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William Hulse Sears
1920 - 1996

William H. Sears, professor emeritus of anthropology at Florida Atlantic University, died on December 20, 1996, at his home in Vero Beach, Fla.

Born on Long Island in 1920, Bill entered the University of Chicago in 1939. His studies were interrupted by his service in the United States Marine Corps from 1942 until 1945. His wounds during a battle on the Matanikau River on Guadalcanal in 1942 prevented him from returning to combat status; he was separated from active duty in 1945. He returned to Chicago, completed his MA in 1947, and then moved to the University of Michigan in 1948. That summer he and his wife Elsie worked on the Kolomoki site in Georgia, beginning a commitment to southeastern archaeology that would span six decades.

Bill continued his graduate work at Michigan while maintaining association with the University of Georgia. He conducted excavations at Kolomoki, Etowah, and the Wilbanks Farm sites while at Georgia and received his PhD from Michigan in 1951. He was a lecturer at Hofstra College during the 1954-1955 academic year and moved to the Florida State Museum (now Florida Museum of Natural History) in 1955. In 1964 he was appointed the first chair of the Department of Anthropology at the newly formed Florida Atlantic University, where he remained until his retirement in 1982.

Bill's first published article resulted from a class assignment on "What is the Archaic" (1948, American Antiquity 14:122-124). Forty years later he was still asking his students the same question--among many others--requiring them to develop similar papers. While the answer had changed, been refined, and broadened, Bill's theme of revisiting old important questions was maintained throughout his career, whether in the classroom, in the field, or in print.

By the end of 1956 Bill had published 12 other articles, ranging from descriptive reports on excavations to theoretical treatments of political organization, prehistoric economics, and settlement patterns. He contributed "Settlement Patterns in the Eastern United States" to Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the New World (1956, G. R. Willey, editor). Throughout the 1950s Bill worked at a number of Florida locations including sites on the Lower St. Johns, the Grant site, and Browne Tract, several highway salvage sites, the shell middens and mound at Maximo Point, and the Mackenzie Mound.

The 1960s brought about seminal articles on settlement patterns in the Southeast, ceramic styles, social and religious systems in North American archaeology, the rise of complex societies in the Southeast, as well as the possible ties between the Southeast and the midwestern Middle Woodland cultures. The latter resulted in articles such as "Hopewellian Affiliations of Certain Sites on the Gulf Coast of Florida" (1962, American Antiquity 28:5-18). "An Investigation of Prehistoric Processes on the Gulf Coastal Plain" ensued from a National Science Foundation-funded project in which Bill surveyed and revisited sites and examined collections from Florida to Texas. Bill also continued his work at Florida sites, excavating at Bayshore Homes, the Bluffton Burial Mounds, and the Tucker site and directing archaeological surveys in the Everglades National Park and in the Cape Coral area.

Bill was a strong believer in a practical scientific approach to archaeology and was an unapologetic cultural evolutionist and materialist--seeing artifacts and settlement patterns as the avenue to study cultural systems. He had begun writing about political and religious systems in the 1950s, published "The Study of Social and Religious Systems in North American Archaeology" (1961, Current Anthropology 2:223-246), and continued to develop this theme in a series of articles in major journals. His theoretical ideas were influenced by economic factors, and he was an avid reader of V. Gordon Childe. He believed that a calorically productive economic base was necessary for the development of complex societies, reasoning that complex societies are founded on dense populations, and dense populations come about through the ability to feed people.

Bill's belief that corn was an essential base for the development of complex social systems in Eastern North America led to his final major excavation project at the Fort Center site. Here, Bill was one of the earliest archaeologists to initiate zooarchaeological work; his collection of faunal remains and soil samples for palynological analysis was among the first. This research culminated in Fort Center: An Archaeological Site in the Lake Okeechobee Basin (1982). He also recognized the need to preserve the waterlogged wooden carvings recovered from the site's pond. While not the preferred conservation technique of today, his white glue baths have preserved these carvings for 35 years.

His seminal work, "The Sacred and Secular in Prehistoric Ceramics" (1973), published in Variation in Anthropology, edited by D. Lathrap, has stimulated new ideas for many southeastern archaeologists. In the mid-1970s Bill started to look southward to the Caribbean, where he often sailed recreationally, thinking of connections between North, Central, and South America. While not a diffusionist, his speculations were reported in "Seaborne Contacts between Early Cultures in Lower Southeastern United States and Middle Through South America" (1977, E. Benson, editor, The Sea and the Pre-Columbian World). Working with Shaun Sullivan and other students, his wife, and daughter Amy, he chronicled the movement of peoples in a northward direction through the Bahamas, publishing the results in American Antiquity and Yachting.

Bill was a demanding supervisor, placing great trust in his students. In the field he expected students to be apprentices, not just laborers. In graduate seminars he used the Socratic method--questions were asked and students were expected to defend their answers. He never answered a question directly, but guided students to search for the data that would allow them to answer their own questions. He taught that there was no such thing as "cook book archaeology," but that one must look, walk over the site, think, and rethink. Years after the fact, Bill wrote "Mea Culpa" [1992, Southeastern Archaeology 11(1):66-71], showing that he was still rethinking in his retirement, revising the Kolomoki chronology to complement contemporary findings and dates associated with Swift Creek and Weeden Island.

Bill served as first vice president of the Society for American Archaeology from 1960 to 1961, was a member of the Executive Committee 1963-1966, and was on the Executive Committee of the Florida Anthropological Society. He was awarded the Rice University Semicentennial Medallion for valuable contributions to the Symposium on Early Man in North America in 1962. He received a special award for achievement from the Society for American Archaeology on its 50th anniversary, and the Presidential Award from the Southeastern Archaeological Conference in 1996. Bill conducted two National Science Foundation-sponsored projects: a three-year study of the prehistoric social, political, and religious forms of the Gulf Coastal Plain and a multiyear study of human adaptation in the Okeechobee Basin.

After retirement Bill pursued his passion for fishing and devoted time to making fine furniture, inspired by his trips to Charleston, Williamsburg, and London and his interest in Queen Anne-period furniture. He made some astonishingly beautiful tables and chairs. Bill is survived by his wife, Elsie, two daughters, Nancy and Amy, two sons, Stephen and Michael, and five grandchildren.

Donna Ruhl is at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., and Karl T. Steinen is at West Georgia College in Carrollton, Ga.


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