Skip to Content

Search: {{$root.lsaSearchQuery.q}}, Page {{$}}

By Jeffrey R. Parsons
Museum of Anthropology
June 1997

I've long known that I owe a lot to James B. Griffin. Since his death a few weeks ago, I've thought more about this debt in my effort to prepare this small tribute to his memory. As one of many individuals in whose careers and lives Jimmy took an interest, I know that versions of my own reflections will be repeated many times by others whose pathways through life intersected with his over the decades. In the following paragraphs I've selected some memories that I hope will convey some sense of what Jimmy was like as a mentor, colleague, and friend.

Graduate Student Years in the Early 1960s

I first met Jimmy Griffin back in Sept. 1961 as I began graduate work in anthropology at the University of Michigan. A few months before that, knowing that my weak undergraduate background in anthropology would preclude any standard departmental financial assistance during my first year of graduate study, he had written to offer me a sort of assistantship in the radiocarbon dating laboratory directed by himself and Professor Richard Crane. This half-time position paid only $1.50 per hour, modest even by standards of that time, but the $30 per week that it provided made all the difference for me financially, and so I came to Michigan.

As "radiocarbon clerk" for the 1961-1962 academic year, I was a sort of liaison between where the incoming samples were received at the Museum of Anthropology and where they were dated in the Dept. of Physics: I handled all the correspondence, assigned numbers to the samples, acknowledged receipt of the samples and notified customers of the results, walked the samples over and back from the Museum to the Physics Dept. laboratory, and wrote up short descriptions of each dated sample for publication in the next year's volume of Radiocarbon. In this context I was around the Museum quite a lot.

My desk was in the big room right across the hall from Jimmy's office and right next to the "coffee room," where regularly twice each day, at 10 AM and 3 PM, the Museum staff, students, and faculty curators would congregate to consider the affairs of the day. Jimmy typically presided at these sessions, with other veterans like Volney Jones in supporting roles, and the radiocarbon dates that I brought over from the lab every week provided much of the grist for the conversational mill. Even at the time I realized it was quite an educational experience, and those many hours around the coffee table remain as one of the fondest memories of my graduate career at Michigan. Over the subsequent years I have found that my fellow students of that era -- like Chuck Cleland, Henry Wright, Dick Ford, Bob Bettarel, Dick Wilkinson, Alan McPherron, Gary Wright, John Halsey, Dick Yarnell, and the late Dick Flanders, Roscoe Wilmeth, and Earl Prahl -- all have shared my fond recollections of those conversations. Jimmy certainly did not treat us as equals on these occasions -- we all knew who the boss was --, but he did make it abundantly clear that he regarded us all as budding fellow professionals and potentially worthy of his respect. I realized more fully later that this was an important part of the professionalization process.

I think that everybody who was around the Museum of Anthropology during the 1960s and early 1970s had the unforgettable experience (and often multiple experiences) of being called into Jimmy's big office for private conversations. On such occasions, Jimmy would typically be seated behind his large desk, and the other person would usually be invited to sit down on the faded purple sofa just in front. This was a very deep, soft sofa, and once seated there your eyes were at desk-top level, and your knees rose to about the level of your own chin. Jimmy would stare down at you from his vantage point on the other side of the desk, and proceed to let you know what you'd done wrong, or what he thought you should be doing differently. These were un-nerving and disconcerting experiences, and for me they continued well into the 1970s, right up until Jimmy retired in 1975. Nevertheless, as the years went by, I came to realize that there was much more bark than bite involved, and that Jimmy really had your own best interests at heart. He just had a unique way of showing it. He seldom gave direct praise: if he didn't comment explicitly about your Museum work, then you could usually assume he probably approved of it.

During my graduate work at Michigan I spent the summers in the Valley of Mexico, continuing fieldwork I had begun there with Bill Sanders during my senior undergraduate year at Penn State University. I soon became aware that there was a magnificent collection of archaeological ceramics from the Valley of Mexico right there in the Museum of Anthropology, most of it assembled by Jimmy himself during his fieldtrips to Mexico in the late 1940s and early 1950s. I made considerable use of this material, incorporating some of it into my own 1966 dissertation, and subsequently using it to train my own students for fieldwork in Mexico. Over the years, as I developed interests in other parts of Latin America, I came to realize that Jimmy had employed his enormous network of professional contacts to assemble type samples of pottery from many other places south of the Rio Grande -- the Viru Valley type collections are a particularly outstanding example. This was how the core of the Museum of Anthropology's Latin American holdings was formed.

It was during those same years that I came across the stacks of reprints of Jimmy's own numerous articles -- stashed in a large cabinet prominently labeled: "The Pickwick Papers: Keep Out or You'll Get the Dickens." Despite the sign, I always felt free to help myself to these reprints, some of which remain classics in Mesoamerican ceramic classification that I use to this day.

From time to time visiting dignitaries would stop by to give lectures. Jimmy usually knew these individuals personally, and he would typically host their visits and "assist" them with showing their slides (especially in the early days, before remote control cords came into use). Three events of this type stand out in my memory. The first was Prof. F. Clark Howell's lecture about his Paleolithic research in Spain. Shortly before the evening lecture, FCH, along with Jimmy, James Spuhler, and several other departmental "heavies," had supper together. They all arrived at the lecture slightly inebriated. As the talk got underway, Howell would continually lose his train of thought, and Jimmy would continuously get the slides out of proper order. That combination was an outrageously humorous one for us students in attendance, and I know that many who was there that evening still remember it well. At another evening lecture, Prof. J. Eric Thompson was speaking to us about his Mayan work. Jimmy was showing the slides, and he somehow got them mixed up and never could manage to get the illustrations fully coordinated with Thompson's talk, much to the latter's consternation. Another memorable occasion was Prof. Frank Hibben's talk on Pottery Mound -- when Hibben got to the slides showing the bulldozer cutting through the mound fill, I noticed that Jimmy visibly grimaced and sagged in his seat -- one of the few times I actually saw him at a loss for how to react. We all knew right away that he disapproved of using bulldozers for mound excavation.

Near the very end of my graduate years, about 1965, neutron activation analysis began to be employed in archaeological research. Jimmy, in collaboration with Prof. Adon Gordus of Michigan's Chemistry Department, was a pioneer in this research. He oversaw some of the first pilot studies of ceramics and obsidian, and he was instrumental in encouraging several graduate students (especially Gary Wright and Jane Wheeler) to pursue this work. I remember him saying one day that this new technique was "hotter than a pistol," and would revolutionize archaeological research. As with radiocarbon dating more than a decade before, he often knew a good thing when he saw it.

Early Years on the Museum Faculty, the late 1960s and early 1970s

After I joined the Michigan faculty in January 1966, my new status did not produce much of a change in our relationship. Jimmy continued to run the Museum in his benevolently despotic way, and although other new curators were added that same year and soon thereafter, he continued on in this fashion for almost another decade. This was fine with us: Jimmy made all the decisions, usually the right ones as far as we could tell, and the rest of us did a lot of field research and writing, which was exactly what we wanted to do. I was in the field a lot during those years. When I was at the Museum I continued to be called into Jimmy's office from time to time, to receive the benefit of his advice and critique -- much as I had during my earlier years as a graduate student. I recall that one thing he was often annoyed with me about was my occasional failure to emphasize sufficiently on the cover sheets of my grant proposals my association with the Museum of Anthropology (as opposed to the Department of Anthropology). He would get quite upset about this, and once he asked me in this connection if I was "really happy here at the Museum."

I will never forget how enormously supportive Jimmy was during my first year on the Michigan faculty. My first teaching responsibilities began the same semester in which I defended my dissertation, and I really needed a little more time to prepare for the two new courses I was expected to teach. Jimmy realized this, and he worked it out so that I would only have to teach one course that term -- and even though that single course almost overwhelmed me, the arrangement probably preserved my sanity. A little later that same year he enthusiastically backed my wish to undertake two fieldtrips in order to gain additional experience in other parts of Latin America (and it was in this connection that I first became aware that the Museum had a travel account). The first was to work for two months with Denny Puleston on his innovative settlement pattern survey around Tikal in the Peten of northern Guatemala. This was an extraordinary experience for me, an unforgettable exposure to the non-monumental side of Mayan archaeology (rare in those years), and a good lesson in how difficult it can be to acquire good regional data in some areas.

