The Morturary Behavior of a Paramount Chief, or, The Ashes of James B. Griffin

My good friend and old colleague Gregory Vogel sent me an interesting e-mail this afternoon. Greg is currently doing a post-doc at the Center for American Archeology in Kampsville, Illinois. At any rate, he tells us that a recent organizational meeting ended with a surprising mortuary ritual.


James B. Griffin (pictured above during his 1930s work in the Lower Mississippi Valley) was one of the most influential archaeologists of the United States during the 20th century. He had a five-decade-long tenure in the University of Michigan Department of Anthropology, and acted as the director of the Museum of Anthropology. He had over 260 publications including such landmark works as Archeology of Eastern United States (AKA “the Green Bible”), and Archaeological Survey in the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley, 1940-1947 (AKA “P, F & G” as it was, of course, co-authored Phillip Phillips and James Ford).

Griffin died in 1997 and Greg now tells me that he was cremated, and it was his wish that the ashes be split, with half of them scattered in the Illinois River Valley (Greg didn’t know what happened to the other half of the secondary burial). Jane Buikstra, the Leslie Spier Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico and a bioarchaeologist certainly accustomed to dealing with chiefly burials, ended up with the Illinois Valley portion of “Jimmy.” Before now, Vogel tells us, she hadn’t found an appropriate occasion to broadcast the remains.

Below is a snippet from Greg’s e-mail:

Many of the people attending this meeting knew Griffin, so they went out in a pontoon boat (see attached picture), motored a few miles above Kampsville until they were opposite the Kamp Mound Group, and decanted the remains into the river from a reconstructed Elizabeth Mounds Site bowl. In attendance on the boat were Jane Buikstra, Jim Brown, David Ash, Nancy Ash Sidell, Gail Anderson, John Doershuk, Bonnie Styles, Rochelle Lurie, Sarah Neusius, and Mike Wiant. A touching final ceremony for Jimmy Griffin.


One last humorous note: Along with the bag of cremains was a note, apparently from Griffin’s son, that read “No chemical tests.”

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Categories: archeology, history, post

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