Alumnus Dr. Robert Mainfort Retires in Lansing

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Dr. Robert C. Mainfort, archaeologist and a triple alumnus of the MSU Department of Anthropology (BS 1970, MA 1974, PhD 1977), re-settled in Lansing in 2013 for retirement. MSU Anthropology was honored to bring him on as an adjunct professor, and he recently co-taught a graduate seminar, “Readings in Eastern North American Archaeology” with his long-time buddy from grad school, Dr. William Lovis.

Dr. Mainfort’s most notable work focuses on prehistoric societies in the Midsouth. As Regional Archaeologist in Tennessee, he directed several years of research at Pinson Mounds, one of the largest mound groups in North America, dating to the Middle Woodland period. Some of the mounds had been relatively unstudied prior to his research and were quite large (one was 72 feet tall). His excavations there were the focus of many years of scholarship, and his recent book, Pinson Mounds: Middle Woodland Ceremonialism in the Midsouth (2013), was named an Outstanding Academic Title for 2014 by Choice Magazine.

Dr. Mainfort spent many years working as Regional Archaeologist for the State of Tennessee before taking a position at the University of Arkansas, where he served as Director of Sponsored Research and Series Editor with the Arkansas Archaeological Survey, and taught and mentored grad students as a professor in the Department of Anthropology. One of his favorite projects in Arkansas, produced with the Old State House Museum in Little Rock, was an exhibit of prehistoric Native American artifacts from the turn of the 20th century. Dr. Mainfort curated the exhibit, playfully titled “Raiders of the Lost Arkansas” (2004-2007). The exhibit received an Award of Commendation from the Southeastern Museums Conference and was named Exhibit of the Year by the Arkansas Association of Museums. The exhibit was viewed by about 80,000 people and was also made available through an illustrated book.

On another occasion, Dr. Mainfort’s efforts to bring archaeological and historical knowledge to the public stirred up local politics. Early in his career, he collected data to help reconstruct fortifications at the Civil War site of Ft. Pillow in West Tennessee. His research helped confirm that Ft. Pillow had been the site of a massacre of black Union troops by Confederate soldiers under General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Dr. Mainfort and a colleague, historian John Cimprich, combed through previously untapped materials from the National Archives to piece together what had occurred at the Fort. Their results were published as several articles, including one in The Journal of American History, in which they provided definitive figures that the battle was in fact a massacre in which black soldiers were disproportionately targeted over white Union soldiers. The research came under attack from local white politicians who revered General Forrest as a war hero. Dr. Mainfort became a key contributor to an exhibit about the massacre, where letters that surviving soldiers wrote after the battle were made public for the first time, testifying to the horror that had taken place.

In recent years, much of Dr. Mainfort’s research has focused on late prehistoric mortuary practices in the Midsouth. Most of his data comes from museum collections, including excavation records made over 100 years ago that have largely been ignored by later researchers. These records are very brief by modern standards, but nonetheless contain valuable data.

Considering that people’s ancestors were excavated haphazardly, Dr. Mainfort felt it was important to make good use of the information already obtained. This work also presented opportunities to pass along records to Native peoples, helping tribes connect with scholarship and, in some cases, regain control over ancestral materials (although this isn’t always possible because of contested claims).

As they approached retirement, Dr. Mainfort and his wife (historical archaeologist Mary L. Kwas) longed to return to Michigan. Here they have become involved with civic groups such as the Historical Society of Greater Lansing. They’ve both been writing for the Society’s newsletter and helping with exhibits and collections, including the recent exhibit at City Hall on Prohibition and its aftermath. They also are involved in the Delta-Waverly Garden Club, where they share their love of cultivating daylilies and roses.


Top image: Dr. Mainfort speaking at the exhibit “Raiders of the Lost Arkansas”

Bottom image: Dr.  Mainfort with Mary L. Kwas


This article appears in our Spring 2016 newsletter. Read the entire newsletter here.