Baton Rouge, Louisiana | March 1, 2021
LSU Libraries’ Special Collections &
The T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History Present
“A Grown Man Does That and Gets Paid For It”
Oral History as a Window into the Life and Character of Heralded Archaeologist, William Haag, Jr.
Excerpts taken from 1994 interview by Jesse Walker:
Haag, William, collection #4700.0453,
Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections,
Hill Memorial Library, LSU, Baton Rouge, LA.
Photographs courtesy of Jesse Walker and Haag Family
Williams Center staff and students:
Written, Produced and Edited by
Jennifer Abraham, Assistant Director
Research & Processing by
Dominica Ramirez, Graduate Assistant
Stacy Marks & Kesei Nowell, Student Workers
Website and Audio Editing by
Matt Mullenix, Special Collections Web Administrator
Published October 2010
Updated October 2011
“…a trowel is a magic tool.”
LSU Professor of Anthropology William “Bill” Haag, Jr. was born in 1910 in Henderson, Kentucky. He earned his B.S. and M.S. degrees in geology from the University of Kentucky and his Ph.D. in vertebrate paleontology and anthropology (ethnozoology) from the University of Michigan. Haag came to LSU in 1952 and established a distinguished reputation in his field before retiring in 1978 as Alumni Professor Emeritus. He continued to contribute through his writing and community involvement until his death at the age of 90 on 19 October, 2000.
It was in my high school years that I began to be interested a lot in nature, and in hiking, and in astronomy, and in well, I hardly like to use the word archaeology, because it was really going out and picking up arrowheads. But that is the time that I first became interested in pre-history, which was subsequently to be the field in which I went on to an advanced degree.
When I was in high school…
When I was in high school, I did have a variety of kid jobs. One of the jobs that I had was working in a photo finishing plant. I was the owner of a Brownie Kodak, and I learned a tremendous amount there, because I gradually did everything such as developing the film, printing all the pictures, mixing the chemicals…
One of my very first assignments was a Ku Klux Klan funeral. And here were all these two hundred or so guys in white, so of course my film was over exposed. But it was very impressive to me, the funeral, I mean.
My first love was bugs…
You know, in nature my first love was, without a doubt, bugs. In high school maybe, I began a bug collection. I was interested really in beetles, the Coleoptera. And I made a beautiful, well to me, beautiful collection of beetles that I mounted in a glass covered box that I made. And the last year before I left Henderson to go to college I worked at the YMCA a while. So I gave my collection to the YMCA, and it hung on the wall in the same room where I learned to play pool. And one of the times twenty-five years later when I went back, there was my insect collection still on the wall. But I could just as easily have gone into entomology in college, and been interested in that, but I didn’t. Of course that’s part of a later story.
University of Kentucky
Haag received undergraduate and graduate degrees (both in geology) at the University of Kentucky in the years 1933 and 1934. While there, he also served as Curator of the Museum of Anthropology, illustrating his early interest in the field. Haag said of this experience, “That’s where I really got my first taste of professional archeology.”
At Kentucky I knew I wanted to go into some kind of natural sciences, or earth science is really what attracted me. So I settled on geology, and I continued in that course, even though I took more hours of zoology than I did of geology. . . In geology, I really kind of found my niche, or field. And I took everything that was sort of collateral to that. I really was not a straight A student. I was a straight B student, and that’s what I ended up with, a straight B average in everything. I never flunked a course in my life, that I remember, nor can I remember making D’s. But I’ve made a lot of C’s and B’s.
University of Michigan
In the fall of 1934, Haag initiated his Ph.D. studies at the University of Michigan under E.C. Case, from whom Haag received one of only two A’s Case had awarded in the previous sixteen years. On the strength of Case’s recommendation, Haag was invited to serve a fellowship at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, though later circumstances prevented his accepting.
WALKER: So you then decided that you would take his University of Michigan assistantship.
HAAG: Well I decided I’d like to say, “Hey! I’m ready to come . . .!” Show you again, I was somewhat naive about how assistantships were scattered around. Well of course I got a polite letter back, saying “Well, we’ve got other alternates we’ll have to award this to.” And it was signed by a gentleman named Erman Cowles Case, one of probably the four top vertebrate paleontologists in the world.
It just by sheer chance happened that one of the professors in the geology department at Kentucky was going to Michigan; he was going to Lansing. So I hitched a ride with him to Lansing, then hitchhiked to Ann Arbor, and went in to see E.C. Case. And I’m proud to say that before I left there, I had that assistantship.
Tennessee Valley Authority
In February of 1934, Haag accepted a field position with the Tennessee Valley Authority as archeologist for a project located in the Norris Reservoir in eastern Tennessee. It was after this experience that Haag returned to Kentucky as Associate Professor with the mandate (or as Haag says, “ramrod”) to establish a similar program to support T.V.A. projects in that state.
Without going into details about the tremendous program involved, it’s sufficient to say that we used W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration) labor. And, we had untold amounts of labor. The very first day that I was on the job I had a crew of ninety men who knew not even as much archeology as I did. They knew nothing. So that I had to tell them, “Don’t move anything when you discover something. Call me.”
Well, I can assure you that at the end of the day, running among ninety men was pretty tiring. . . This was no doubt a turning point in my life. It was a movement in a direction from which I never retreated. In other words, I was an archeologist after the works in T.V.A.
World War II
During World War II, Haag served for three years as an officer in the Air Corps and U.S. Signal Corps. Of this period in his life, Haag said, “You know, most people can never, when challenged, recognize what was the highest peak of their career. What did I attain the most? Well, mine was in the Army.”
