Archaeologist Dr. Vernon James “Jim” Knight, Jr. Retires

Article an adaptation of introduction to SEAC symposium in honor of Jim Knight by Amanda Regnier

After over 24 years of the service to the Department, Dr. Vernon James “Jim” Knight, Jr. became Professor Emeritus in May 2014. Jim Knight’s history with UA is much more extensive, however, as his legacy stretches over the past 40+ years.

Working with Mr. DeJarnette (on far right) in 1975 at LaGrange bluff shelter
Figure 1. Working with Mr. DeJarnette (on far right) in 1975 at LaGrange bluff shelter

Dr. Knight’s first field experience in Alabama occurred working alongside the father of Alabama Archaeology, David DeJarnette, north of Mound R at Moundville in 1973 (Figure 1). After graduating from the University of Alabama in 1975, he went to work for the early incarnation of the Office of Archaeological Research at Moundville (OAR). In that same year, Dr. Knight published “Some Observations Concerning Plant Materials and Aboriginal Smoking in Eastern North America” in the Journal of Alabama Archaeology. We wonder how many archaeologists can say that an article they wrote just might have inspired numerous unofficial experimental studies among the archaeologists of the 1970s, and probably beyond? Or more seriously, how many archaeologists can say that their first published work in a state journal is still being cited?

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Figure 2

In 1977, Dr. Knight completed his MA at the University of Toronto. His thesis was based on materials from survey work done in the Rother L. Harris reservoir (Figure 2) along the Tallapoosa River of east central Alabama in 1974, where he worked with John O’Hear. His thesis resulted in an initial culture historical sequence for this portion of the Alabama Piedmont. Dr. Knight continued to work in the Coosa and Tallapoosa drainages of eastern Alabama in the 1980s and authored a number of reports detailing surveys in east Alabama.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Dr. Knight’s long tradition of research into Mississippian ritual dates back at least as far as his work along the Lower Chattahoochee, particularly at Cemochechobee, where he worked alongside Frank and Gail Schnell for the Columbus Museum of Arts and Sciences. (Figure 3) Whispered graduate student legends state that he may have been thrown from the mound by an angry crewmember during that field project. Dr. Knight’s work in the Chattahoochee followed in the footsteps of Mr. DeJarnette, who worked in the Lower Chattahoochee in the mid-20th century. Anyone who has worked in that region has consulted his work on chronology at Cemochechobee and Singer-Moye, as well as his later Walter F. George survey and excavation reports to familiarize him/herself with the lower Chattahoochee culture historical sequence.  In the past several years, he has worked with Karen Smith, who received her MA with Dr. Knight in 1999, on Swift Creek paddle designs and Woodland period chronology in the Chattahoochee and Lower Appalachicola.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Dr. Knight returned to OAR in 1981 after completing his doctoral research at the University of Florida in just three years and rose to the level of Senior Research Archaeologist. Dr. Knight directed or contributed to several studies of Woodland ceremonialism in Florida and Alabama during this time, (Figure 4) including his dissertation advisor Jerry Milanich’s work on McKeithen Weeden Island culture in north Florida and the OAR excavations of the Copena mound at the Walling site in the Tennessee Valley of northern Alabama. Based on these and other excavations at Woodland sites, Dr. Knight created a model of Woodland platform mound symbolism focused on feasting and gift exchange with an emphasis on world renewal ceremonialism. These are intriguingly linked to historic Green Corn ceremonialism.

Figure 5
Figure 5

Dr. Knight’s work on Upper Creek archaeology goes back to his MA work in the Tallapoosa (Figure 5). His first Creek publication was in conjunction with Marvin Smith in 1980 and focused on ceramic changes at the Big Tallassee site between A.D. 1550-1800. His mid-1980s report of excavations at the Tukabatchee site in Elmore County established a chronology of Late Mississippian through Removal-period occupation in the lower Tallapoosa. His study of the importance of European goods and political leadership during the Early Historic period laid the groundwork for subsequent research on leadership in the Creek confederacy. Dr. Knight continued his work on the emergence of the historic Creeks, Creek ceramics, and the role of Creek clanship and political organization into the 1990s.

