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Richard George Forbis


Leslie B. Davis

Pioneering Plains archaeologist and prehistorian Richard George Forbis died October 2, 1999, of throat cancer in Calgary, Alberta. Born July 30, 1924, he was the son of Clarence J. Forbis, architect, and Josephine Hunt Forbis of Missoula, Montana. Following secondary schooling in Missoula, Dick attended Montana State University (Missoula) for one year. He was drafted into the U. S. Army in 1943 where he served with the 75th Division during the Battle of the Bulge in the Belgian Ardenne Forest. He was wounded in April 1945 and returned to pursue his interest in anthropology at the University of Montana.

Forbis was mentored by Carling I. Malouf. He participated with Malouf in the archaeological survey of the proposed Canyon Ferry Reservoir and conducted the Gates of the Mountains survey. After earning his B.A. in 1949 and an M.A. in anthropology in 1950, Malouf recommended that Dick attend Columbia University. Obtaining a graduate re-search assistant position, he earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia in 1955. He initiated dissertation research on the stratified MacHaffie Paleoindian site in summer 1951; with John D. Sperry, he published a preliminary report in 1952.

At Columbia, Dick devoted a year as a research associate with William D. Strong, participating in the Signal Butte site excavations in Nebraska. Dick's career took a significant turn in 1957 when Eric Harvie, a successful lawyer-oilman cum-philanthropist based in Calgary, selected Dick, still at Columbia, as the archaeological anthropologist to develop an archaeological research program in the Harvie-created Glenbow Foundation. After years as the Glenbow staff archaeologist, in the face of promising programmatic developments and research opportunities at the growing University of Calgary, Harvie urged Dick to become part of that transformation. Dick began as a part-time assistant professor, becoming a full-time associate professor of archaeology in 1965.

Harvie continued to fund archaeological projects for Dick through 1966, many of which were carried out by his graduate students. Dick and H. M. Wormington published the important introduction to the prehistoric archaeology of Alberta in 1965. His principal research interests were early man, archaeology of North America, the northern Great Plains, communal hunting, human adaptations to grasslands, and protohistory. Interest in communal hunting and human adaptations to grasslands led him, in collaboration with Robert W. Neuman, to field research in Argentina, Mexico, Peru, and China. He was directly responsible for many projects in the Province, including the Old Women's Buffalo Jump, the Fletcher site, the Upper and Lower Kills, the Cluny Earthlodge Village site, the British Block Cairn, the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, and the Taber Hominid site. Dick advocated and supported the scientific development and provincial acquisition of Head-Smashed-In, now a UNESCO World Heritage site in southwestern Alberta.

Dick and his colleague, Richard S. "Scotty" MacNeish, subsequently created the Department of Archaeology at the University of Alberta in Calgary, the first in North America. The career of Dick Forbis, professor emeritus of archaeology (since 1988), spanned nearly 40 years of undergraduate and graduate student education, research, publication, and service to the American Anthropological Association, Archaeological Society of Alberta, Canadian Archaeological Association, Montana Archaeological Society, Plains Anthropological Society (formerly the Plains Conference), and Society for American Archaeology. His devotion to avocational archaeology in Canada and the United States and other interested and concerned publics is well known.

Dick pioneered the development of the Alberta Historical Resources Act nearly 30 years ago. He served as a visiting senior scientist at the National Museum of Man in Ottawa in 1970. He was active as a senior scientist and scholar on the Environment Conservation Authority of Alberta, chairman of the Public Advisory Committee on Historical and Archaeological Resources, and member of the Province of Alberta Historic Sites Board.

Dick's career involved persistent efforts to bridge what he was convinced was a 49th Parallel intellectual barrier that has inhibited scientific interchange and dialogue. For that endeavor and numerous recognized services to his profession, he was the chosen recipient of the Alberta Achievement Award, the Canadian Archaeological Association's Smith-Wintemberg Award, the Society for American Archaeology's 50th Anniversary Achievement Award, and the 1999 Plains Anthropological Society Distinguished Service Award. The Richard G. Forbis Paleoindian Research Fund was established in 1999 by the Museum of the Rockies, Montana State University-Bozeman, to further investigations that Dick had initiated at the MacHaffie Paleoindian site in 1949.

As a colleague and mentor of university students, including 24 graduate students on whose theses and dissertation committees he served, Dick was highly respected. Graduate students appreciated his counsel, but some dreaded his insistence on clear thinking and his meticulous editing of drafts. His good humor, kindness, integrity, and generosity were especially valued.

The appellation, "Father of Alberta Archaeology," is a fitting characterization of Forbis' significant, often pioneering contributions to Northern Plains archaeological science and to public service in the name of American archaeology. ·

Leslie B. Davis is curator of Archaeology and Ethnology at Montana State University-Bozeman.

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