Now that was in the summer of 1941. The upshot of it was, I took leave from the University of Kentucky, went to Ann Arbor. My draft board said “It’s okay, but remember professor,” (they were calling me professor by that time; I was thirty-two, of course) “We may be in a shooting war.”
Well, of course, we were. But they did defer me until June the 8th, because I took my doctoral exams on June the 4th, and I was in uniform on June the 8th. Needless to say, that’s where I was the next three years before I came back [to the University of Kentucky], October of 1945.
White and Boas
Once out of the service, Haag returned in 1948 to Michigan to complete his Ph.D. dissertation (An Osteometric Analysis of Aboriginal Dogs).
I was really very close with Leslie A. White, who was head of the Department of Anthropology at Michigan. But Leslie A. White was a very great figure in American anthropology. He was an ethnologist, did most of his fieldwork in the southwest. He wrote three monographic studies of various Pueblo groups, and so on. But he had a very controversial position in the field of anthropological theory. But it was a [theory] that appealed to me very much. It was what is still today called evolution in anthropology. It was popular in the nineteenth century, and fell into desuetude, I’d say in the 1920s-‘50s, primarily because so many students were Boas products of Columbia university, and they were strongly anti-evolutionary. But I sat in every course that I could of Leslie White’s. Leslie White, after all, went to LSU as a student. He left LSU in 1916 to join the U.S. Navy, and then when he came back to LSU, after a year or two he left to go to Columbia, where he got his Ph.D.
Louisiana State University
Before coming to Louisiana State University in 1952, Haag enjoyed what he described as “socially the happiest two years I ever spent in the academic world” within the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. When describing his experience in this small Southern town, Haag notes that campus was within walking distance of several significant archeological sites, but “forty-four and seven tenths miles” from the nearest place to buy beer.
WALKER: Could you tell us a little bit about what prompted your move to LSU?
HAAG: Actually, it was not monetary at all. I was very happy at Ole Miss, and felt I was fulfilling a role there that was needed, had good friends. But, LSU, on the contrary, had an ongoing . . . series of inter-related departments and activities that I felt I really kind of fitted into. As an example, here was a combined geology/geography anthropology that was unique in North America.
Teaching at LSU
After I came to LSU, I realized that to teach these graduate students, they needed something that broke them from their mold. It was well-advised, I’m happy to say. I wasn’t a rabble-rouser or knocking down any idols or icons, but I certainly was countering an ingrained Freudian [orientation]. . . Nobody there had any different ideas.
Here we were, all trying to give a student an understanding of the nature of culture. They may have called it something else, but that’s what it was: Man’s relationship to man, or man’s relationship to the environment.
Haag’s work at Poverty Point in north Louisiana began in the mid 1950s. He described the site as “a great circular earthworks consisting of six concentric ridges, the outermost one three quarters of a mile across . . . it’s obviously a solstice earthworks for signaling certain kinds of activities . . . I personally think it [was] a center for trade.” Today, Poverty Point is part of the Louisiana State Park system.
Poverty Point is now an internationally known site. One time I gave a talk somewhere about Poverty Point, and I used the expression that it is the American Stonehenge. I meant by that, here’s a big, giant circle, it’s obviously got something to do with astronomical observations. But it wasn’t any time before I had a phone call from BBC in London saying “Hey, what about this site?” So I told them all about it. Finally the caller says, “Now, what is the relation of that to Stonehenge?” And I said “Oh, there’s no relationship. It’s just circular; we know it was astronomically oriented…” — “Well thank you professor.” Bam! [laughs] It’s not related to anything that we’ve been able to find.
I do want to say that all of this was enjoyable. As state archeologist I did go all over the state looking at various activities, insofar as I could. I mean, I never lost sight of the fact that my primary job at LSU was teaching. I didn’t just run off and miss classes.
But one time I was in north Louisiana. I went on a farm where I asked the farm owner, I asked permission to walk to the back of his property to look at a spot on a bayou back there where we thought there was an Indian site. I said “I want to go and look at the ground and see if there’s broken pieces of pottery,arrowheads, and stuff like that, that tell us what people lived there, tell when they lived there, and when they left. That’s all I want to do.”
He looked at me and he said “You mean to tell me a grown man does that?” [laughs] Well, I didn’t tell him, but I could have told him that a grown man does that and gets paid for it.
After retiring from LSU in 1978, Haag continued to pursue his interests, writing and professional affiliations, expanding his sphere of activities to include community activism and study of the Civil War. Of his retirement, Haag said, “…to tell you the truth, I’ve never been so busy in my life.”
WALKER: What sort of interest is it that you have in the Civil War?
HAAG: Well, it is that, when I retired, such relaxing reading as I want to do, or can do, has been involved in the Civil War. I had an interest before, but it was superficial. But now I’m really involved in it.
Also, I was very early thrown in constant contact with T. Harry Williams, the man to whom this oral history is dedicated. After all, he is still one of the great names in American Civil War history, and of course I’ve read everything he ever wrote, and enjoyed them, sometimes twice. I suspect that’s about all the serious reading I’ll do.
WALKER: This is I guess about four hours of taping, which . . .
HAAG: Very close.
WALKER: . . . which we’ll end, then, at 4:30.
HAAG: That’s right.
WALKER: And this is still April 26,  and we’re still in Bill Haag’s study.
HAAG: Getting stuffy in here, too.
HAAG: So much hot air! [laughs]
“But, as I’ve said in the final analysis, I’m not real complacent, or self-satisfied, but I’m close to complacent and self-satisfied.”
At the suggestion of Jesse Walker, we would like to take it out with a song about William Haag’s home state (his ‘Old Kentucky Home’) and to show various photos of Bill with a few of his many friends and colleagues…
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