A Woman, a Pipe and a Lot of Local History

The outstanding collection of local artifacts at the Marian E. White Research Museum reflects the relentless dedication of its namesake

By Julie Wesolowski

Nestled inside the labyrinth-like Ellicott Complex on UB’s North Campus is a museum that houses arguably more indigenous artifacts from Western New York than anyplace else in the world. Many of the ceramic, stone and bone items that make up the collection were acquired by the museum’s namesake, UB anthropology professor Marian White (1921-1975).

White envisioned a museum dedicated to preserving objects reflecting local history and heritage. Since its opening in 1979, the Marian E. White Research Museum has come to possess approximately 1 million artifacts from more than 1,500 sites, with 95 percent of the collection coming from the Western New York region.

Photo: Douglas Levere

Smoke and the bear
This 8-centimeter-high Iroquoian Bear Effigy pipe was found in a “refuse midden” (what we now call a trash pile) during a 1967 excavation in Chautauqua County. Carved from stone, it dates back to the prehistoric Late Woodland Village era (900-1550 AD) and is believed to be the end piece of a larger pipe made of clay or wood. Most often used in ceremonial and ritual smoking events, effigy pipes are typically zoomorphic (animal) or anthropomorphic (human). Zoomorphic pipes are thought to be representations of clan totems and spirit animals along with guardians that belong to Iroquoian myths and legends.

UB anthropology professor Marian White.

Photo: University Archives

A pioneer
A World War II veteran, White established the highway salvage program at UB in 1969; the program works to record archaeological information before it’s lost as a result of industrial progress or road expansion. Until the 1970s, White was the only professional archaeologist working to preserve Iroquoian history in Western New York.

A fearless preservationist
White’s courage in protecting archaeological sites was legendary. When the building of UB’s Amherst campus (now the North Campus) put several sites in jeopardy, she reportedly threatened to lie down in front of the bulldozers to stop the work. Whether or not she went that far, her protest led to her getting the permission she needed to conduct excavations before the sites were destroyed.

An educator
White was also devoted to public education and worked with Native American communities whose prehistory she wanted to preserve. If not for her extreme passion for Western New York archaeology, and her outreach with local indigenous communities, much of what is known about local history would have been lost.