The Art and Mystery of Arkansas’s Historical Archeology

Dr. Leslie C. “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy Retires, June 30, 2015

After 38 years of service with the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Leslie C. Stewart-Abernathy―known to us as “Skip”―retired June 30, 2015.

Dr. Leslie C.

Dr. Leslie C. “Skip” Stewart-Abernathy upon his retirement from the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Picture ripped off from http://rockefellerinstitute.org/blog/archaeologist

Skip was born Leslie C. Abernathy III on May 11, 1948, in Memphis, Tennessee. He grew up, however, in Jonesboro, Arkansas. In 1970, he received his B.A. from Arkansas State University with a major in History (and the award of Outstanding History Student). He entered the U.S. Army as a lieutenant and served in Strategic Intelligence offices at Fort Bragg and at the Military Assistance Command Headquarters in Saigon in 1971 and 1972.

In Unlocking the Past: Celebrating Historical Archaeology in North America (DeCunzo and Jameson, 2005), Skip writes:

I knew I wanted to be an archeologist when I was six years old, but somehow Egypt and Greece seemed too far off, and I really wasn’t interested in arrowheads. Nonetheless, I had a misspent youth because when I got my driver’s license, I spent weekends exploring the many abandoned farmsteads on Crowley’s Ridge north of my home in Jonesboro in northeast Arkansas. I was intrigued by all the effort of so many families who ended up leaving their marks behind in the form of farmhouses, outbuildings, and fields that were disappearing under scrubby vegetation. I came to understand how many North Americans had lived and worked on farmsteads such as these. The house I had grown up in, a “ranch house” in the suburbs, was actually the odd case. What seemed normal to me was a recent occurrence, the end result of people abandoning their farms and moving to towns. Eventually they or their children moved to the suburbs where I grew up.

Thus, following his service, Skip chose “historical archeology” as his field of study and Brown University for his graduate work starting in 1972. There he studied with the legendary James Deetz and, just as importantly, an incredible cohort of graduate students including Anne Yentsch, Marley Brown, Kathleen Bragdon, Ian Brown, and Mary Beaudry.

Skip Stewart-Abernathy teaching local kids about archeology during the 1982 Arkansas Archeological Society Dig at the Abraham Block House in 1982 (note the Brown T-Shirt).

Skip Stewart-Abernathy teaching local kids about archeology during the 1982 Arkansas Archeological Society Dig at the Abraham Block House in 1982 (note the Brown T-Shirt).

Skip received his MA in 1974 for work including a research paper dealing with standing barns titled “The barns of Rehoboth, Massachusetts: an investigation into functional change and functional variability”. He finished his Ph.D. in 1981 with his dissertation entitled “Landscape, communities, and the ‘Community at Palmers River’: settling a river system, 1665-1737, Rehoboth, Massachusetts.”

In 1977, well before his dissertation was completed, Skip returned to Arkansas as the second University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Research Station Archeologist with the Arkansas Archeological Survey.  After returning to Arkansas, Skip met Judith Stewart and shortly thereafter they were married. In 1989, Skip and Judith Stewart-Abernathy moved to Russellville where Skip would take over the Research Station at Arkansas Tech University. Skip served there for 18 years before that station moved to become affiliated with the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute atop beautiful Petit Jean Mountain in 2007. Skip is the only researcher to have served as the Research Station Archeologist for three different Arkansas Archeological Survey Stations.

Skip at the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Dig where he served as the principle liaison to the public.

Skip at the 2012 Arkansas Archeological Society Dig where he served as the principle liaison to the public.

Although historic archeology has been conducted before him, Skip was the first trained historical archeologist working in the state. Therefore, despite the fact that he was stationed in east-central Arkansas, he was called upon to visit, evaluate and excavate sites in virtually every corner of Arkansas. His many, many important archeological projects in Arkansas include four Arkansas Archeological Society digs (and countless other projects) at state parks like Historic Washington State Park and Old Davidsonville, excavations at the Moser farmstead in Northwest Arkansas, and salvage excavations in places as diverse as the Ashley Mansion in downtown Little Rock and wrecked steamboats on the banks of the Mississippi in West Memphis. He has worked on French colonial sites in south Arkansas and on twentieth-century sites in the Delta and the Ozarks. Moreover, Skip’s work has tackled topics as diverse as colonial Arkansas, the lives of freed people of color, the organization of urban farmsteads, consumerism and identity, and daily life, race, enslavement and Jewish identity on the Arkansas cotton frontier.

Most importantly, Skip has been a tireless proselytizer for historical archeology in Arkansas and an unstoppable force for public outreach in the state. In honor of his many achievements Skip was given the Arkansas Historical Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011, the National Endowment for the Humanities Chairman’s Commendation in 2012, and the Arkansas Archeological Society’s McGimsey Preservation Award in 2014.

No one can replace Skip Stewart-Abernathy. We wish him the best of luck and happiness for his retirement.

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Categories: archeology, news, post, spotlight

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