- Associated Press - Friday, October 17, 2014

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Three years ago, George Frison, an emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Wyoming, remembers sitting in a hospital waiting room while his daughter underwent open-heart surgery.

The magazines were of no interest to him and the only thing on TV was a soap opera, so he found a note pad on a table by the telephone and started thinking back.

“I started writing down a few things about my daughter when she was very young,” he said.

When his daughter, Carol, was moved to her recovery room and Frison told her about his project, she encouraged him to expand it into a memoir.

Frison followed his daughter’s advice, and those scribbles on a notepad turned into a book-length publication, “Rancher Archaeologist,” which was published by University of Utah Press earlier this year.

The story, Frison said, is exactly what the title suggests. He recounts a mid-life transition from rancher to university student to professor of anthropology.

Drawing on experience working with and hunting large animals, Frison focused his research on hunting practices of Paleoindians who occupied the northern plains.

During his decades at UW, Frison researched almost a dozen bison bone beds, became the first Wyoming state archaeologist, authored dozens of articles and books, and garnered international recognition for his work. According to Todd Surovell, director of the George C. Frison Institute at UW, Frison “wrote the book on Wyoming archaeology.”

Frison’s grandfather founded the family ranch in 1901 near Ten Sleep in the Bighorn Basin. His father grew up on the ranch but died three months before Frison was born. Frison grew up there too, raised by his grandparents.

“The ranch was the only place in my world for a long time,” he said.

Indian trails passed through their land, and as a five-year-old, in 1929, he found a stone spear point on the ground. He spent his days in the saddle scouring the ground for more artifacts, which was fine with his grandfather as long as the cows didn’t stray.

He also remembers finding burial sites in caves up in the hills.

“Some pretty interesting things came out of those caves, some things that were well preserved,” he said.

From childhood onward, inspired by the traces of prehistoric life on the ranch, Frison was fascinated with the archaeological history of Wyoming.

“There was so much history and archaeology all over that I just got really interested, even in grade school,” he said.

During World War II, Frison served in the Navy. After his discharge, he went straight back to the ranch. His interest in archaeology continued, and he spent his ranching years gathering artifacts.

As the years passed and he grew older, he gradually realized collecting artifacts was a far cry from the work of professional archaeologists. He grew tired of being an outsider, and he felt a growing tug to pursue his passion.

The decision to upend his life and leave the ranch became easier when he began to experience back troubles stemming from his military service and ranch work. A neurosurgeon in Billings, Montana, told him he should quit ranch life before he crippled himself.

“Eventually, I took his advice,” Frison said.

In 1962, at 37 years old, Frison and his wife, June, moved to Laramie to work on an undergraduate degree. He then earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in a total of three years.

“I was in a hurry,” he said.

Five years after he started school, Frison returned to Laramie, this time as a faculty member in the newly formed Department of Anthropology. He became department chair his first year when the other two professors refused the job.

That same year, the Wyoming Archaeological Society lobbied the state to create an official state archaeologist. The terms of the position required the individual have a Ph.D. in archaeology and be a member of the UW Anthropology Department. Frison, on a nine-month appointment, was the only eligible person and served until 1984.

“It was a strange sort of adventure,” he said.

During his early years as a professional, Frison said, archaeology was a lightly regarded discipline at UW. Geology was the important science when it came to things underground.

Frison often funded his research with grants from the National Science Foundation and, over the coming decades, discovered a wealth of archaeological resources in the state.

“Wyoming turns out to be as prolific a state as there is in certain kinds of archaeological resources,” he said. “Fortunately again, it’s some of the oldest human occupations we know of here in the plains and Rocky Mountain area. I got into it at just about the right time.”

During his ranch years, Frison often guided big game hunters and knew the habits of deer, pronghorn, elk, bison and mountain goats. The serious study of bison kill sites began in the 1950s and 1960s, and Frison realized that scientists generally didn’t know much about large animal behavior or hunting.

He joined the work of excavating animal kill sites and applied his knowledge of animal behavior to understanding prehistoric sites and hunting strategies.

Bison were sometimes stampeded over cliffs, driven into traps or pushed into corrals. Prehistoric sites usually presented piles of bones mixed with weapons and tools for butchering meat.

Working with geologists, paleontologists and other scientists, Frison gained an understanding of strategies used to trap and kill bison, how old the animals were, what time of year the kill took place and how much meat the hunters harvested, among other findings.

“It was a really a multidisciplinary approach, and it worked out very nice,” he said.

This information allowed insights into the lives of the hunters themselves.

“You could establish something about the social activities and social behavior of people who were doing the hunting,” Frison said.

During his career, he wrote dozens of articles and had a hand in six books. Additionally, his text, “Prehistoric Hunters of the High Plains,” first published in 1978, became a go-to resource for information about the archaeology of the plains and Rocky Mountains.

His many honors include a lifetime achievement award from the Society for American Archaeology and Regents’ Fellowship Award from the Smithsonian Institution. UW has honored him as distinguished faculty, distinguished former faculty and outstanding alumnus. He was named to the National Academy of Sciences in 1997.

Frison retired in 1995 and has continued his research as a professor emeritus. He works now in a laboratory inside a brand new building at UW devoted to anthropology.

This summer, Frison explored a site near Guernsey that’s a source of iron ore and hematite. The site is also a source of red ochre, which was used as a pigment in the prehistoric world. Frison said red ochre probably had ritualistic value, but there’s still a lot to learn.

“We find it in just about every archaeological site, and we don’t understand all of it,” he said. “It’s pretty interesting stuff.”

During his ranching years, Frison trailed cattle across land that would later reveal major Paleoindian sites. Despite the disparate nature of the two halves of his working life, the one constant has been the Wyoming landscape.

He reflected that he was lucky enough to step into his career at a time when research funding was plentiful and he was able to bring an innovative approach to an unexplored realm of plains archaeology.

“I think if I had to do it over again, I’d do the same thing,” he said.


Information from: Laramie Boomerang, https://www.laramieboomerang.com

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