In Memoriam Hester Davis – A National Treasure

Davis holds a vessel from the collections of the University of Arkansas Museum. Among many other positions she was assistant director of the museum from 1963 to 1967. photo by RICHARD BERQUIST
In 2005, Davis holding a vessel from the collections of the University of Arkansas Museum. Among many other positions she was assistant director of the museum from 1963 to 1967. photo by RICHARD BERQUIST

We mourn the recent passing of Hester Davis, considered a national treasure by the archaeological community. She served as the Arkanas State Archaeologist from the creation of the position, in 1967, until her retirement in 1999. For many years, she also taught Public Archaeology at the University of Arkanas, retiring as full professor.  In addition to being a pioneering archaeologist in the American Southeast, Hester Davis was a tireless advocate for the preservation of America’s cultural legacy.  She was a strong and effective advocate for historic preservation legislation  including the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 and programs to curb looting in the United States.  Hester was a good friend of The Archaeological Conservancy since our founding 35 years ago, and worked with us on many preservation projects in Arkansas.  We are honored to have worked with her. She will be deeply missed.

Below we include our article honoring her from 2005. The article highlights her work on the passage of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and her early career, with some very moving quotes from her at the end of the piece. Written by Micheal Overall  and published in our magazine American Archaeology in the Winter of 2005.


Legends of Archaeology: A National Treasure

Some of her closest friends call her “Molly,” as in Molly Pitcher, the American Revolutionary War hero who took her husband’s place on a battlefield after he was wounded. Her real name is Hester Davis, and she is now in semiretirement after more than three decades as the state archaeologist in Arkansas. While she has spent almost her entire career in Arkansas, her influence and reputation have spread nationwide. “Like Molly, she’s an American hero who maybe is not as well-known as she should be,” said Don Fowler, an archaeologist at the University of Nevada. “And, like Molly, she’s been willing to step in and do whatever it takes to get something done.”

Fowler, a former president of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA), has known Davis since the early 1970s, when they were both instrumental in persuading Congress to protect archaeological sites that were being destroyed by federal construction projects. With Davis largely responsible for organizing the campaign, archaeologists from across the country gained a political voice that the profession never had before, Fowler said. She recruited archaeologists from every state who were willing to make phone calls and write letters to members of Congress. “I don’t think anyone realized what a difference we could make if we all worked together,” Fowler said. “Hester was the one who got us to work together.”

Large-scale federal building projects had been destroying archaeological sites since at least the early 1920s, when massive flooding in Arkansas prompted the government to begin building levees along the Mississippi River, Fowler said. Tragically, much of the dirt for the levees came from prehistoric Indian mounds, which were considered a convenient and inexpensive source of material. “They never thought about the history they were destroying,” Davis said. “They never thought about the lessons that could have been learned if those sites had been studied. It’s hard to imagine it today, but the whole mentality was different back then.”

The push to change that mentality began in 1966, when Congress passed the National Historic Preservation Act, requiring that any construction project that uses federal funding take into account the impact it might have on buildings, structures, sites, and objects of historic significance. Preservationists credit the law with saving countless historic properties. Inspired by that success, Davis played a key role in rallying archaeologists to demand that there was adequate funding given to all federal agencies to pay for the research needed to establish the significance of archaeological sites as required by the 1966 act, Fowler said.

The campaign was a team effort that involved dozens of prominent archaeologists from across the country. “But she was the coach of the team,” Fowler said. “You have to understand that this was 30 years ago. A woman would have a hard time being heard in Washington.” Though she stayed behind the scenes, Davis instructed her male colleagues on how to get their message across to Congress. “She was always a step ahead of the politicians, anticipating their questions,” Fowler said. It took six years and several drafts of the legislation, but in 1974 Congress finally passed the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act, directing federal agencies to expend their own funds for investigations of archaeological sites if a construction project uses federal funding or requires federal licensing; previously only the National Park Service had this authority.

“The problem with an archaeological site,” Fowler said, “is that you can only dig it once. When it’s gone, it’s gone. Because of this law, we get to dig a site before the bulldozers go in, and there’s no way this law would have happened without Hester. To me, she’s a national treasure.” Davis keeps an office at the Arkansas Archeological Survey. The small room is crowded with stacks of paper and piles of mail. Bookshelves stretch from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, with hardly an empty space on them. “I have always loved minutiae,” Davis said. “I have a fondness for details.” That turned out to be a great advantage in her career.

Back in 1950, when she was studying history at Rollins College in Florida, she had no intention of becoming an archaeologist. But her sister, who had worked for the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, and her brother Mott Davis, himself a Harvard-educated archaeologist, encouraged her to spend the summer at an excavation in New Mexico. “I didn’t have a burning desire to go,” Davis remembered. “I didn’t have a passion for archaeology or anything like that. I just thought it sounded fun.” Indeed, it was so much fun that Davis was eventually drawn into the profession, despite the fact that most all archaeologists at that time were men. While working on an excavation, she often found herself as the only woman at a campsite, but she brushes off any suggestion that it must have been awkward or uncomfortable. “Camps are very laid-back and casual,” she said. “The relationships are very informal. And for some reason, archaeologists tend to have a good sense of humor. There’s always a lot of laughter at a camp.”

