Skip To Main Content
College of Arts & Sciences

The College of Liberal Arts was formed as a new unit within Texas A&M University in 1968. Dr. David Maxwell, from Tulane University, was appointed as the first dean of the college and was charged with building a viable liberal arts unit within the university. In 1969, as part of the creation of new departments within the new college, Dr. Maxwell appointed Dr. Robert Skrabanek, a rural sociologist in the College of Agriculture as the first department head of the new Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Four other rural sociologists from the College of Agriculture, with Dr. Skrabanek, became founding members of the Department.

In the fall of 1970, as part of the new budget for the coming year, Dean Maxwell asked Dr. Skrabanek to find an anthropologist to become a new faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Dr. Skrabanek conferred with several colleagues outside Texas A&M University to help him find someone to fill the position. Dr. William Elsik, an employee of Exxon suggested he contact Dr. Vaughn Bryant, an anthropologist and faculty member at Washington State University. That suggestion led to an invitation for Dr. Bryant to visit Texas A&M University in March, 1971. After a brief visit, Dr. Bryant was offered the position, accepted it, and began his appointment during the summer of 1971 as the first anthropologist on the Texas A&M campus. As part of his appointment, the dean requested that Dr. Bryant provide guidance in building a unique anthropology department that would offer undergraduate and graduate degrees, including doctoral degrees. The goal was to accomplish this within the next 20 years.

In the fall of 1971, Dr. Bryant introduced two new anthropology courses, Anthropology 201 (Introduction to Anthropology) and Anthropology 205 (Peoples and Cultures of the World). During the next few years the Department of Sociology and Anthropology steadily grew in number of faculty and courses offered, with Dr. Harry Shafer (an archaeologist) joining the faculty. By 1975 there was enough student demand for the University to request, and receive approval, to offer a BA degree in Anthropology. In 1975 the College of Liberal Arts also created a new Program in Anthropology and appointed Dr. Bryant as the Program Head (Figure 1-1). The new Anthropology Program operated with its own budget but was still part of the combined Department of Sociology and Anthropology. In 1976, Texas A&M requested and received approval to offer a graduate MA degree in Anthropology.

Figure 1-1. A younger Dr. Vaughn Bryant, founding faculty member of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University
As the demand for more undergraduate and graduate courses in anthropology grew, so did the size of the department. New faculty members continued to be added at the rate of one new member each academic year. By the mid-1970s, Drs. Bruce Dickson as well as Norm Thomas and Glen Weir had joined the faculty. Moreover, in 1976 there was an opportunity to expand the program by adding a unique group of individual faculty members who specialized in nautical archaeology. In that year Dr. George Bass (Figure 1-2) and the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA), an independent non-profit 501(c) entity, arrived. Soon new nautical archaeologists joined the faculty—Richard Steffy in 1976, Dr. Frederick Van Doornink in 1977 and Dr. Donny Hamilton in 1978. Moreover, to further expand the program’s offerings to include biological anthropology, Dr. Gentry Steele joined the program in 1979 (Figure 1-3). Through the 1970s, the department’s professors and students were involved in a variety of important field archaeological projects in Texas and abroad (Figure 1-4).
Figure 1-2. Dr. George Bass in 1977, about the time he arrived at Texas A&M University.

In 1980, the growing Anthropology Program was separated from Sociology and became the Department of Anthropology, with Dr. Bryant appointed as the first Department Head. At the same time, a Nautical Archaeology Program was established as an autonomous unit within the Department of Anthropology. In an effort to maintain the uniqueness of the program, as requested by the dean, the focus of the new department continued to be archaeology, an area within anthropology that was only weakly emphasized at other doctoral-granting state universities in Texas. It was this desire to be unique within the Texas higher education system that led to acquiring the emphasis in nautical archaeology and also the development of the Archaeological Research Laboratory, an active research and academic program in cultural research management (CRM). This latter new research program, under the initial guidance of Dr. Harry Shafer, grew rapidly and with grants and contracts, was soon conducting a wide range of archaeological projects throughout Texas and neighboring states. This CRM program provided training for a large group of graduate students wanting to complete their academic studies and then become professional archaeologists. In 1981, Dr. David Carlson joined the faculty and replaced Shafer as the director of the Archaeological Research Laboratory.