Figure 6
Figure 6

In the mid-1980s, as the 450th anniversary of the Hernando de Soto expedition approached, Dr. Knight served as the Secretary/Treasurer of the Alabama De Soto Commission (Figure 6). The goal of the commission was to evaluate new evidence for the route of the expedition through Alabama in 1540 and revise Swanton’s map created for the 400th anniversary. Working closely with geographical, historic, and archaeological scholars, notably Alabama geologist Douglas Jones and esteemed southeastern ethnohistorian Charles Hudson, the Commission tackled the thorny issue of the location of major Alabama sites along the route. The central focus in Alabama was the location of Chief Tascalusa’s attack at Mabila; arguments over its location proved as heated as the battle itself. The work of the commission ultimately resulted in the publication of the updated translations of the expedition narratives, a pair of volumes that sit on the shelves of countless archaeologists, historians, and amateur enthusiasts. In 2006, working with Dr. Jones, Dr. Knight once again convened a group of archaeologists, historians, and geographers to evaluate new evidence and reconsider old evidence. The end result was an edited volume that synthesizes the work of scholars from multiple disciplines and narrows down a location for Mabila.

Figure 7
Figure 7

Dr. Knight is probably best known for his work on Mississippian cultures, where he has published seminal works on Mississippian religion and ritual, symbolism and iconography, and social hierarchy. His dissertation and resulting publications explored Mississippian ritual, religion, and symbolism via structural theory, Muskogean ethnographic data, and archaeological evidence. This study described the symbolism in the Mississippian platform mound and identified three distinct branches of Mississippian religion.

In 1988, Dr. Knight joined the Department of Anthropology at the University of Alabama. He promptly set to work developing a research plan to work at Moundville (Figure 7). His decade-long NSF-funded excavations at Moundville began in 1993. In the 1990s and 2000s, his work researchers from other institutions and numerous projects by his graduate students turned the previous interpretation of the site onto its head (Figure 8). Working with Vin Steponaitis, Dr. Knight created a new site history that demonstrated the site reached peak population early in its history and later became a vacant center used for burials. His work comparing Moundville to a Chickasaw camp square provided a new way of looking at the arrangement of mounds around the plaza. The mound excavations at Moundville trained a decade’s worth of UA undergraduates in basic field methodology and resulted in an award-winning monograph (Figure 9).

Figure 8
Figure 8

Dr. Knight’s research into Mississippian iconography and the methodology of iconographic research has led to some a series discoveries on the nature of Mississippian religion. In 2001, along with James Brown, George Lankford, and the rest of the Iconography Working Group, Dr. Knight put forth the notion that so-called “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex art” depicted mythological heroes engaged in acts detailed in legends, many of which can be attributed via ethnographic research (Figure 10). Dr. Knight bade the term “Southeastern Ceremonial Complex” farewell a few years later and then proclaimed we shouldn’t refer to these representational images as “art” either. Regardless of what you call this corpus of representational images found on artifacts from southeastern Mississippian sites, this realization about southeastern iconography opened up a whole new world of iconographic studies, and allowed archaeologists to tie motifs to particular site histories (Figure 11). Dr. Knight’s work with Vin Steponaitis on the iconographic style of Moundville demonstrated a preponderance of death or Beneath World images, according well with the use of the site as a burial place for residents of the surrounding Black Warrior Valley for much of its history. After years of teaching the intense graduate Iconography seminar at the University of Alabama, Dr. Knight really did write the book on New World iconographic methodology (Figure 12). It is a clear, concise summary of how to go about this research with the most rigorous methodology and avoid traps into which many other researchers have fallen.