Early in her career, Davis realized that she didn’t particularly relish the digging. She preferred, instead, to stay in the camp’s lab, keeping records and organizing the artifacts. “It’s not the glamorous job,” Davis said. “But somebody has to do it, and I happened to enjoy it. I have a talent for making sure everything is correct and in detail.” That talent was noticed from the very beginning by Bob McGimsey, the field director at Davis’s first excavation in June 1950. Years later, he took a job at the University of Arkansas, where he convinced the state legislature to create a laboratory of archaeology. The university owned a huge collection of Arkansas artifacts that been found during the late 1920s and early ’30s, much of it excavated with WPA labor during the Great Depression. But the university had never done anything with it. “McGimsey had no idea what was there. Most of it was still in the paper sacks that it arrived in from the field,” Davis remembered. “He needed somebody to sort through it and organize it.” By then, Davis had earned master’s degrees from Haverford College and the University of North Carolina, and in the summer of 1959, McGimsey named her the museum preparator.

Soon after Davis arrived in the state, the Arkansas Archeology Society formed in 1960. It wasn’t uncommon, Davis said, for amateurs to explore archaeological sites, especially American Indian graves, but the methods were often decidedly unscientific. She described one old practice that involved breaking off a car radio’s antenna and using it to probe the ground for bones or relics. But instead of smugly dismissing these archaeological novices, Davis and McGimsey embraced them and started a summer educational program that would teach them proper techniques for excavating and record keeping. “You’re not going to stop these people from digging,” she says. “So why not teach them how to do it right?”

While it is no substitute for a university education or professional training, the Arkansas Training Program for Avocational Archaeologists provides a basic understanding of professional methods, Davis said. Now in its 41st year, it has not only trained thousands of archaeology enthusiasts—many of whom traveled to Arkansas from across the country to attend the classes—but it also has served as the inspiration and the model for similar programs in several other states. Davis was in charge of the logistics for the program until her retirement in 1999. Each summer session (Davis has attended every one) includes site survey, field excavation, laboratory processing, and various seminars. But as usual, she tends to prefer staying in the camp’s lab, making sure the records are detailed and accurate.

“I don’t know of anyone who has done more to educate the public about what archaeology is,” said Nancy White, an archaeologist at the University of South Florida. “She has shown people how crucial all that stuff is for the profession. Taking measurements, noticing details, documenting everything in the record, that’s what archaeology is.” White contributed a chapter on Davis for Grit-Tempered: Early Women Archaeologists in the Southeastern United States (University Press of Florida, 2001), a book about notable women archaeologists in the Southeast. She credits Davis with being one the main inspirations for the book, and she also praised Davis for helping clear the way for the current generation of women in the field.

“These stereotypes aren’t necessarily holding up in today’s world,” White said, “but certainly back when she was entering the profession, you could say that men were socialized to think about the big picture: providing for the family, getting a roof over your head. And women were socialized to think about the details: what’s for dinner tonight, does the baby’s diaper need to be changed? I think that’s what Hester brought to her work, an ability to pick up on details that the men were overlooking.”

Always a team player who was willing to do whatever job needed to be done, Davis never complained about being asked to do the “women’s work” of cooking and cleaning at a campsite, White said. Even in the later years of her career, when Davis had earned a lot of recognition from other archaeologists, she was often too modest to include her name on studies to which she made important contributions. “She always stayed in the background,”

White said. “But she worked harder and longer and better than all the others.” To understand how Davis accomplished so much and persuaded others to go along with her plans, Fowler suggested taking a long, deep look into her eyes. “You’ll see a twinkle in them. I’m sure it’s still there,” Fowler said. “When she asks you to do something, there’s no use is saying ‘No, there’s no way I can get that done.’ Because you will. One look at those eyes, and you can’t tell her no.”

Her sense of modesty and her reluctance to take credit also characterized Davis’ involvement with the SAA. While colleagues urged her to seek high-profile offices within the society, Davis never seemed tempted by important-sounding titles, said Fowler, who often sought advice from Davis while he was president of SAA from 1985 to 1987. “She was on all the important committees, getting the work done,” Fowler said. “She was never the person at center stage taking the applause, she was behind the scenes making things happen. At some point in life you learn that’s the important place to be, and she learned it very early in her life.”

Now Davis worries that some of her most important accomplishments might face an uncertain future. Congressional committees have recently discussed scaling back protections for archaeological sites, “There are powerful business interests at work in this,” she said. “They’re tired of spending money on old bones and pieces of pottery. To them, that’s all it is. As of this writing, there is no draft legislation, but the ideas are still in the minds of several powerful Congressmen, and a piece of legislation to gut the protection of archaeological sites could be dropped into the hopper at any moment. Vigilance is always required.”

She has some advice for younger archaeologists to help people realize why it’s important to protect those old bones and pieces of pottery. Focus not only on prehistoric archaeological sites, but also on historic ones. Say, for example, sites from the Civil War era or even late 19th- and early 20th-century farmsteads. “There are few firsthand documents about life in the farm in mid-America, so archaeology can bring to light details about the everyday life of people who cleared the land or lived through the Dust Bowl. These folks are the ancestors of many urban dwellers today, who may know nothing of their great-grandparents way of life,” Davis explained.

“People can recognize themselves in the lives of people from those time periods,” she said. “Life was different, but it was our culture. We can see ourselves in it, and that gets people excited about archaeology.” Once people are excited, it’s a small step to understanding why older archaeological sites are equally important resources to be treasured, protected, and studied. “Archaeology is about the total history of this land,” she said, “about us and about the Native Americans who lived here for so many thousands of years before Europeans arrived, about Chinese laborers who built the railroads across the west, about black slaves. Much of that history is not written down, and archaeology must make that link between the distant past and the present.”


You can also read more about her career,  life and work at Hester Davis