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His work focused on culture change and the cultural aspects inherent in the historic and archaeological record, and was concerned primarily with the Massachusetts and Virginia colonies. James Deetz was interested in obtaining valuable information that could be used to better understand the lives of early North American colonists, natives, and African Americans. He heavily investigated a variety of material culture related to these groups to better comprehend their social behavior.
Deetz was born in Cumberland, MD, coal country, and was the first in his family to finish high school, much less follow with three Harvard degrees on a full scholarship. He felt a particular affinity for author John Updike and regretted that their times at Harvard did not overlap.
Deetz received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees from Harvard. Following college, Deetz enlisted in the United States Air Force. He served for four years before he was honorably discharged in 1955. In 1957 he began working on the River Basin Survey site in Missouri. This work inspired him to get his Ph.D dissertation in "An Archaeological Approach to Kinship Change in Eighteenth Century Arikara Culture." Deetz then became an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California. In his lifetime, he taught at University of California, Santa Barbara, Harvard, Brown, William and Mary, the University of Cape Town, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Virginia. While teaching at the University of California, Deetz teamed up with J. O. Brew and Harry Hornblower to excavate sites related to North American colonial archaeology. He would later meet Henry Glassie who was his inspiration to write In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life, which was published in 1977.
By the time he was an established scholar, he was active in evaluating grant applications for the National Endowment for the Sciences and was particularly fond of having approved the construction of a 19th century settlement village proposed to be burned to the ground so that the patterns of nail distribution could be studied to allow more accurate reconstruction of archaeological sites.
Deetz emphasized the importance of analyzing the physical artifacts themselves, rather than just interpreting them from archaeological reports. Deetz wrote more than 60 articles and books, influencing the style of how authors in the field of archaeology write. One of Deetz’s most famous works, In Small Things Forgotten, he used a simple yet sophisticated writing style which incorporated detailed examples of his research, including the methods and theories of his works. This book is still used in introductory archaeology classrooms today because of its ability to be understood at a basic level.
Deetz was one of the first archaeologists to foresee the influence that technology could have on the evolution of archaeology. While working on a site in Massachusetts in 1959, Deetz was able to tie in technology into the archaeological profession. He wrote a program that was used in an IBM mainframe computer, which was able to sort rim sherds based on specific characteristics of each individual piece. Although it was a painfully long and frustrating process, the program successfully differentiated and sorted the different sherds. The success of his program illustrated how archaeology can be more accurate by eliminating the human bias from rim sherd sorting. Programming today is now a much more efficient and accurate process than from the past, meaning archaeologists now routinely use its power in their work. Jim Deetz was able to influence the use of technology in the field of archaeology, making the profession much more accurate.
- The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony. (With Patricia Scott Deetz). New York: W.H. Freeman. 2000.
- In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. (Expanded and revised edition). New York: Anchor, Doubleday. 1996.
- Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation, 1619- 1864. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1993.
- The Transformation of British Culture in the Eastern Cape, 1820-1860 (with Margot Winer). Social Dynamics vol. 16 no.1 pp. 55–75. 1990.
- American Historical Archaeology: Methods and Results. Science vol. 239, January 22: 362-7. 1988.
- History and Archaeological Theory: Walter Taylor Revisited. American Antiquity 53(1):13-22. 1988.
- In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: Doubleday. 1977.
- Invitation to Archaeology. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press. 1967
- Colonial America
- Historical archaeology
- Parting Ways (Plymouth, Massachusetts)
- Schuyler, Robert L. (July 1980). "REVIEW: In Small Things Forgotten, The Archaeology of Early American Life by James Deetz". American Antiquity. 45 (3): 643–645. doi:10.2307/279893. JSTOR 279893. – via JSTOR (subscription required)