Figure 9
Figure 9

In the early 2000s, Dr. Knight began branching into the Caribbean, working in Cuba (Figure 13). At the El Convento site, a large Late Ceramic Age village with a post-contact component, he reinterpreted ceramic chronologies and provided a basic occupational sequence. He then correlated the revised site history with existing ethnohistoric accounts to provide evidence that El Convento was the site of the encomienda of Bartolomé de Las Casas. Las Casas was the first person to argue on behalf of the rights of the indigenous peoples of the New World. In multiple years of fieldwork at El Chorro de Maíta, Dr. Knight and his research team sought to identify correlates of sociopolitical complexity in residential contexts at a large Late Ceramic Age chiefly center. These excavations provided new data regarding the production of highly crafted ritual items, the extent of post-contact material throughout the site, and offered a new model for the occupational history of the site. Artifacts and dates indicate the site had no early component and was very likely to have been established as a chiefly center. These data have implications for emergent complexity in Eastern Cuba and for the archaeology of the Late Ceramic Age. Knight has also conducted a formal analysis of ceramics from Chorro, resulting in a new interpretation of ceramic vessel shape and data regarding potential foodways of the peoples who lived in the Caribbean.

Figure 10
Figure 10

More recently, Dr. Knight has started an iconographic analysis of ceremonial gear from Cuba, including engraved shell gorgets, carved stone idols, and engraved shell beads. When this study is completed, this will be the first time someone has assembled the corpus of such items from Cuba. This will be critical for understanding the relationship of Late Ceramic Age Cuba to contemporaneous peoples throughout the Caribbean, addressing questions of rapidly adopted religious constructs, population movement, and new cultural practices.

Figure 11
Figure 11

Dr. Knight has influenced many careers in archaeology. His attention to the details of training students extends to lessons not evident in his publications but is obvious in the ways other working archaeologists now conduct fieldwork.

Lessons Learned from Dr. Knight

Figure 12
Figure 12

When working in the field:

  1. Keep your field equipment clean, organized, and in working order at ALL times!
  1.  Seriously, no, I mean it.  Keep your field equipment clean, organized, and in working order at ALL times!
  1.  Don’t be the guy with a trowel holster.  In fact, why do you even need to have your own trowel?  Just use one from the field desk.
  1. Keep your field skills sharp, so when you occasionally jump into a unit to show your students how it’s done, they are in awe of your ability to flatten a floor or straighten a wall.
Figure 13
Figure 13

When working in the lab:

  1.  Field rules 1 & 2 also apply to the lab.
  1. Leaving a tray of anything out on the lab table and walking away is asking for a disaster.

When dealing with students:

  1.  Never underestimate the power of a raised eyebrow and uncomfortable silence to bring a wayward graduate student into line.
  1.  If that doesn’t get the message across, lean back in your chair and press your fingertips together.
  1.  If that fails, take off your glasses.Hawsey quote
  1. When a graduate student is hiding from you, call them and ominously say, “This is your conscience calling,” whenever they answer the phone. Maintain an uncomfortable silence while they inform you of their progress. Repeat on a weekly basis until they finally turn something in.

Knight’s rules for writing:

  1. If it is obvious, then you should never have to state it.Wix quote
  1. Be intentional and decisive in your writing, and choose sides. Remind your students, following Marvin Harris, YOU HAVE TO CHOOSE!!!
  1. Don’t worry about following theoretical trends. Do what you are interested in, and do it well. Regardless of whether someone notices down the line, you will still have made a good effort doing what interests you.
  1. “In regards” is NOT to be used. There is always something else you can use.
  1. Good writers do not use the phrase “in terms of…”.
  1. NO POSTAL ABBREVIATIONS.
  1. Avoid words like “important” and “valuable.” One assumes so.
  1. Nothing is ever unique—so don’t use that word!
  1. Never say “interesting” in formal writing.
  1. “Great” is a word widely used by sportscasters. Please discard it forever.
  1. “As well” is never a good way to start a sentence.
  1. “Drastically” is a word much misused. Means an extreme or radical effect, almost violent, not simply unsuitable. Make sure this is what you mean.
  2. For emphasis, use italics. All caps is shouting in prose.
  3. Good writers never say “looked at,” as in someone looked at something in their research. Instead, good writers use words that are not as vague.

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