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Washington State University
CAS Connect April 2016

A leader in American archaeology

WSU archaeologist Bill Lipe helped define what we know today about the ancient Native American past

The sun beat down on William “Bill” Lipe as he led a small team of archeologists through a maze of towering, rust-red domes, vertical cliffs, and narrow canyons.

It was 1958 and the 23-year-old doctoral student was leading the first research excavation crew of his career as part of the Glen Canyon Archeological Project in southern Utah.

Glen Canyon Project Field School, Loper Ruin, mouth of Red Canyon. Summer of 1958. L to R: Peter Bodenheimer, Joe Jorgensen, Bill Lipe, Keith Anderson, Lynn Robbins. Photo probably by Wayne Coon or Dave Dibble
Members of the Glen Canyon Project Field School at Loper Ruin, mouth of Red Canyon, in the summer of 1958, from left: Peter Bodenheimer, Joe Jorgensen, Bill Lipe, Keith Anderson, and Lynn Robbins.

For thousands of years, the area had been home to the Pueblo Indians and their ancestors. But the U.S. government planned to flood the canyon to form Lake Powell, and it was Lipe’s job to salvage any information he could find about the ancient cultures before the 186-mile-long canyon system was submerged.

In the early and mid-20th century, archeological research and preservation interests were largely ignored in economic development and infrastructure projects. Limited time and funding often allowed only an occasional “salvage” of information before important archaeological sites were damaged, destroyed, or flooded and their contents lost forever.

Bill Lipe

Lipe’s Glen Canyon excavations were part of the largest salvage archeology project in the country at the time. From 1957 to 1963, more than 2,000 sites were recorded and, of them, more than 200 were excavated to collect invaluable artifacts and to document structures and other features.

The four years Lipe spent surveying and excavating in the canyon helped establish a detailed archaeological record of the area’s Pueblo history, although he admits that much evidence was left unexamined.

The experience shaped his emerging views of the need for a conservation-first approach to archeology, and touched off his decades-long career in archaeological study, preservation, and public education.

“Over the years, my work has been driven by a personal conviction that archaeological sites are finite, nonrenewable resources that are valuable to society,” Lipe said. “Like natural resources, they require stewardship and management for future generations.”

Now an emeritus professor in anthropology at WSU, Lipe is widely credited with helping to transform the archaeological approach to federal development to now emphasize conservation and management.

Lipe, far left, with his research excavation team in 1958.

“Bill was one of a half-dozen or so archaeologists in the 1970s who put together a vision for how archaeologists could best work with emerging legislation to help conserve the archaeological record and teach the public about what happened in prehistory,” said Tim Kohler, Regents professor of anthropology and one of Lipe’s longtime colleagues and friends.

“Starting in the 1970s, archaeologists’ goals began to expand,” Lipe said. “In addition to doing good research by trained archeologists, we encouraged the involvement of the public in excavation and lab work. We also began to bring kids onsite to learn about archaeology.”

Preserving America’s archeological legacy

Lipe joined the WSU faculty in the mid-1970s, when the effects of major new environmental, historic preservation, and civil rights laws were beginning to be seen. At the time, concerns of Native Americans and the general public about the destruction of archaeological sites by uncontrolled development were reaching a peak. In his seminal, 1974 paper, “A Conservation Model for American Archeology,” Lipe proposed several conservation measures to address the problem.

Lipe is seated fourth from left with his research excavation team in 1961.

He argued for greater cooperation with Native American tribes and for including a public outreach and education component in archaeological projects. He also advocated for federal agencies to involve archeologists early in the planning process for public works projects.

Lipe’s paper helped pave the way for changes in federal regulations and advocacy efforts that were a tipping point for replacing the salvage approach in archeology to one based on “cultural resource management.”

“Archeology started to become a much more public enterprise in the ’70s and ’80s,” Lipe said. “And archeologists and the federal government finally started working with Native American tribes instead of just paying them lip service. It wasn’t always a smooth ride, but the field has come a long way in the last 60 years.”

A leader in archaeology for the Americas

While at WSU, Lipe has taken leading roles in several major U.S. archeological projects. From 1978 to 1983, he led a WSU team that partnered with University of Colorado researchers on the Dolores Archaeological Program in southwestern Colo., where McPhee Dam and Reservoir are now located. They surveyed and recorded more than 1,000 archaeological sites in the area, excavated more than 100 of them, and published 13 in-depth reports, some consisting of multiple volumes.

From 1985 to 1992, Lipe also spent summers and an occasional semester on leave from WSU to help develop the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, a unique nonprofit organization in Cortez, Colo., devoted to public education, research, and collaboration with Native American communities.

Today, the center employs 50 people and has an endowment of around $20 million. Its researchers work closely with the Village Ecodynamics Program, an internationally acclaimed, multi-disciplinary, multi-institution research effort led at WSU by Kohler. Crow Canyon annually enrolls more than 2,000 students and adults in multi-day programs that introduce them to archaeology and Native American culture. Summer workshops attract K-12 teachers from around the United States.

As president of the Society for American Archaeology (1995-97), Lipe worked for recognition of cultural resource management as a professional specialty alongside academics, and he helped defeat Congressional attempts to weaken historic preservation laws.

Not slowing down

At 81 years young, Lipe continues to be involved in archaeological investigations and shows no signs of slowing down. Every day he reads two or three newspapers before heading to his office in College Hall on the Pullman campus where he works with students and maintains an active research program.

“I have three kids in the Northwest and a lot of friends in Pullman,” Lipe said. “It is a comfortable life, and I enjoy assembling the numbers out of a computer as the field becomes more quantitative. Although I will admit depending on graduate students and a few long-time colleagues for help with any advanced statistics,” he said.

“All of us here in the department are very grateful for the way Bill has shared his knowledge over the years and the opportunities he helped make available for us,” Kohler said. “When I was a brand-new temporary instructor in 1978, Bill took a chance on me. I specialized in archaeology of the Southeast, but with Bill’s encouragement, I thrived in the Southwest.

“Now, 15 years after his ‘retirement,’ Bill is still a terrific resource for graduate students and faculty. He even just published an important article in American Antiquity, one of the top journals in our field.”

Lipe has been recognized with many prestigious honors, including distinguished service awards from the Society for American Archaeology, the Society of Professional Archeologists, and the Archaeological Institute of America. In 2010, the American Anthropological Association honored him with the A.V. Kidder Award for eminence in American archaeology, one of the nation’s most distinguished awards in the profession. WSU presented Lipe the Emeritus Society Legacy of Excellence Award in 2011.

To learn more about Lipe, his work in the American Southwest, and his contributions to public archeology, check out Tracking Ancient Footsteps, edited by Tim Kohler and R.G. Matson.