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April 4, 2012 Volume 33, No. 26

Anthropologist emeritus still digging up history


LIFETIME OF DISCOVERY Raymond Wood, Mizzou professor emeritus of anthropology, has been a leader in Great Plains archaeology for decades. His latest project involves digging through 19th-century fur trade journals. Mary Fama photo.


Wood recently published two books chronicling his exploits

While some work chronicles a lifetime, the work of W. Raymond Wood, a professor emeritus of anthropology, chronicles several thousand lifetimes.

He writes about his archaeological and anthropological exploits in his recently published books A White-Bearded Plainsman: The Memoirs of Archaeologist W. Raymond Wood and Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors: A Trading Post on the Upper Missouri, both available from Amazon. 

Growing up in northwestern Nebraska, Wood acquired an understanding of Native American culture, particularly that of the Sioux tribe. His career as an archaeologist began in 1950 as a “shovel bum” with various Smithsonian Institution field parties. 

“You’re the guy that’s out there digging stuff up,” he said. As a shovel bum, the young Wood counted the clock till 5 p.m. and tried to beat the heat.

In Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors, Wood writes about his first professional job in 1954 at the State Historical Society of North Dakota. While excavating North Dakota’s Fort Floyd, a fur trading post built in 1826, he found a fireplace and trench filled with bones of deer, antelope, rabbit and skunk. In the fort’s east corner, he discovered a wooden box containing the bones of an infant smothered in beads. The burial reflects the beliefs of a white male trader who had taken an Indian wife, Wood said. An Indian woman would not have buried her infant in beads. 

Wood joined the University of Missouri in 1963 as director of river basin archaeology. 

Michael O’Brien, dean of arts and science, said Wood was a patient and kind teacher who often rephrased Ph.D oral exam questions for nervous doctoral candidates.

“I think Ray Wood probably has produced more graduate students than anyone else in the department of anthropology,” said O’Brien, who worked with Wood for 32 years.

Wood was the kind of teacher who helped students find another solution in a field where it’s easy to say, “Here, get out of the way. Let me do it,” O’Brien said.

At one point a student gave Wood a sign that now hangs in his cluttered office stuffed with books. “If you’re not out of book space, you’re probably not worth knowing,” the sign says. 

Wood was involved in a number of important digs while at MU. In the 1970s, for example, he collaborated with R. Bruce McMillan, an adjunct professor, in the excavation of Rodger’s Shelter in the Missouri Ozarks. Wood and McMillan’s work helped scientists better understand the animals, climatic changes and human culture of southwestern Missouri over the last 10,500 years. 

Wood retired from MU in 2001. But he keeps on digging, sometimes in the dirt and sometimes through tattered manuscripts.

In recent years his work has centered on the history of the Missouri River fur trade. Wood is currently editing journals that offer daily accounts of activities between 1822 and 1850 at several fur trading posts. The project has generated interest from several publishers, Wood said. 

Wood’s career includes the publishing of 12 books, and in 2011 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for American Archaeology.

“Research and history is kind of like excavating,” Wood said. “You go out and dig for facts instead of digging up stuff in the ground.”

Wood finds it hard to express the feeling of discovering something hidden for hundreds or thousands of years. He finally called it “satisfaction.”

“I think every archaeologist has felt that at some time or another,” Wood said. 

— Lauren Foreman

To order Woods books from Amazon, click the following links: