A woman, a pipe and a lot of local history

 Iroquoian bear effigy pipe

This Iroquoian bear effigy pipe dates back to the Late Woodland Village era (900-1550 AD) and is believed to be the end piece of a larger pipe made of wood or clay. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published January 29, 2015

Nestled inside the Ellicott Complex on the 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, the late UB anthropology professor Marian White.

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.

Marian White

Marian White

Among the artifacts in the museum is an 8-centimeter-high Iroquoian bear effigy pipe that 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.

Pioneer, preservationist and educator

Until the 1970s, White was the only professional archaeologist working to preserve Iroquoian history in Western New York. A World War II veteran, she established the highway salvage program at UB in 1969, which worked to record archaeological information before it was lost as a result of industrial progress or road expansion. The program was the precursor to the UB Archaeological Survey, which has been involved in cultural resource management projects in New York State for more than 30 years.

White’s courage in protecting archaeological sites was legendary. When the building of UB’s 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.

White also was 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.

While the White museum is largely a research museum and storage area — where the artifacts are preserved, housed and used by students, faculty and other scholars for research and other work — there is an assortment of artifacts on display for public viewing. These include two pieces of a very large totem pole — the room in which they are located is, in fact, named the Totem Pole Room. The room, located on the second floor of the Millard Fillmore Academic Center, is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Visitors should make arrangements in advance with Joshua Howard.