• Podcast
  • May 29 2019

'Behind the Blue': UK Anthropologist Dick Jefferies’ Fascinating Work

Anthropology is the study of human culture in the past and the present. University of Kentucky Professor Richard "Dick" Jefferies is now in his fourth decade as a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology, within UK’s College of Arts and Sciences.

In his work of teaching, research and service, Jefferies, an archaeologist, uncovers objects that shed light on how people in Kentucky and elsewhere lived hundreds and even thousands of years ago.

On this week’s episode of “Behind the Blue,” UK Public Relations and Strategic Communications' Carl Nathe talks with Jefferies about his fascinating career which includes the mentorship of many outstanding students over the years.

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For questions or comments about this or any other episode of "Behind the Blue," email BehindTheBlue@uky.edu or tweet your question with #BehindTheBlue.


ANNOUNCER: From the campus of the University of Kentucky, you're listening to Behind the Blue.

INTERVIEWER: We are pleased this week to be joined on the Behind the Blue podcast by Richard, Dick, Jefferies, longtime Professor of Anthropology here at the University of Kentucky Anthropology department of course, within the College of Arts and Sciences.

Dick, first of all, thanks for joining us.

DICK JEFFERIES: Oh, you're welcome.

INTERVIEWER: Where did you grow up? Where were you educated? And how did you get interested in this field?

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, I grew up in Alexandria, Virginia and went to George Mason College for a couple of years, which was part of the University of Virginia. And I graduated from the University of Virginia. And then I went into the service, the Navy, for a couple of years and went, came back, and went to graduate school at the University of Georgia where I got my master's and doctorate.

INTERVIEWER: What interested you in the field of anthropology? But before we get to that, give me a layperson's definition of anthropology.

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, basically anthropology is the study of human culture in the past and the present, and I'm an archaeologist, which in this country is part of anthropology at the university. So I study human culture in the past through material remains, things.

INTERVIEWER: How did you first get-- did you have an interest in this when you were in high school or anything?

DICK JEFFERIES: Oh, yeah. I grew up in a family very interested in history. We're from Virginia. And I lived with my grandfather, and he used to tell me stories about his grandfather and what it was like when they were growing up. And it just always fascinated me about learning about what happened in the past.

And as a kid, my dad and I would go out and walk in the woods and find things, and we'd wonder, well, this is a fossil. How old is that? Just curiosity-- I don't know. I guess I've always look backward more than forward, which is not always a good thing.

INTERVIEWER: One of the favorite phrases you'll hear from an historian is the past is prologue. Well, when you look at human culture and you look at civilizations, we find out that there's people that were doing some pretty surprising things long before we ever imagined they would be. When you do archeology, when you do a dig, you'll uncover some things that really go back a long time.

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, I mean, one thing I've always been interested in is the domestication of plants. And we have domesticated plants everywhere today. We just kind of assume they're around. But at one point we didn't in this country. And I'm a North American archaeologist. And I've always been interested in looking at how native plants, that is the local plants, wild plants, came to be cultivated and domesticated.

So it's obviously a long, slow process. But by looking at the plant remains that are preserved and looking at changes in the seeds and things like that and then looking at the age of those things, we can get an idea of how and when certain wild-- what we call wild-- plants. They were domesticated prior to European arrival.

INTERVIEWER: Now, one of the things I want to ask you about with your career in anthropology and that is the fact that you've literally traveled all over the country with your work. You've been in the Southeastern and Midwestern United States, the Mississippian Settlement Spanish Mission period in the southeastern United States.

First of all, when I look at back at your education, when you earned your doctorate at Georgia-- you serve on many dissertation committees here at the University of Kentucky. You just had a presentation by, as we talked today on a Wednesday, you had somebody presenting and defending their dissertation. So what was your own dissertation about?

DICK JEFFERIES: My dissertation looked at a period of time about 2,000 years ago we called the Woodland Period. It's just a name archaeologists have given to that time period. And I was interested in where those people were living. I was working in Northwest Georgia and Lookout Mountain.

I had an area of study. And I was interested to see where the sites that were occupied by those people at that time were located, and by looking at stone tools that were left behind, how the activities varied from the valley bottom to the top of the mountain. And we find that some of the larger sites that were occupied more year around perhaps were by the streams and rivers. And as we get further away, some of them up on the mountaintops were just occupied by a few people for a short period of time.

And we can look at the things they left behind to get an idea on what they were doing up there as opposed to down by the village. So it was trying to reconstruct what we call the settlement system-- settlement organization for this period of time about 2,000 years ago.

INTERVIEWER: Now you got your PhD at Georgia in 1978. What was the next step in your career?

