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Roots of Southwest Archaeology Oral History Interviews

As part of its Oral History Project, which focuses primarily on the history of the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society (AAHS) and the historiography of southwestern archaeology and anthropology, the Arizona Archaeological and Historical Society presents these video interviews with some of the senior archaeologists and anthropologists of southwestern archaeology. 

When he was president of the society, Don Burgess began this program with support from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation under the auspices of Director Diane Bret Harte.  The AAHS Oral History Project Committee consisted of Alex Cook, Madelyn Cook, Tom Euler, and Sarah Herr.  Alex and Madelyn Cook made the videos, and Alex Cook edited them. 

Our initial videos are Bernard Fontana and James Ayres discussing the beginnings of historical archaeology with each other and Raymond Thompson discussing archaeology and his career with interviewer Beth Grindell.  Following are brief biographies of each person. Links to the videos follow each biography.

James E. Ayres (1936-2015)

Jim Ayres received a B.A. from Fresno State College and an M.A. from the University of Arizona in 1970.  He was a pioneer in historical archaeology of the West.  

Ayres directed excavations for the Tucson Urban Renewal Project in the late 1960s, headed the research division at the Arizona State Museum, served as Arizona State Historic Preservation Officer, taught at both the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, and did independent consulting.  

Ayres served as President of the Society for Historical Archaeology in 1977 and received the society’s two highest awards, including the J. C. Harrington medal.  He chaired the Tucson-Pima County Historical Commission and received the Arizona Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation.  Ayres spent many summers recording historical logging sites in the Uinta Mountains in Utah. 

Bernard “Bunny” Fontana (1931-2016)

Bunny Fontana was a cultural anthropologist, field researcher, archaeologist, historian, writer, and co-founder of Patronato San Xavier, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration of Mission San Xavier del Bac.  He helped create the Southwestern Mission Research Center at the University of Arizona in 1965 to support borderlands research and education. 

Fontana received a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona in 1960.  He spent 30 years at the university in roles including field historian with the library, ethnologist at the Arizona State Museum, and lecturer in the Department of Anthropology.

Fontana wrote vibrant histories of the indigenous populations of the Southwest, including the Tohono O’odham in Arizona and Sonora and the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) in Chihuahua, Mexico, and he was the leading expert on Mission San Xavier.  Starting in the late 1980s, Fontana advocated for and then organized a five-year restoration of the mission, weathered by two centuries of water and sun damage, graffiti, and faulty earlier restorations.  Fontana brought in international experts on art conservation to head up the interior restoration.

James Ayres and Bernard Fontana – Part 1

James Ayres and Bernard Fontana – Part 2

James Ayres and Bernard Fontana – Part 3

James Ayres and Bernard Fontana – Part 4


Raymond Thompson (1924-present)

Raymond Thompson is Fred A. Riecker Distinguished Professor of Anthropology Emeritus and Professor Emeritus in the School of Anthropology, University of Arizona. He served as head of the Department of Anthropology from 1964 to 1980 and director of the Arizona State Museum from 1964 to 1997.    

By high school, Thompson knew he wanted to be an archeologist. Tufts University, which offered him a four-year scholarship, did not have an archaeology program, and so he enrolled as a geology major. Knowing that the University and the state of Arizona were considered “nirvana for archaeologists,” Thompson applied during his junior year at Tufts to the University of Arizona’s Point of Pines archaeological field school. He was accepted, and it was at that summer field school, on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, that he met Emil Haury, then director of Arizona State Museum (ASM) and what was then the University of Arizona Department of Anthropology.  Thompson returned to Point of Pines the following summer as dig foreman. 

Thompson continued his education at Harvard, where he earned his master’s in 1950 and his doctorate in 1955.  He went on to teach at the University of Kentucky, where he stayed in contact with Haury, who offered him a University of Arizona faculty position in 1956. 

Thompson guided the highly ranked anthropology program through a period of booming growth in higher education, during which time the department ballooned from 14 to 40 faculty members. 

In 1980, when the Anthropology Department and museum split into separate units, Thompson stepped down as department head, but remained museum director until 1997, when he officially retired at age 73. 

Thompson was among the first museum directors in the country to bring in computers and conservators.  He also began the process of repatriation—returning Native American cultural items to their tribes—before it was required by law, and he lobbied for and helped get passed the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.  Thompson was active nationally in the American Association of Museums, serving on many committees and task forces, and he contributed to many regional and local professional museum associations. He received the Distinguished Service Award from the American Anthropological Association and was president of the Society for American Archaeology and received its Distinguished Service Award.  


Beth Grindell

Beth Grindell was appointed director of Arizona State Museum (ASM) on July 14, 2008. The museum’s first female director, Beth came to the University of Arizona in 1986 to study for a graduate degree in anthropology and started work at ASM as a student, joining the staff permanently in 1993.  During her first several years at ASM, Grindell was instrumental in setting up the AZSITE Project, a collaborative effort of several state and private agencies to develop a geographically referenced cultural resource database for the State of Arizona, and she served as its coordinator.  Grindell served as the museum’s associate director from 2003 to 2008 and director from 2008 to 2013.

In 1998, Grindell earned a Ph.D. following studies that included archaeological excavations in France, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, as well as New York and Connecticut. Her current research interests include mortuary studies and nineteenth and twentieth century American cemeteries.  Grindell has taught archaeology in the University of Arizona’s School of Anthropology and at Pima Community College.

Raymond Thompson interviewed by Beth Grindell – Part 1

Raymond Thompson interviewed by Beth Grindell – Part 2