The second fieldtrip was a three-month visit to Peru and Bolivia -- I felt I particularly needed this experience in order to properly develop a new course in Andean archaeology, and to prepare the way for possible future fieldwork in Peru. During that period I traveled widely through highland and coastal Peru, and southward into the Bolivian altiplano. This was a mind-boggling experience, and impressions and contacts formed during that period have remained with me ever since, and they formed the basis for two major field projects that I undertook in later years.

Over those early years I was successful in getting grants for my survey projects in Mexico and Peru. Jimmy approved of all this, but he would occasionally hint, sometimes pretty strongly and directly, that soon it might be time for me to start doing some "real" archaeology, by which, of course, he meant fairly large scale excavation. I remember that on one of these occasions I finally got up my nerve to tell him that I thought survey was "real" enough for me, and that perhaps I would go on doing it for awhile longer. He really grinned at that, perhaps pleased that I'd finally gained sufficient professional confidence to stand up to him in this way. Nevertheless, I think it bothered him, right up to the end, that I never did do a really major excavation project. I always knew that he was genuinely interested in the results of my work, and that he came to realize that systematic regional surveys could produce good and useful information that complemented excavation data. We had many a conversation, for example, about the implications of some of my new regional data for ceramic chronology in central Mexico. Nonetheless, it was always pretty clear that he considered excavation to be the primary archaeological research mode.

Because I was in the field a lot, usually for seasons of six or seven months at a time, I was often unavailable for personal conversations in Jimmy's office. Nevertheless, he still liked to maintain contact at a distance, even at a time (in those pre-FAX and pre-e-mail days) when the mails to where I was working in Mexico and Peru were slow and uncertain at best, and where telephone service was iffy or nonexistent. I recall that I received a number of impatient letters, and occasionally telephone calls while I was in the field. One of these letters was a simple one-liner: "Are you still alive?" Jimmy clearly liked to keep tabs on his "boys" in the field, but it was also clear to us that he really cared about us and our work. I think this was important to us, although we did not always realize it at the time. Somehow, however subconsciously, it made us feel wanted and needed. I did my best to keep him informed through the mail about the fieldwork in progress, and these old letters, which I recently relocated in the Griffin archive here at the Museum of Anthropology, are a testament to how much we did stay in touch, despite all the difficulties of long-distance communication.

After Jimmy's Retirement

After Jimmy retired in 1975, we had less interaction, particularly after he relocated permanently to Washington, D.C. in the early 1980s. There was an occasional exchange of letters and a telephone call from time to time, and a few reunions at SAA meetings or on one of my infrequent visits to the Smithsonian. He continued to be interested in hearing about my work, and I continued to enjoy telling him about it periodically. Every now and then he gave me a little more good advice about Mexican ceramic chronology. In his early post-retirement years, and even in the years immediately preceding, he reduced the size of his large personal library: this is where I obtained the core of my Mesoamerican collection, purchased from Jimmy in two or three big batches during the 1970s. He did not give this material away, nor did he let it go cheaply, and yet I was really pleased to be able to acquire so many out-of-print and otherwise unavailable works that I continue to consult to this day.

I will conclude this essay with an experience that stands out particularly in my mind, dating to the early part of my own directorship of the Museum of Anthropology in 1983- 1986. In 1983 Jimmy still maintained an active schedule of travel -- giving lectures, visiting sites and excavations, attending meetings and conferences, etc. As an Emeritus Professor and former Museum Director, he continued to have access to the Museum Travel Account, and he was not hesitant to make use of this privilege. When I took over from Dick Ford as Museum director, Dick advised me that I would need to keep watch over Jimmy's travel expenses to make sure that he did not over-spend the account. Dick even suggested that I have a little chat with Jimmy about this, to make sure he understand the situation. Dick's advice about administrative matters was always sound, so some weeks into the 1983 Fall term I asked Jimmy to come into my office for this chat. There I was, seated behind the director's desk, with Jimmy in the supplicant's chair in front of me. The office was not Jimmy's original lair, and the deep purple sofa had long since vanished, but nevertheless the structural role reversal almost overwhelmed me. I think Jimmy sensed something of my discomfiture -- he grinned at me, cracked a joke or two, and we concluded our business satisfactorily. As he walked out the door he turned back to me, grinning, and said something like "if you hang around long enough, anything can happen;" or maybe it was "all things come to those who wait."

Jimmy Griffin had a good run. I'm more pleased than I can say to have been with him along a part of it.