DICK JEFFERIES: Well after I got my degree, of course, I needed to get a job, and I was offered a job at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois running a very large archaeological project that was being run through Southern Illinois University. And it involved the investigation of about 160 acres of land in Southern Illinois that was going to be part of a surface mine, and it had several very large archaeological sites on there.

So the project went on for four years. We were in the field about nine months over two summers, and I'm still publishing on that material. So you never know when you step into something like that how it's going to affect your life, but it's probably best thing that could have happened to me at the time.

INTERVIEWER: Was the idea there to see what was there before it just got dug up for mining?

DICK JEFFERIES: There are various laws and things of that nature that require, depending on the conditions and situations, that companies, states, whoever is doing the work have to look at the area they're going to impact and see what's there and see what kind of impact it's going to have on what we call the cultural resources, in this case archaeological sites.

INTERVIEWER: OK, so you were at Southern Illinois from that time until when?



DICK JEFFERIES: And then here.

INTERVIEWER: And what attracted you to the University of Kentucky?

DICK JEFFERIES: I needed a job. No, I grew up in Virginia, which is not too far. It touches somewhere further in Eastern Kentucky. So, you know, the area was similar, I was kind of familiar with it, and it was closer to my home. So it seemed attractive at the time. And as it turned out, it was very interesting place to come.

INTERVIEWER: And here, some 35 years later, you still are. But one of the things too I wanted to ask you about in your career-- because anthropology, you go back literally-- you said your dissertation was going back to 2,000 years. But some of the things go way back. But explain to us how the tools work in terms of-- I imagine it's much more sophisticated how we can time-date things than we could back in the day.

DICK JEFFERIES: Oh, yeah, I mean we've developed techniques over the years that either tell us that something is older or younger relative one to the other, but now we have dating techniques that give us what we call absolute dates, like radiocarbon dating. Most people have heard of the term at least.

So if we get charcoal or organic material, we can submit that to a laboratory. And hopefully we get a radiocarbon date that tells us approximately how old that is. And if we get a whole series of them, then we can order what came first and how old things are.

INTERVIEWER: One thing I wanted to ask you about because we used to have a program called UK News Report-- And I don't think that you were the main focus of that, but you were in on that project. And I'm probably asking you to jog your memory. But this was at Shakertown, Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill. And there was a dig. It was quite interesting. Do you recall what all that was about?

DICK JEFFERIES: Sure, yeah, we ran several field schools, UK did, archaeological field schools down there. And it was a very great place to work, very interesting archeology and history. I can't remember how long it's been now, but that was a series of field schools where we teach students how to do archeology basically.

INTERVIEWER: And would some of that be when that was being settled or go back even way before that?

DICK JEFFERIES: Oh, sure. When you do archeology, you're never quite sure what you're going to encounter. I mean, sometimes we go to investigate a certain period of occupation. But in this part of the country, we could have materials that could go back 10,000 or 12,000 years or more. Many times you don't know everything you're going to find before you start doing it.

INTERVIEWER: Transition a little bit about the Department of Anthropology within the College of Arts and Sciences. Have you ever served as chair?

DICK JEFFERIES: Yes, I was chair for several years back around 2000-2002 I think.

INTERVIEWER: What are some of the careers that your students go on to? Obviously, teaching and research is one of them.

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, we have students going in all directions. Several, a lot in some cases, go to academic positions where they're either faculty members or staff. Like when I first started here, I was administrative staff. And we have others who go into state and federal service, governmental jobs, things like that. A lot get hired by private sector businesses that are hiring more and more anthropologists now because it's important for the ideas of anthropology, and different cultures, and diversity, all that, to be kind of passed on to people.

So we have subdisciplines of anthropology in our department that are medical anthropology, what we call applied anthropology, that is how do we apply anthropological principles to everyday issues, of course, archeology-- and I'm forgetting somebody-- biological anthropology, so a lot of different subfields, subdisciplines within this big umbrella of anthropology.

INTERVIEWER: The one thing that caught my eye to invite you-- and it's been too long and you should've been over here before-- but you've recently received a very nice honor. And I know you probably don't like to brag on yourself. But you're going to get a chance to brag on yourself whether you want to or not. You received a lifetime achievement award. Tell us about that.

DICK JEFFERIES: Right. I was very fortunate to receive the a Lifetime Achievement Award from one of our professional organizations called the Southeastern archaeological Conference back in November at the meeting. That organization-- it's got over 1,000 members, so it's one of the larger archaeological professional organizations in the country.

And they give out award usually every year to one, or in this case it was two people this year, who have served the organization. I served as president, I was on the executive committee, and did various other functions. And I've been active in research and service and in archeology in general in the southeast but the North American general.

So you have to be nominated by-- I'm not sure who-- students. And it's a matter of getting letters of support and things like that. So it was a very nice thing to receive, and it is a big honor.

