December 14, 2010

Robert C. Dunnell, RIP

Filed under: Uncategorized — acagle @ 10:25 am


Sad news from the world of archaeology today as R.C. Dunnell hath passed away. He was a professor at the University of Washington for many years, although he retired and moved away several years ago. I spoke a bit about him here as something of the Professor Kingsfield of the department. He was the first person you encountered when starting graduate school here and the encounter was always. . . . interesting. He was kind of equal parts Kingsfield and hillbilly. When he wasn’t wearing an (admittedly ill-fitting) suit and tie for doing lectures he would inhabit his office on the top floor of Denny Hall in ratty old jeans, flannel shirt, and no shoes or socks. He would bring you in for an initial consultation and half the time put his bare feet up on the desk and pick at them while telling you what you could expect on your graduate school journey. On the desk were, among a lot of other items, a rattlesnake head encased in resin and a pile of fake (I hope) dog poop.

You started out your classes with his theory course, 497 on archaeological unit construction which used his Systematics in Prehistory, which he wrote back in the early 1970s. The book is fairly inscrutable when first encountering it, but after going through it once or twice and getting used to his writing style, it really was a brilliant piece of work. Probably one of the best and most succinct explanations of the basic character of science I’ve ever read, I still haven’t really found a better one (though there are certainly works with more breadth and depth on the subject, Dunnell really nailed the essential nature of science so well, IMO, that the rest are just filling out the details).

I recall that first day of class, it was raining and the first thing he said to all of us was “I love it when it rains on the first day and all of you come in smelling like a bunch of wet sheep.”

His lecturing style was. . . .well, kind of bland. Dynamic he was not. But he packed a lot into those lectures and you had to pay attention the whole time and take copious notes or you’d be lost. Each quarter we would have to give a paper which we would read to the class and then discuss it. How.Terrifying.Is.That. We learned his little quirks though. He would usually sit there and doodle while listening and we found that if he doodled a lot that meant you were doing well, so while reading we’d all be furtively glancing over to see how much the pen was moving. Of course, if he put the pen down and stared at you, you knew you were in trouble. I went back a couple of years after I first took the class and sat in again for the whole quarter and really enjoyed it (obviously part of that enjoyment was because I didn’t have to do any work or get graded for it). I went up to him after one class and told him “You must have really improved your teaching the last couple of years because I really understand this stuff now.” He liked that.

He had a lab course which was also brutal. I think I had the last one he taught of that. He was really all about the generation of data, not really the uses of it, and he made us use what we’d learned in his theory class. For example, how does one measure function in a stone tool? His idea was that function was not determined by figuring out in some fashion how people used it in the past (or what name they gave to it) but by explicitly generating measurable or observable attributes that captured actual use in the form of edge wear. That is, a “tool” is not a “scraper” or a “knife” but an edge that showed evidence of some kind of interaction with the environment. So I/we had to take a bunch of flakes and figure out some attributes that we could experiment on and see how they worked. E.g., breakage patterns, striations, etc., each of which was exhibited differently depending on the motion and the material. I had to do it twice because I fouled it up the first time, but between that exercise and the others, I got a firm grasp of how your basic units of analysis really determine what you can do with data. In essence, it taught me that data was, indeed, manufactured, not collected.

His writing was also, shall we say, an acquired taste. At first I couldn’t make heads nor tails out of a lot of it, but eventually you start reading it very closely and you can tell there is really not a single word wasted. Unlike a lot of what passes for informed archaeological prose, Dunnell got right to the point and said what he wanted to say without any ambiguity. Speaking of which, one of his remarks in a lecture has stuck with me all these years such that I still use it to this day (both the phrase and the concept): Ambiguity is a hedge against being wrong. He was also a ruthless editor of our papers which made me a much better writer than I had been, and to this day I still go through every word of every sentence and make everything as short and sweet as possible (though not on blog posts, for which I beg the reader’s forgiveness).

He also had his annual holiday party for all of his advisees, which all first-years were until they decided on a final adviser. Sad to say, I buggered out of my only invite, one of the few to ever do so (I was working half-time at the time and was crushed at that point in the quarter). He still liked me though, at least enough to stay on my committee. Here’s a sample of his sense of humor:

“Rhienlander” was the fictional(?) horse that filled the bottles of (cheap) beer for the students while Dunnell would be drinking Dos Equis or something. He supposedly would always put out a plate of dog biscuits which I believe at least one person actually tried at one point.

He would come off as all gruff and stodgy, but he really cared about his students. From what I’ve heard, he was something of a mother hen on his field projects, always making sure everyone had enough water to drink (Missouri in the summer and all). He was always very good to me as well, once he realized I was at least marginally serious about my studies. I think the only negative he ever really directed at me was a brief note in my super-secret departmental file that I snuck a look at once that said to “Watch him on the language requirement” (we had to pass a standardize foreign language test, which I basically sucked at, but passed on the second try). He stuck with me through two different dissertation topics and eventually sat in on my defense by telephone from Mississippi after he’d retired due to health issues.

Not sure he got the recognition he deserved (or that many of us thought he deserved) within the archaeological community though. He championed Darwinian evolutionary theory for archaeological explanation and, while there are quite a few practitioners of it, it never made quite the splash as, say, the New Archaeology and Binford did. Part of this was that it didn’t really offer an easy way to do things. The New Archaeology promised, I would say, an easy way to scientific respectability by adopting the trappings of science without doing the basic work of determining if the way that the archaeological record was being described could even fit into whatever “scientific” theory you were trying to apply. Dunnell recognized that you had to start with basic data definitions — derived from theory, obviously — which absolutely required an overall re-examination of the basic premise of what archaeologists do and how they do it. This really goes to the heart of the recent controversy over science in anthropology since data generation is often (well, always actually) bound up in how one views the purpose of the discipline. A lot of anthropologically-inclined archaeologists just didn’t like the idea of a “science of artifacts” and would much rather continue studying (dead) people and their (unobservable) behavior instead.

This really rather saddens me even though we haven’t communicated much recently. Apart from his contributions to the discipline, he really structured my thinking and writing and overall made me a far better scholar than I would have otherwise been. Requiescat in Pace, RCD. You will be missed.

UPDATE: Images are from Carl Lipo David Meltzer (see comment below) and Mark Madsen. Go here to see some videos of his lectures from 1996 (some not working as of this writing though).

UPDATE II: This will be the only post today so RCD can be at the top of the page all day.

UPDATE III: To elaborate a bit more, he really did influence the way I do things, or at least try to do things. The thing about Dunnell was, I always got the feeling he was never being underhanded or political about the way he dealt with me, or grad students in general (though there may be some disagreement on this in other quarters; I tend to think he would give as well as he got with colleagues on his own level but was reasonably up front with students). A lot of people in academia are, despite protestations to the contrary, far more interested in being agreed with than in guiding students to their own conclusions. He wasn’t so much interested in whether you went along with his views as much as that you expressed yourself clearly, precisely, and logically. If he thought what you wrote was “vacuous twaddle” he’d say so, even if you were agreeing with him. And if you argued something different, he’d tell you why (he thought) you were wrong, but give you a decent grade anyway if you argued the point well. At my dissertation defense, he argued some with another committee member in my defense, while dinging me elsewhere. So, he was fair that way. I really have no complaints about how he treated me, which I can’t say for a lot of others.

UPDATE IV: Image changed to the original photo.

UPDATE V: Edited slightly for clarity.


  1. Hey Tony – came across your blog entry on RCD (I NEVER called him Bob). The photo you posted is one I took of him – and it brought back memories. We were in the field in SE Missouri (Robards) the summer of 1980 during a brutal heat wave. We’d parked ourselves under a tree at noon, and I broke out my peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and RCD his pipe. He looked at me and said something to the effect of how can you possibly eat when it’s 106 in the sweltering shade? To which I could only ask in reply, how can you possibly suck on fire and smoke under those conditions? That afternoon surface collecting in the relentless sun, we got into a long discussion (debate) over how to define the edge of cluster of artifacts, which ended with him giving me a long lecture on color wavelength, red lights, yellow lights, and green lights. After which, I said “Just tell me where the ^%&* edge is, and I will put a pin flag there.” He liked that. If I can find that old 35 mm slide, I will make you a better scan.

    Comment by David Meltzer — December 15, 2010 @ 7:42 am

  2. I read Systematics twice about fifteen years ago as a beginning graduate student, and now being reminded of it, was compelled to order a copy from Amazon. Brilliant book, but it didn’t give me an image of the author. And so now I have that — thank you!

    Comment by mike shupp — December 16, 2010 @ 1:39 am

  3. I met RCD a few times, but the most memorable of those times was the first. I was an undergraduate at a field school in Natchez, Mississippi. He came out to visit our site with his dog. A buddy of mine went up and introduced himself and asked, “What kind of dog is this?” Dunnell gave my friend a look, then looked down at the dog, and looked back at my friend and said, “it’s a brown dog,” and walked away.

    Comment by Stephen Rochester — March 11, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  4. I met Bob while attending Univ. of KY back in mid 60’s. We were both students of a Dr. Douglas Schwartz in the Anthropology department headed up by a Dr. Essene (I think). We worked together on 2-3 digs during the summers, one in Hazard Co., KY and at least one on the Green River in southwestern KY. He was somwhat a character back then and I have often wondered what he became. Tis good to know.

    Comment by Chuck Davidson — September 2, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

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