Archeologist George Frison Dies At 95

Sep 10, 2020

George Frison received several awards from the University of Wyoming.
Credit University of Wyoming

World-renowned archeologist George Frison died this Sunday, Sept. 6 at the age of 95. Frison founded the University of Wyoming Anthropology Department and was the first state archeologist.

He started his career as a rancher near Ten Sleep, gathering artifacts and fossils scattered throughout the land. At the age of 37, he started his formal education as an archeologist at UW. In 1967, after receiving his master's and doctorate degrees from the University of Michigan, he returned to UW and served as head of the new Anthropology Department.

His professional work focused mostly on Paleoindian culture in Wyoming.

"He lived a life that was certainly different from the people he ended up studying in many ways, but in other ways is much the same. He had to make a living off the land, through raising of cattle. He was also an avid hunter, like the people he ended up studying," said Todd Surovell, current Department Head of UW's Anthropology Department.

Frison's practical knowledge helped him understand the cultures he studied as did the experiments he performed. One experiment took him to Zimbabwe, where he tested ancient tools used on mammoths on dead elephants. He showed that the tools worked very well on elephants and would likely have worked just as well on mammoths.

"Thirteen hundred years ago, in the state of Wyoming, there were a lot of people who had to use the Clovis point on a mammoth. But it wasn't until 13,000 years later the George Frison was able to do it again," said Surovell.

Frison was the only UW faculty member inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, an honor that came from his hard work and passion.

"One of his greatest legacies is the number of really major sites that George excavated over the course of his career beginning in the 1960s. He was in the field up until last summer, at the age of 94," Surovell said.

Frison was also known to be kind and welcoming to everyone in the anthropology department and kept an active relationship with amateur archeologists and people who worked the land.

"He recognized very early on that most important archaeological sites aren't found by archaeologists, they're found by people who were like him, hunters and ranchers and other people who are out and about across the state. And because he had a really good relationship with these people and had been one of those people himself, and before he knew it he was working on incredible site after incredible site," Surovell said.

Frison published many technical papers and books. The most recent, a memoir, is titled "Rancher Archeologist."

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Ivy Engel, at iengel@uwyo.edu.