INTERVIEWER: Now, I said this, and I mean it. They can't see you on the radio or over the digital airwaves, so to speak on the internet, but you've been here for a while. And you're of an age-- I'm not going to say how old you are-- but you're of an age that-- first of all, you don't look your age-- but you could have rode off into the sunset. But obviously you still get a kick out of what you're doing.

DICK JEFFERIES: I do. I enjoy doing the research still. And we're planning on going to where we've been working on the coast of Georgia now for 14 years in July. And I really enjoy working with the students, and teaching, and working with our grad students, and seeing them progress. And I've been very fortunate to have some really excellent graduate students who have gone on now to get their PhDs and achieving amazing things on their own.

INTERVIEWER: Well, and I spoke before you were part of one of your students, a woman that was defending her dissertation earlier today in this particular day of the week. But to be able to mentor students and to see how much they grow has got to be a heartwarming and rewarding experience.

DICK JEFFERIES: Oh, it really does. I have students who are in academia, as well as out in the other parts of the world, but I am particularly aware of the ones who are in academics now. And I have one student who's now a full professor. And I know what I went through to get that position. And to see my own students get there, it's really fulfilling. And I have several others who are well on their way to that same goal. And I have people who are working for municipal organizations that are cities, or states, or things like that.

INTERVIEWER: And I'm sure you hear from them or keep in touch with them?

DICK JEFFERIES: Yep, we're still publishing together sometimes.

INTERVIEWER: Now that's one thing that I would think in terms of being a teacher, being a professor, that's got to be one of the real highlights. And the fact that when somebody-- in fact, you don't even mind-- if they become more accomplished, so to speak, than yourself, that's just a great reflection on you.

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, I hope they do more than I do. Like you say, when people say what do I think my greatest accomplishments are, well, it's my students. And to see them achieve and do bigger and better things than I've done, that's just a real thrill.

INTERVIEWER: Now what about-- if I can, I usually ask some people-- but you can go as far as you want or a little-- do you have family?

DICK JEFFERIES: Oh, yeah married here in Lexington, two boys-- one lives here, and one lives in Virginia. And I have a bunch of grandkids, and they're all involved in different activities. One of my granddaughters performed at the Kennedy Center in the Nutcracker back in December. That was quite thrilling. And our boys here in Lexington are all involved in sports, and band, and all those things.

INTERVIEWER: Excellent, excellent, that's great. One thing-- I want to ask it again-- I bounce around, but I tell everybody that. But there's people out there that sometimes can be a little narrow in their outlook. And they might say, well, what are you going to do-- we already talked about there's plenty of things you can do with an anthropology degree.

But also I just want to talk about the concept of why anthropology is an important aspect of study and cultural science, if you will. If we were riding up in the elevator and you're trying to make the pitch to me, hey, here's why anthropology is important to our country and to our citizenry?

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, today we're dealing with a greater and greater global scope, global in scope. And many people are dealing with people of many different cultures, different backgrounds. And it's important to understand the diversity and appreciating that diversity and learning how to interact with people of all different backgrounds.

INTERVIEWER: One of the things that's fascinating with the limited knowledge that I have of anthropology, archeology-- I don't know how to put this. But we live in an age now, 2019, and we think, wow, we're the most advanced people that's ever been on the face of the earth. Well, we have all this digital technology and so forth. But it's pretty remarkable if you think-- and I don't know if this falls in your field-- but you think of the Romans-- I just saw some program about the Colosseum not too long ago on television.

The Colosseum was a magnificent facility. The ruins of it are still there. But I mean, people were building-- we look at our modern stadiums or stadia, or arenas, and we weren't the first people that-- this wasn't the first rodeo.

DICK JEFFERIES: No, it always amazes me. I tell my students archaeologists are very restricted in what they can do because we work with materials that have not decayed, which is probably fairly small percentage, and we deal with material that basically was thrown away. And so a lot of what we deal with old garbage. So we have a very incomplete record of the past.

And I think for most of us, speaking for myself anyway, we tend to maybe underestimate the complexity of these societies in the past. And I was just lecturing to my class yesterday on some of the cave art in France its upper paleolithic. It's anywhere from 30 to 20 to 18,000 years ago. And it's just amazing to see it, and the degree of detail, and what does that mean, what does that represent, and trying to figure out and get in the heads of the people who produced it. And these societies, while we don't have much material remains, must have been very complex in their rituals, and their beliefs, and the things that maybe that aren't so visible.

INTERVIEWER: You mentioned during the conversation-- and you're looking forward to this summer being able to go to the coast of Georgia. Just bring us up to date on what's going on there a little bit.

DICK JEFFERIES: Well I've been working on one of the Sea Islands in Georgia called Sapelo Island. And it was occupied for the last 4,500 years. And the period of time we're particularly interested in is the time prior to the European contact, in this case the Spanish, and the 100 years after it.

