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Born in 1895 in Hartwellville, Michigan, Emerson F. Greenman (1895–1973) received his A.B. from the University of Michigan, where he studied under Wilbert Hinsdale and Alexander Ruthven. He then earned a diploma in anthropology from Oxford University, studied at the American School of Prehistoric Research in Europe, and in 1927, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He married in 1927, and he and his wife Edna had three children. Greenman died in Ann Arbor in 1973.

After receiving his Ph.D., Greenman briefly remained at the University of Michigan, serving as Curator of the Great Lakes Divisions of the Museum of Anthropology. In 1928, he became the Curator of Archaeology at the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, a position he held for seven years. While there, he directed excavations at Woodland sites, studying the Adena and Hopewell cultures. His excavation at Coon Mound informed his analysis of the Adena culture. In 1935, Greenman returned to the University of Michigan, where he served as Curator in the Museum of Anthropology, and taught in the Department of Anthropology, until his retirement in 1965.

Greenman directed numerous archaeological excavations in the Great Lakes area, including sites in the Manitoulin District of Ontario, Canada, and the Younge, Wolf, Furton, and Riviere aux Vase Sites in Michigan. A reprint of his 1937 publication, The Younge Site: An Archaeological Record from Michigan, is still available from Museum of Anthropology Publications. Other important publications include Guide to Serpent Mound (Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1939) and The Indians of Michigan (Michigan Historical Commission, 1961).

Education was important to Greenman. His field school in the Manitoulin District, which he led from 1938 to 1953, inspired students to study archaeology. Importantly, Greenman promoted cooperation between archaeologists both professional and amateur. In 1950, he was appointed the first secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Archaeological Society, and in 1955 was named Honorary Secretary. From 1953 through 1965, he served as the first editor of Michigan Archaeologist, the journal produced by the Society. He received the Distinguished Service plaque in 1963, and was honored with a 1965 festscrift issue of Michigan Archaeologist.