Dr. Brian S. Robinson, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Maine, died Oct. 28 in his home after a long battle with an illness. Robinson was an award-winning professor and a Climate Change Institute (CCI) researcher. Robinson was 63 years old and had been with the University of Maine for over a decade. This was the second death of a CCI researcher in October after Gordon Hamilton died in Antarctica on Oct. 22.
Robinson was an expert on Northeastern archaic anthropology. His research helped
identify the sites of different cultures and shifts in burial rituals through time. He observed
differences in artifacts such as projectile technologies and the size and shape of the burial
grounds to determine where cultural boundaries and changes in rituals occurred.
Through his observations of fish bones in Seabrook, N.H., Robinson was able to evaluate
archaic diets. Observations in diet reflected by the animal remains at key historical sites show
the change in local species all the way back to the last ice age.
Robinson played a major role in the Maine Academic Project Initiative (MAPI), an
anthropology summer field school. Students in MAPI participate in archaeological fieldwork at
sites where archaic Wabanaki artifacts have been found, such as the petroglyphs in Machias.
MAPI aims to emphasize the importance of Native people’s involvement in their field work. In
the past, this involvement has occurred through including Native students and government
officials in their excavations. MAPI is one of the few field schools that in-state students can attend for free.
Robinson made the respectful and ethical treatment of the cultures he studied a high
priority. He worked through a pivotal time in Maine archaeology as he saw the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed. NAGPRA gave rights to all burial artifacts to the Natives. Before NAGPRA, archeology was previously a “finder’s keepers” arrangement. Robinson mentioned his support of the “long overdue” NAGPRA in his literature
regardless of whether or not the Act made his job more difficult.
Anthropology graduate student Kendra Bird was a student of Robinson’s. Bird is currently
working on her thesis at the Machias site of the MAPI field school.
“When you’re around someone who gets that much enjoyment out of what they’re doing, it really does carry to the people around them. He always made every topic engaging, he always had creative ways of expressing various topics, he cared so much about his students,” Bird said. “I specifically decided to stay at the University of Maine for graduate school to work with Brian.”
Even after receiving his diagnosis, Robinson remained dedicated to his work. He made
good on his commitment to finish a late colleague’s book and continued to oversee his grad
students’ work. Robinson saw Amber Sky Heller pass her exam for doctoral candidacy a week
before he passed away, making her his first Ph.D. student.
Fellow anthropology professor and CCI researcher, Dr. Dan Sandweiss, expressed the
sorrow felt throughout the CCI after losing a second colleague in two weeks. However tragic the event, Sandweiss remains confident in CCI’s ability to move forward on projects. “These people were outstanding individuals and outstanding researchers so it’s hard to replace that, but it won’t affect the functioning of the institute.”
Dr. Greg Zaro, chair of the Department of Anthropology, released the following statement:
“Brian was a highly valued member of the Anthropology Department and Climate Change
Institute. His work with Native communities of Maine and the archaeology of New England
spans decades and is irreplaceable. His passion for his work was infectious, and he had a
knack for engaging students, faculty, and staff in the many facets of his daily activities. His
passing will be felt across the University and State for many years to come.”