So the island was occupied by Native Americans. The group is called the Guale, G-U-A-L-E. But in the early 1600s, perhaps even the late 1500s, some Spanish missionaries started moving into the area for converting native people to Christianity and Catholicism.

So we're excavating a site that was a Guale town. But it had a Spanish mission church in it and a small-- maybe one or two-- Spanish priests. So we're very interested in seeing how the Spanish and the native people interacted with each other, and what kinds of influences did they pick up from each other, and whose diet changed the most.

So we've been working there since about 2005. And each year we get a little piece of the jigsaw puzzle, and it gets a little bit clearer. So maybe we'll get another piece this year.

INTERVIEWER: I would be remiss-- because we mentioned your Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southeastern Association, but also here at UK, when I look over it, you've been the College of Arts and Sciences Outstanding Teacher. You've been a distinguished professor. You've gotten the Teachers Who Made a Difference award, which I think is one of the neatest awards because you just don't know who might be nominating you. But it's a nice thing. You've been Provost Teaching Award for Tenured Faculty, been a finalist for that.

But also one of the things combined with your teaching-- of course, it informs your teaching-- is the research and the materials that you published. And it's a very extensive list. But one of the neat things I would think for students that are here at the University of Kentucky when they get to interact with somebody like yourself, you're not picking up-- oh, sure, you learn from your colleagues here at UK and across the country-- but you can teach about stuff that you've studied yourself. It's not like you're picking up a book that some other professor at some of the university has done. You know a lot of this stuff firsthand.

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, right. Some of my students say I'm going off on a tangent when I do that. But I feel it's important to bring in my own experiences. Certainly we use materials that other people have done because it's much more all-encompassing. But I try to incorporate my own research, just to make a point, number one, I think I know what I'm talking about. I've done it, like you say.

But also I talk about working in Georgia and doing this. I've spent the vast majority of my time here at UK working in Kentucky. And even before when I was at Southern Illinois, it was the Ohio Valley. So from the time I got out of graduate school until relatively recently, my research area has been Kentucky and the adjacent states.

So I spent time in Southeastern Kentucky working on a site down in Knox county that dates to around 1,200 AD. I've worked on much older sites in different parts of the state. The ones I talked about in Southern Illinois. So I've covered the time period from about 10,000 years ago up to 1500 AD in Kentucky alone. So you get all that background.

And I think the students, especially our students from Kentucky, they want to know what happened here. They want to know why this is an interesting place to work.

INTERVIEWER: Well, and I think for many of us-- we'll come to a close here in a second-- but I'm just musing. But I think about I suppose when I was an elementary school student, you first start learning about that people came over on the Mayflower and so forth, 1620 or thereabouts. And then you think the Revolutionary War and our country was born out of that, and we're some 243 years old I think this year as a nation. But believe me, that's the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the anthropology and the archaeological history of where we live.

DICK JEFFERIES: Yeah, and you look at what they call archaeological cultures, cultures of societies that existed in the past. And they lasted for 1,000 years or 2,000 years. And certainly they changed, but we've only been on this continent for 400 years or thereabouts. So we've got a long way to go.

I was in Europe a couple of years ago, and I'm looking at these apartment buildings that were built in 1500 or something like that. And you know we've got archaeological sites that aren't that hold here. So it does put it in kind of a perspective.

INTERVIEWER: Well, and we think here in America-- we think an old building is-- oh my god, that building's 50 years old or 100 years old. And then you realize it's--

DICK JEFFERIES: Yeah, but it's old for here. You've got to put everything in his own position.

INTERVIEWER: Go ahead, please.

DICK JEFFERIES: I was just going to say we have lots of very important archaeological sites, historical buildings here in the state that aren't that old, but still very important.

INTERVIEWER: Well, congratulations. Tell us one more time the official title of your lifetime achievement award. I want you to say that one more time.

DICK JEFFERIES: Well, I think it's just the Southeastern Archaeological Conference Lifetime Achievement Award.

INTERVIEWER: And the proud winner, just a few months ago at the end of 2018, has been our guest, Dick Jeffries, longtime professor since 1984, 35 years here at the University Kentucky, Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology, part of the College of Arts and Sciences here at the University Kentucky. It's been a delight to talk with you, and thanks very much for coming in.

DICK JEFFERIES: Oh, you're very welcome and glad I could do it.

INTERVIEWER: All right, and we'll see you next time on the Behind the Blue podcast.


ANNOUNCER: Thank you for joining us on this edition of Behind the Blue. For more information about this episode or any other episode, visit us online at uky.edu/behindtheblue. You can send questions or comments via email to behindtheblue@uky.edu, or tweet your questions using hashtag #behindtheblue. Behind the Blue is a joint production of the University of Kentucky Public Relations and Marketing and UK Health Care.