Beginning in the early 1920s, William Augustus Ritchie dedicated his career to digging archaeological sites in New York state, but he did make a few exceptions, venturing south into New Jersey and north into Ontario. Late in his career, he also traveled east to Massachusetts to investigate several sites on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
In a recent dissertation, Katharine Kirakosian interviewed several archaeologists and read through thousands of pages of letters, field notes, and articles to chronicle the history shell midden archaeology in Massachusetts. Ritchie’s excursion to the Vineyard in the 1960s, brief as it was, plays a large role in her study. Her work provides an interesting, if incomplete, outsider perspective on Ritchie’s career and influence.
Her sources indicate that there was some unhappiness with Ritchie working in Massachusetts, with some archaeologists, although publicly supporting his work, viewing it as trespassing on others’ sites and “an attempt to conquer a nearby state.” (p. 267) Others viewed him differently. James Tuck, who would become a prominent archaeologist in Newfoundland, Canada, was Ritchie’s fishing buddy on the Vineyard.
No one who has studied Ritchie’s site plans in The Archaeology of New York will be surprised to learn from one of her informants, a retired academic archaeologist who worked with Ritchie, that he “was known to get most excited when uncovering post molds, which may have led to a bit of poetic license while reconstructing patterns reconstructing structure patterns. …[her informant] recalled that at one New York site
we were scratching our heads, you know, seeing post molds everywhere and we couldn’t really figure out exactly how he got the shape […] well you got to do something and so he connected the dots and […] it’s probably best guess sort of thing. (p. 242)
Ritchie had a reputation for both mentoring graduate students and having a “bawdy sense of humor.” (p. 242) Unlike some professional archaeologists, he worked well with amateur archaeologists, too. He did not, however, like having visitors at his sites. At one New York site he was working on
he had all these big huge pieces of pottery […] sitting on the edge of the trench. So he did a little spiel and then he saw that all these people were standing on top of all these potsherds and he went berserk. That’s what he said. He went crazy “get off this site get out of here” and so forth and so on. (p. 249-250)
Perhaps the best credential Ritchie has is this: “when he finally completed his last site report, he [said] ‘I’m completely out of archaeology … I published everything I ever dug up.’ (p. 252)
2014 Curious Monuments of the Simplest Kind: Shell Midden Archaeology in Massachusetts. Doctoral Dissertations May 2014 – Current, February 1, 2014. University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Ritchie, William A.
1969 The Archaeology of New York State. Revised edition. The Natural History Press, Garden City, NY.
1969 The Archaeology of Martha’s Vineyard: A Framework for the Prehistory of Southern New England, A Study in Coastal Ecology and Adaptation. The Natural History Press, Garden City, NY.
An earlier version of this was posted on Jazz Age Adventurers