial period," said UC Berkeley archaeologist Kent Lightfoot who, as a young assistant professor in the 1980s, knew Deetz as a humorous, articulate exponent of historical archaeology and a popular professor with a huge following among students.

"He cared deeply about students, and he went out of his way to help me," said Lightfoot. "He was a great colleague and a great teacher."

Deetz was awarded the campus's Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982. His classic texts, "Invitation to Archaeology" (Doubleday, 1967) and "In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life" (Doubleday, 1977), are still read.

A month before his death from pneumonia, Deetz published his last book, "The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love and Death in Plymouth Colony,"(W.H. Freeman, 2000) co-authored with his wife, Patricia Scott Deetz, a cultural historian.

Born in Cumberland, Md., in 1930, Deetz was educated at Harvard University, receiving his PhD in anthropology in 1960. His doctoral research was on the Arikara, a group of the northern Plains. This work blossomed later into an interest in cultural interaction between Native Americans and early European settlers and came to full bloom at Plimoth Plantation, a living museum reconstruction of the early settlement. The museum, where Deetz was assistant director from 1967-1978, is near Plymouth.

He was a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara from 1961-67 and also at Brown University. After retirement from UC Berkeley in 1994, he became the Harrison Professor of Historical Archaeology at the University of Virginia.

In addition to his wife, Deetz is survived by six sons, James C. of Berkeley; Joseph of Mendon, Mass.; Eric of Williamsburg, Va.; Geoffrey of Oakland, Calif.; Joshua of Taipei, Taiwan; and Hartman of Mashpee, Mass., and by four daughters, Antonia Deetz Rock and Kelley Deetz-Mallios of Williamsburg; and Kristen and Cynthia Deetz of Albany, Calif. He is also survived by a sister, Barbara Deetz of Charlottesville, Va., and 16 grandchildren. His former wife, Eleanore Kelley Deetz, resides in Albany, Calif.

Funeral services, to be held Saturday, Dec. 2, at 2 p.m. in St. Bede's Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Va., are open to the public. Memorial donations may be sent to the James F. Deetz Fund at Plimoth Plantation, P.O. Box 1620, Plymouth, Mass., 02362.