Carlyle Smith: Jazz Age New Yorker to Kansas Archaeologist (1915-1993)

Carlyle Smith on horseback

Carlyle Smith’s experiences as an archaeologist mostly occurred after World War II, but he was quite literally present at the beginning of the Jazz Age: He was born in 1915 and grew up on Long Island, New York, just down the street from Jazz Age coiner and author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The fictional “West Egg” where the new money lived in The Great Gatsby is based on Smith’s hometown of Great Neck. Fitzgerald was not the only famous resident; P.G. Wodehouse lived there, as did the Marx Brothers, Ring Lardner, and George M. Cohan. Comedian Sid Caesar was born there 1922 and Chic Young created the comic strip Blondie (who was originally a flapper) there in 1930. While Carlyle Smith’s “middle class small town oriented” parents were neither flapper nor sheik, his kindergarten was located above a speakeasy.

Smith became involved in archaeology as a teenager, exploring the numerous shell middens on Long Island and taking some of the artifacts he found to the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan.

He went to college at Columbia University, where one of his professors was archaeologist Duncan Strong. After his graduation in 1938, Smith embarked on an epic archaeology road trip with Strong. Leaving Long Island in a V8 Ford Woody he had bought for $250, and with a .45 caliber pistol strapped to the steering wheel, they headed west. When they reached North Dakota, they excavated the Slant Village and Biesterfeldt sites, living with some of the Arikara there. They then drove to the Hagen Site in Montana, through Yellowstone, and on to the Lindenmeier Site in Colorado, where Frank Roberts was excavating. Turning back east, they visited several sites in Nebraska and the Spiro Mounds in Oklahoma.

Carlyle Smith in Nebraska

Carlyle Smith returned to Columbia for his Ph.D. and conducted additional archaeological fieldwork in Nebraska, New York (as a field assistant to Mary Butler of Vassar), and Louisiana (assisting George Quimby). His dissertation was published as The Archaeology of Coastal New York. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Forces. In 1947, he and his wife, Judith, arrived in Lawrence, Kansas, to serve as a museum curator and professor at the university, where they lamented the difficulty of finding good restaurants, delis, and liquor. The gastronomical situation gradually improved, and Smith spent the rest of his career at the University of Kansas, retiring in 1981.

Smith focused on Great Plains archaeology and excavated many sites in Kansas and nearby states, including the Talking Crow site in South Dakota. His wife and children often accompanied him in the field, and he raised a few eyebrows by permitting both men and women to work on the same site.

His other main interest, antique firearms, led to research on gunflint manufacture in France and Italy, and the experiments with shooting concrete-filled orange juice cans out of a small cannon he owned.

In 1955, he and three other archaeologists joined adventurer Thor Heyerdahl on an almost year-long expedition to Easter Island (Rapa Nui) and other Pacific Islands. Almost ten years earlier, Heyerdahl had built and sailed a raft, the Kon-Tiki, from South America to Polynesia. Now he wanted to find archaeological proof that Polynesians had originally migrated to the Pacific islands from South America, rather than from farther west. Despite Heyerdahl’s best efforts, the results failed to demonstrate this. Smith and the other archaeologists did, however, obtain much valuable archaeological data. The resulting report documented stone quarries and temple sites on the island, but perhaps the greatest outcome for Carlyle Smith was his ability to thereafter get free cruise ship vacations as a lecturer and guide – revisiting Easter Island at least 13 times.


Grange, Roger T., Jr.
1993 Memorial: Carlyle Shreeve Smith, 1915-1993. Historical Archaeology 28:7-14.

Smith, Carlyle S.
1989 “The Life and Work of Carlyle Shreeve Smith.” Oral History Project, The University of Kansas. Accessed 2015.

2006 From Long Island to the Great Plains. Plains Anthropologist 51(200):527-536.

Solecki, Ralph
2006 Reminiscences of Plains Archaeology, Pre- and Post-World War II. Plains Anthropologist Vol. 51(200):537-552.