Rhode Island Archival and Manuscript Collections Online

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J. Louis Giddings Collection (JLG)

Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology

Brown University
300 Tower Street
Bristol, RI 02809
Tel: (401) 863-5700

Biographical Note

J. Louis Giddings (1909-1964)

James Louis Giddings, Jr., a prominent Arctic archaeologist and pioneer of dendrochronology was born in Caldwell, Texas on April 10, 1909 to James Louis Giddings (1879-1955) and Maude Matthews (1881-1962). From 1927 until 1930, Giddings attended Rice University in Houston, Texas where he studied English and Biology. After enrolling in a summer course at University of Colorado and inspired by the beauty of the Rocky Mountains, he moved to Colorado for a year before deciding to relocate to Alaska and enrolling at Alaska College (now University of Alaska, Fairbanks). In 1932, Giddings received his Bachelor of Science degree in Engineering and was then employed as an assistant thawing engineer with the Fairbanks Exploration Department for the U.S. Smelting, Refining and Mining Company from 1932 until 1937. As he observed the mining equipment excavating silt, he became curious as to whether or not it would be possible to date the frozen spruce trees that came from the soil. This curiosity ultimately led him to the University of Arizona and the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, which was established by the astronomer, A.E. Douglass.

In 1938, Giddings was hired as a Research Associate studying tree-ring dating at the University of Alaska and the same year published his first paper in the Tree-Ring Bulletin. Tree-Ring dating, or dendrochronology, examines patterns of yearly tree ring growth to establish datable sequences of tree rings which can then be correlated to remains of ancient wood found in archaeological sites, providing a firm and reliable dating technique. An interest in Kobuk River cultures began in the winter of 1934-1935, when he used his last amount of savings to live in an Inupiat village. It wasn’t until Giddings began studying dendrochronology that he was provided with the opportunity to participate in his first archaeological excavation in 1939, at Point Hope, Alaska, a small peninsula in the Chukchi Sea. Two Arctic archaeologists, Froelich Rainey and Helge Larsen who were investigating the origins of the Ipiutak culture, invited him to join the expedition to Point Hope. It was during this time that Giddings realized dendrochronology could be applied to dating early Alaskan archaeological sites. In 1940, using wooden artifacts from Kobuk River sites, he became the first ever to use this new dating technique in the Arctic.

Giddings continued to explore the Kobuk River region near Kotzebue Sound with Rainey and Larsen in 1940 and 1941, as well as St. Lawrence Island on his own. Also in 1940, Giddings was promoted to Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Alaska. Recognizing the potential of applying tree-ring dating techniques to archaeological sites, and drawn to the field of archaeology by Rainey and Larsen, Giddings pursued his Master of Arts degree in Anthropology from the University of Arizona, which he received in 1941. During World War II, Giddings served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Naval Reserve in the South Pacific from June 15, 1943 until January 1, 1946. Upon returning from wartime duty, Giddings took the summer of 1946 to canoe down the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territory of Canada with his wife, Ruth Warner Giddings (m. 1943) to collect samples from the subarctic tree line. He resumed excavations in 1947 at Cape Denbigh in Norton Sound where he first identified a previously unknown Paleo-Eskimo culture in Alaska, which he named the Denbigh Flint Complex. These types of artifacts are part of a broader Arctic Tool Tradition that is found throughout Paleolithic arctic cultures from Russia to Alaska, Canada and Greenland. Giddings continued to work in Cape Denbigh until 1952.

In 1949, he left his position at University of Alaska and was hired as a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and assistant curator of the American section at the University of Pennsylvania museum. He completed his PhD in 1951, and his dissertation was entitled, “The Arctic Woodland Culture of the Kobuk River” which was published as a monograph in 1952. In 1953, Giddings spent the field season investigating the limits of the arctic coniferous tree line in the western part of Hudson Bay, Canada beginning in northeastern Manitoba, and continuing into the Northwest Territories. (part of which is now the territory of Nunavut).

In 1956, Giddings left the University of Pennsylvania and was named assistant professor of sociology and the first director of the Haffenreffer Museum of the American Indian at Brown University. Giddings established the newly named Haffenreffer Museum, as a teaching and research center and a museum for the public. The same year, Giddings began investigating a geological formation known as beach ridges in Kotzebue Sound at Cape Prince of Wales, Cape Espenberg and most notably, Cape Krusenstern. This beach ridge archaeology provided a horizontal stratigraphy of past geologic beach lines extending back thousands of years. Giddings identified 114 such beach ridges extending miles inland at Cape Krusenstern. These ancient beach ridges provided a backward timeline; each successive beach ridge excavation uncovered representations of all known prehistoric arctic cultures in Northern Alaska.

In 1959, Giddings was promoted to full professor of anthropology at Brown, formally establishing the anthropology department at the university. In 1960, Giddings excavated the Battle Rock site, near Cape Krusenstern in the Middle Kobuk River Region. In 1961, he returned to the Onion Portage on the Kobuk River, an inlet river site which is a seasonal caribou crossing. Giddings wished to investigate whether or not the microblade and cores he had excavated from House 1 in 1941 belonged to the Denbigh Flint Complex of the Small Arctic Tool Tradition. What he ultimately discovered beneath the last sterile layer of that house confirmed his suspicion that the Denbigh Flint Complex culture did indeed exist there.

The Onion Portage site was a remarkable discovery in the understanding of the entire prehistory of the arctic region, eventually revealing more than 30 stratigraphic layers and 7 distinctive cultural bands, at a depth of nearly five and one half meters. The site, which is considered the most important archaeological site in the arctic, was declared a National Historic Landmark in June 1978, as The Onion Portage Archaeological District. After taking a sabbatical in Denmark at the National Museum of Copenhagen, in 1962 and half of 1963, working with specialists on Arctic sites such as Sarqaq in Greenland, Giddings then returned to continue to excavate Onion Portage in the summers of 1963 and 1964. In 1964, Giddings published a seminal monograph on Arctic archaeology, titled, “The Archaeology of Cape Denbigh.”

On November 3, 1964, Giddings was involved in a multiple car accident traveling from Bristol, Rhode Island to Providence which resulted in serious, but not life threatening injuries. Unfortunately while recuperating, Giddings suffered from thrombosis and died on December 9, 1964 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In 1966, the Department of the Interior honored Giddings, “the leading Alaskan archaeologist at the time of his death” by a naming a 10,180-foot Alaskan peak, Mount Giddings. In 1972, the Brown University anthropology department parted amicably from the sociology department and the building was named Giddings House. Giddings' memoir, Ancient Men of the Arctic was published posthumously in 1967.


Collins, H. B. “James Louis Giddings (1909-1964).” Arctic 18.1 (1965): 66-67.

Giddings, J. Louis. Ancient Men of the Arctic. New York: Knopf, 1967.

Larsen, H. “James Louis Giddings, Jr.” American Antiquity. 31.3 Part 1 (1965): 398-401.

Mitchell, M. “Giddings, James Louis.” Encyclopedia Brunoniana. Providence, RI: Brown University Library, 1993.

Rainey, F. G. “J. Louis Giddings (1909-1964).” American Anthropologist, New Series. 67.6, Part 1. (1965): 1503-1507.

(10 December 1964). Dr. Giddings dies at 55 after crash. Providence Evening Bulletin. Providence, Rhode Island. n.p.

(10 December 1964). Dr. Giddings, anthropology professor at Brown, dies. Providence Journal. Providence, Rhode Island. p. 28.