Don Janzen at White Water Shaker Village, Hamilton County, Ohio. 1992.

It is going on 51 years since I received my PhD and departed Ann Arbor. Back in those days it was just the Museum of Anthropology, and it was under the watchful eye of James (Jimmy) Griffin. While I was a graduate student, someone told me that anthropology is not a discipline but a way of life. It certainly has directed my life for the last 50 years. I want to share with you what I’ve done since leaving Michigan—not to brag about my few accomplishments but as a testimony to the fine training that I received from the Department of Anthropology and the Museum of Anthropology.

Most graduate students at the Museum were focusing on areas outside the United States, but I did my dissertation on a site in Michigan. I always wanted to be able to jump in my car and drive to a site without having to secure grant money and without doing all the necessary paperwork involved in excavating outside the country. After graduating, I selected the middle Ohio River Valley, in the area of the Falls of the Ohio River, as the focus of my research. I wanted to study Archaic settlement patterns, and back in 1969, the work of Howard Winters and others was demonstrating how these hunting and gathering cultures utilized a seasonally shifting settlement pattern. The Fall of the Ohio River is ecologically unique, because within a 30-mile radius of the Falls are five different ecological zones. This seemed like an ideal place to study prehistoric settlement patterns. After five seasons of fieldwork, I was unable to find any evident of a shifting settlement pattern. Instead, I suggested that it was possible to situate sites at the juncture of these environmental areas, where they could support a year-round population and seasonal movement was not required. Historically, the Northwest Coast was able to support settled village life for hunters and gatherers, and I proposed that in some cases this had been possible among prehistoric hunters and gatherers. I believe I was the first archaeologist to suggest this. I wrote this up for one of the volumes dedicated to James B. Griffin, and I also wrote an account of my excavations in Unearthing the Past: The Archaeology of the Falls of the Ohio River Region.

In 1975 I became the archaeologist for the restored Shaker village of Pleasant Hill in Mercer County, Kentucky. For three years I directed the excavations of the grist mill, fulling mill, and saw mill. This resulted in a book: The Shaker Mills on Shawnee Run: Historical Archaeology at Shakertown at Pleasant Hill. I was told I was the first professional archaeologist to excavated and publish on a Shaker site, but I was still too busy nursing poison ivy and sweat bee stings to be impressed.

I continued to work on Shaker sites in Ohio and Indiana, but Pleasant Hill was an intersection in the road of my career: it’s where I changed from archaeology to cultural anthropology. While I was excavating the mills, a conference on historic communal groups was held at Pleasant Hill. I was introduced to many nineteenth-century communal groups, including the Harmonists, Perfectionists, and Inspirationalists. In the fall of 1978, I drove from Ohio to Maine, visiting the restored sites of these communal groups. This experience led me to visit contemporary communes, and I realized that the commune was the ideal ethnographic unit. It was small, and I could easily study all of the systems that made up a culture. I had read Robert Redfield’s book on peasant societies and his classification of them as “half societies.” This perfectly described the commune, which has its own social, political, economic, and belief systems, but is also tied to mainstream society. I also discovered that few anthropologists study cooperative living.  

So far, I have driven more than 100,000 miles, visited more than 250 communes (or what are now called “intentional communities”), and contributed more than 13,000 photographs to the Center for Communal Studies. Now that I live in the Los Angeles area, I have contacted more than 30 groups that practice cooperative living. Anthropology has indeed become a way of life.

I still dabble in prehistoric archaeology. Several years ago, I decided to analyze some Late Woodland cord-marked sherds I had collected years earlier. I set up a lab in the kitchen and with the aid of a wooden serving spoon and coffee filters I extracted the temper. I noted as I plucked out the temper that it stuck to the tweezers. This seemed strange until I finally discovered that the sherds were so magnetic they could be picked up with a magnet: the temper was a derivative of magnetite. This discovery may have been another “first.” Now other archaeologists working in the Falls of the Ohio River area are finding “magnetic” pottery.

I realize I am not a well-known anthropologist, but the training I got at the University of Michigan has allowed me to make some small contributions to the field. My path has taken me from prehistoric archaeology to historical archaeology to ethnography and ethnology. It has been an exciting adventure, and I extend my best wishes to all the students at the Museum and wish them a life just as exciting as mine has been.

Sincerely yours,

Donald E. Janzen

The Pleasant Hill Shaker Village grist mill site. View of site before excavations. 1975. 

Same view as first photo, after eight weeks of excavations. 1975.

Same site: view of excavations in 1976.