Joan E. Freeman

April 3, 1931–June 23, 2017

Joan Elizabeth Freeman, Wisconsin’s first state archaeologist and the long-time curator of anthropology at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, passed away peacefully June 23, 2017 following a series of strokes.

Freeman was born in Madison on April 3, 1931, and grew up in Milwaukee. Her mother instructed English at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Milwaukee, while her father was an assistant dean. After attending Lawrence College for a BA in history, Freeman, inspired by the lead of Nancy O. Lurie, turned to anthropology, obtaining her MA (1957) and PhD (1959) at UW Madison. She was the first woman to be awarded the doctorate in archaeology from UW. She gained fieldwork experience in South Dakota during the heyday of the River Basin Surveys and also worked in Illinois and Wisconsin. A student of David A. Baerreis, Freeman assisted him in writing reports on his WPA digs in Oklahoma. Her dissertation was entitled, The Neosho Focus: A Late Prehistoric Culture in Oklahoma.

Freeman began her 40-year career with the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (SHSW) in 1954, working for Warren Wittry as a part-time assistant in the museum. In addition to giving Freeman a solid grounding in museum work, the position permitted participation in salvage digs around the state. As part of Wisconsin Archeology Survey crews, she dug at Aztalan, a palisaded Late Woodland-Middle Mississippian site in south-central Wisconsin. Freeman returned to the site for four seasons in the 1960s. In 1960, she replaced Wittry as curator of anthropology and assumed charge not only of the Native American ethnographic and archaeological collections, but also of the Highway Archaeology Salvage program. The program was then expanding into reservoir survey and excavation at the proposed Kickapoo and Eau Galle reservoirs. Freeman relished fieldwork and when her other duties permitted, she took to the field, living under canvas with mixed crews of men and women.

Among her noteworthy excavations were two highway salvage digs, at the Price III site, a Late Archaic cemetery, and the Middle Woodland Millville site, the results of which she presented in The Wisconsin Archeologist. She co-wrote the state’s antiquity legislation, which was passed by the legislature in 1965. As an immediate outcome of the act, Freeman was named to the then uncompensated position of state archaeologist.

Freeman retired as state archaeologist in 1988 and from the SHSW in 1994. Through her career, her fieldwork generated significant collections, such as those from Aztalan that continue in use for theses and dissertations. She also introduced numerous men and women to field and laboratory work and was a role model for women entering the profession. Never married, after her retirement Freeman led a quiet life, travelling and reading mysteries. However, devastated by the theft of numerous Native American artifacts from the museum in 1998, she volunteered hundreds of hours over the next several years to help assess the loss.

Freeman’s death truly ends an era in Wisconsin archaeology. (Marlin F. Hawley)

Cite as: Hawley, Marlin F. 2017. “Joan E. Freeman.” Anthropology News website, July 14, 2017. doi: 10.1111/AN.516

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