Trowel Blazers: Hester Davis

Sunday, September 1, 2019
Trowel Blazers: Hester Davis

In honor of the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, the OSA is celebrating exceptional women who have impacted NC archaeology. These four women span time, culture, and space, but have all left their mark on North Carolina and the field of archaeology in unique ways.

Hester Davis was born in Massachusetts and spent much of her early life there and in Florida where her father taught history at Rollins College. She was not initially drawn to anthropology and archaeology as she entered college, but following encouragement from her sister, who worked for the Peabody Museum and her brother, who was a practicing archaeologist, Davis spent a summer on an excavation project in New Mexico and realized a love for keeping records and organizing artifacts. The experience drew her into the male-dominated field and support for legislation that would change the course of archaeology in the US.

Davis earned a Master’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1957, and shortly after became the museum preparatory for the archaeology lab at the University of Arkansas, working for the field director of that first project in which she participated. Always prioritizing the importance of archaeological preservation, the two of them created a summer program for training amateur archaeologists in the state on archaeological methods and record keeping. When state legislation created the Arkansas Archaeological Survey in 1967, Davis was appointed as Arkansas' first State Archaeologist.

The national mindset regarding cultural preservation began to change with the passage of the National Historic Preservation Act in 1966, which required a consideration of the impacts federal construction projects may have on cultural resources. Recognizing a lack of funding to complete the research needed to determine these impacts, Davis rallied archaeologists from around the country, making phone calls, writing letters, and coaching her colleagues in how to get the message to Congress. These efforts resulted in the 1974 Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act, directing federal agencies to dedicate funding to the investigation of cultural heritage before construction. Following this, she advocated for legislation behind the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. 

A litany of achievements didn’t stop there for Davis. She taught public archaeology and cultural resources management to students at the University of Arkansas, served as the president of the Society for American Archaeology, and received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater Rollins College. Davis also participated in the committee that drafted a code of ethics for professional archaeologists, which led to the creation of the Society of Professional Archaeologists. Apart from her ties to North Carolina through UNC-Chapel Hill, our current State Archaeologist John Mintz credits Hester with the development of his career in archaeology and as a person:

“Although I knew of Hester Davis as an archaeologist, I did not meet her until the fall of 1985, when as a young graduate student in anthropology at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, I applied for a job as an archaeological technician with the Arkansas Archaeological Survey. Hester was the State Archaeologist at that time and my indirect supervisor. Over the years Hester became a confidant, a teacher, a mentor, and a mother figure. Hester cared deeply about archaeology and people and conveyed and shared that conviction with all. Hester led and taught by quiet example. Her presence, in a subtle and gentle way, commanded attention. Although her reputation was well known and grew over the years, she never forgot where she came from and those that were following in her footsteps. Hester was the first person I met when I arrived in Arkansas and one of the last that I saw when I relocated to the east coast.”

You can learn more about Hester Davis and her life from the Archaeological Conservancy! Click here for your own copy of Hester's 2019 NC Archaeology Month poster!


John Mintz, North Carolina State Archaeologist

Davis, Hester. 2003 Creating and Implementing a Code and Standards, a chapter in Ethical issues Archaeology, ed. Larry J. Zimmerman, Karen D. Vitelli, and Julie Hollowell-Zimmer.