Jennings's professional career, spanning more than 60 years, was one of extraordinary and sustained accomplishment. He pursued archaeology in many places, starting in the Midwest and Southeast soon after his 1929 arrival as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. In 1938 he and Jane dug with A. V. Kidder at Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala, that work leading to his Chicago Ph.D. dissertation (1943), which he completed during World War II service as a naval officer in the North Atlantic. An early career with the National Park Service, before and after the war, took Jennings from the Southeast to the Southwest, and on to the Plains. In 1948 he left the NPS for the University of Utah, where he served for nearly 40 years until his retirement in 1986. During this period he was continuously engaged with research projects and the training of students in the Great Basin, the Glen Canyon of the Colorado River, throughout Utah, and in American Samoa. From 1980 to 1994, Jennings conducted special graduate seminars as an adjunct professor at the University of Oregon.
Jennings's earliest professional publication was a 1934 paper, "The Importance of Scientific Method in Excavation" (Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of North Carolina, Vol. 1, No. 1). His summating autobiography, Accidental Archaeologist (University of Utah Press), came out in 1994. From the six decades between these are dozens of works reflecting all the diverse involvements of an energetic archaeological career: reports, reviews, comments, articles, chapters, monographs, books, and edited volumes.
Jennings's classical work was his monograph, Danger Cave (SAA Memoir No. 14, 1957). This pathbreaking study of an unusually rich and long-occupied site set a new standard for its attention to depositional and biotic as well as artifactual data. Relating the archaeological evidence from Danger Cave to an ethnographic model, Jennings framed a compelling view of a Great Basin Desert Culture that will forever underpin research on desert west prehistory. His Glen Canyon: A Summary (Anthropological Papers No. 81, University of Utah, 1966) pulled together years of rescue archaeology in the canyon lands of southeastern Utah to give an account of Anasazi agricultural life along its northern frontier.
In addition to primarily technical studies, Jennings early entered into the writing and editing of broadly synthetic works. In Prehistoric Man in the New World (Chicago, 1964), edited with Edward Norbeck, and his Prehistory of North America (McGraw-Hill, 1968), Jennings gave students and teachers the first textbook syntheses of the continent's archaeology. Each of these books continued to grow and change shape through three editions, informing and influencing both younger and older students of American archaeology over three decades.
Jennings's valuable service to the profession is reflected in an exceptional list of major honors that came throughout his career. He was chosen editor of American Antiquity 1950-1954, elected to the Executive Board of the American Anthropological Association 1953-1956, selected as Viking Medalist in Archaeology 1958, elected president of SAA 1959-1960, and elected vice-president and Section H chairman of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1961 and 1971. His university named him a distinguished professor in 1974 and honored him with a doctor of science degree in 1980. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1977. In 1982 he received one Distinguished Service Award from SAA and another from the Society for Conservation Archaeology. He was a featured plenary session speaker at the 50th Anniversary Celebration of SAA in 1985. In 1990 the Great Basin Anthropological Conference (which he had founded in 1958) established the Jesse D. Jennings Prize for Excellence in his honor, and in 1995 he was awarded the A. V. Kidder Medal for Achievement in American Archaeology.
C. Melvin Aikens is in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Oregon.