Figure 1-3. Dr. Gentry Steele, one of the founding members of the Biological Anthropology Program in the Department of Anthropology.

By the mid-1980s, when Dr. Michael Waters joined the faculty, the department had gained a reputation as having a unique graduate program in environmental archaeology and nautical archaeology. Realizing the need to expand its offerings in biological and cultural anthropology, however, the department also began to add new faculty positions in these directions. Drs. Norbert Dannhaeuser arrived in 1981, Katherine Dettwyler in 1987, and Tom Green and Sylvia Grider in 1988, the latter two being folklorists who transferred from Texas A&M’s Department of English (after being jointly affiliated with Anthropology for a number of years). Dr. Lee Cronk, a behavioral ecologist, arrived in 1989, and along with Dannhaeuser, Green, and Grider, provided the department with expertise in cultural anthropology and folklore. Gentry Steele and Katherine Dettwyler, meanwhile, provided the department with a core group of biological anthropologists.

By this time it had become apparent that a growing number of students wanted to continue their graduate studies through the doctoral level. Again, by focusing on the uniqueness of the Texas A&M archaeology emphasis, it was possible to convince the State of Texas Coordinating Board on Higher Education that students needed an opportunity to gain doctoral-level training in archaeology. As a result, in 1986, Texas A&M was awarded permission to offer a PhD in Anthropology, with an emphasis in archaeology, within the Department of Anthropology. After successfully demonstrating their doctoral training efforts, and with growing demands for doctoral study programs in other fields of anthropology, the department received approval to offer doctoral studies in biological anthropology, cultural anthropology, and folklore in 1994. These were added as curricular tracks within the PhD program.

Figure 1-4. The Department of Anthropology’s 1976 field crew at Hinds Cave, west Texas. Drs. Vaughn Bryant and Harry Shafer, the leaders of the project, are in the front row, second and third from the left; Dr. Bruce Dickson is in back row, third from right.

During these fledgling years of the Department of Anthropology’s PhD program, Drs. Kevin Crisman (1990), Shelley Wachsmann (1990), Frederick Hocker (1991), Cemal Pulak (1997), and Wayne Smith (1997) joined the nautical archaeology program. Among cultural anthropologists, Dr. Duncan Earle arrived in 1990 but was soon replaced by Dr. Jeff Cohen in 1995, and among biological anthropologists, Dr. Lori Wright arrived in 1996. In addition, in 1990 Dr. Alston Thoms arrived and became Associate Director of the Archaeological Research Laboratory, and in 1995 he became its director, as David Carlson vacated that position and later (in 1999) become the Department of Anthropology’s new Head (replacing Vaughn Bryant). The name of the laboratory was changed to the Center for Ecological Archaeology, but it continued to serve as the department’s research and academic program in cultural resource management.

Coincident with these events, by the mid-1990s, was a significant “physical” change for the Department of Anthropology. For the first time in its history, the entire Anthropology Faculty was placed under one roof, in what has become known as the Anthropology Building, located in the heart of the Texas A&M campus (Figure 1-5). Before this time, the department was physically fragmented into several different spaces, for example the second and third floors of Bolton Hall, basement and second floor of the USDA (later Bell) Building, and the basement of the Special Services Building (which incidentally was condemned immediately after being vacated by the Archaeological Research Laboratory). The Institute of Nautical Archaeology and nautical archaeology faculty, moreover, had before been located 10 miles away at the university’s Riverside Campus. By bringing the Department of Anthropology together into a single physical space, the Department’s faculty and programs could be better unified.

Figure 1-5. View of the Anthropology Building in 2012, from southeast.

By 2000, the full development of the PhD program in Anthropology at Texas A&M had led to a gradual shift from a student body dominated by MA students to one dominated by PhD students. The MA program had been a very successful one, producing over 200 graduates, but administrative changes at the university and college levels eventually led to the refocus on production of PhDs. In 2000, cultural anthropologists Drs. Michael Alvard and Cynthia Werner joined the faculty, replacing Cronk and Cohen. In 2001, Dr. Filipe Castro joined the nautical archaeology program, replacing Fred Hocker.