George Frison Receives UW Medallion Service Award

October 8, 2010

By Julianne Couch

George Frison, one of America's most highly-respected anthropologists, has added another award to his impressive list of honors.

His latest achievement is being named the recipient of the University of Wyoming's 2010 Medallion Service Award. Initiated in 1968 but not given annually, the award recognizes outstanding service and dedication to the university. Frison will be honored during UW Homecoming activities Oct. 15-16.

His previous awards include being the first UW professor to be named to the National Academy of Sciences. Frison has received the Paleoarchaeologist of the Century award; Society for American Archaeology Lifetime Achievement award; and UW Distinguished Former Faculty award.

Frison has had a hand in most major archaeological finds in the state for the last several decades. And he has taught thousands of students, many of whom have become professionals in the field.

UW in 1967 hired Frison to head the newly formed anthropology department. A year later, he was named the first Wyoming state archaeologist, a part-time position established by the state legislature.

"I'm a geo-archeologist more than anything else, since most of the information I work with is mammoth kills and bison kills, components that are buried in archeological deposits," he says "But it all has to be interpreted within a framework of human behavior."

Born in Worland, he was raised on his family's ranch outside of Ten Sleep, in the Big Horn Basin. While herding cattle, he developed an interest in the chipped and ground stone tools, rock shelters, rock art, scaffold burials, war lodges and other prehistoric evidence of Native Americans that he found along the way.

"My family was always interested in things that occurred in the natural environment," he recalls. "They didn't have a formal education but they knew the name of every flower and tree."

The richness of his upbringing led Frison to know what he wanted to do with his life, from an early age. For many years, though, he worked the family ranch and pursued archaeology as a serious hobby. He attended UW in 1942 but left to serve in the Navy's amphibious forces of the South Pacific during World War II. After the war he returned to ranching but continued his serious interest in archaeology. He finally returned to UW in 1962. He was 42 when he graduated from the University of Michigan.

It turned out there was a job at UW in what Frison described as "an area that had never been touched in the last frontier in American archaeology. Here were mammoth kills, bison kills, pronghorn kills, sheep kills and the trapping that goes along with them." This evidence fit right in with Frison's background, since he had spent much of his life as a rancher and hunting guide.

"I'd worked with animals. All these people writing about the sites didn't understand animals at all," he says. "All this material with nobody who knew what to do about it. I came along at the right time. It was serendipity."

Frison taught in the anthropology department for 30 years before he retired as professor emeritus. But it is not the nature of archaeology to be confined to the classroom. On the contrary, Frison continued to excavate sites around Wyoming.

"His investigations range from the first peoples of the Americas to the historic period forts, from open-air campsites to rock shelters, from domestic structures to hunting facilities, and much more," explained his colleague and former student , Marcel Kornfeld. He described Frison as the "public face of archaeology in the state, region, and internationally."

At UW, some of Frison's efforts have gone to the creation of the George C. Frison Institute. It is a UW research and outreach facility dedicated to the study of North American, High Plains, and Rocky Mountain archaeology and culture. The Institute fosters interdisciplinary and international scholarship, with an emphasis on early peoples of the Americas.

Another of Frison's legacies can be seen at the recently opened Washakie Museum and Cultural Center in Worland. It features displays of many of his excavation sites throughout the Big Horn basin.

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