Born in 1930, Hester Ashmead Davis did not initially set out to be an archaeologist, but got hooked in the course of a summer job. She would later become leading figure in American archaeology, and help shape two of its main trajectories: cultural resource management and public archaeology.
After earning her undergraduate and not one but two master’s degrees, Hester went to Arkansas to work as a museum preparator in 1959. Just one year later, she was appointed Assistant Director of the University Museum. The rapidly disappearing archaeological landscape of Arkansas became one of Hester’s primary concerns. At the same time, Hester recognized that avocational archaeologists knew the most about local sites and could be allies if a positive relationship was forged based on education and the pursuit of common goals. Together with Charles McGimsey, Hester worked to create a new statewide Arkansas Archeological Society. Formed in 1964, it emphasizes the scientific partnership of amateur and professional archaeologists, and includes an annual Training Program.
Hester’s efforts, with the political support of all those like-minded surface-collecting citizens, convinced the Arkansas Legislature to create the Arkansas Archeological Survey in 1967. Now a division of the University of Arkansas System, the Survey is a statewide program of professional research, college level teaching, preservation, and outreach. That same year Hester was appointed Arkansas’s first State Archaeologist, a position she retained until her retirement in 1999. She developed and taught one of the first college courses in Public Archaeology for the University of Arkansas’s Department of Anthropology. The reputation of the Survey drew students from around the country to the UA master’s program with its focus on cultural resource management (CRM) archaeology during that period.
Hester and Charles McGimsey took their fight for archaeological preservation to the national scene by lobbying for the Moss-Bennett Bill, which became the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act of 1974. In her position as chair of the Society for American Archaeology’s Committee on Public Archaeology, Hester encouraged her colleagues to help support passage of Moss-Bennett. Her articles in Archaeology magazine (1971) and Science (1972) foregrounded the preservation of cultural resources as an issue of concern for professional archaeologists as well as the general public. (As a side note, Hester was the only woman to contribute a single-authored article to Science that year.)
Hester was an officer of many professional organizations, served on numerous boards and committees, and was the first non-Ph.D. to be elected to the Society for American Archaeology’s Executive Committee. She also held many editorial positions throughout her career, and was appointed by President Clinton to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee. Among her numerous awards, she received the SAA’s first Award for Excellence in Cultural Resource Management and the Distinguished Service Award. Her 1999 book Remembering Awatovi, the Story of an Archaeological Expedition in Northern Arizona 1935-1939 won a gold medal in the Independent Publishers IPPY Book Awards.
Despite national and international recognition, Hester remained committed to the people and archaeology of Arkansas, regularly attending the Training Programs she had helped to establish (where her famous “electric shovel” was sometimes displayed) and serving as editor of the Arkansas Archeological Society Bulletin and newsletter for 40 years.
In addition to her many career achievements, Hester was a generous hostess to dozens of incoming graduate students and new employees, and an outstanding benefactor to the organizations to which she had dedicated her life’s work. She once told a young woman considering switching careers that women were better represented in archaeology than in many of the sciences, “but we could always use more.”
Hester Davis passed away on December 30, 2014. In 2015 she was inducted posthumously into the inaugural class of the Arkansas Women’s Hall of Fame.
In Memoriam: Hester Davis-A National Treasure. The Archaeological Conservancy.
Davis, Hester A., 1971 Is there a future for the past? Archaeology 24(4):300–306.
Davis, Hester A., 1972 The crisis in American archaeology. Science 175:267–72.
McGimsey, Charles R., III, and Hester A. Davis, 1992 History of the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Special Publication, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville.
White, Nancy Marie, 1999 Hester A. Davis, A Legend in Public Archaeology. In Grit-Tempered. Early Women Archaeologists in the Southeastern United States, edited by Nancy Marie White, Lynne P. Sullivan, and Rochelle A. Marrinan, pp. 206–229. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.
Written by Deborah Sabo, Research Assistant, Arkansas Archeological Survey, Fayetteville, Arkansas, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Arkansas Archeological Survey can be found on Twitter at @ArkArcheoSurvey . The mission of the Arkansas Archeological Survey is to study and conserve the state’s archeological heritage and to communicate this information to the public. The Arkansas Archeological Survey is a unit of the University of Arkansas System. For more information see http://www.arkansasarcheology.org.
Images provided by the Arkansas Archeological Survey and used with permission. The image of Hester Davis at her desk was taken at the University of Arkansas Museum in 1962. She is also pictured with her famous “electric shovel” at the Ferguson site in SW Arkansas, ready to repair a collapsed mound profile. Credit: The University of Arkansas Museum Collections, Photo Nos. 62-CO-203 and 74-CO-2015.