William Woods

1947 - 2015

William Woods

Bill Woods, professor emeritus at Kansas University and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, a soil geographer and geoarchaeologist whose work stood at the nexus of geography, soils, anthropology and archaeology, passed away on September 11, 2015, at the age of 68.

William Irving Woods was born on March 5, 1947 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After graduating from Whitefish Bay High School in 1965, he received an undergraduate scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

His bachelor’s degree, granted with distinction in 1970, was in anthropology. This was follow by a master’s degree in geography, completed in 1973. During his time at UWM, he also served variously as a tutor and teaching assistant in anthropology, economics and geography.

Over this period he also pursued interests in modern languages, passing reading proficiency exams in German and Spanish, and spent a period at the Goethe Institute in Brilon, Germany where he earned a Certificate in German Language Ability.

In 1976 Woods was appointed the staff archaeologist in the Department of Anthropology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), a position he held until 1985. From 1980 until 1985 he was also a lecturer in the department at SIUE and was involved with the Environmental Studies Program, teaching courses on anthropology, archaeological mapping techniques, archaeology of the Midwest, and interdisciplinary concepts of environmental analysis, as well as running field trips.

He concurrently taught cultural anthropology courses at Jefferson College, MO, and Belleville Area College, IL, as well as giving archaeological training seminars for the USDA Forest Service and US Army Corps of Engineers. At the same time he was also undertaking his doctoral research in geography at UWM. His thesis, completed in 1986 was entitled “Prehistoric Settlement and Subsistence in the Upland Cahokia Creek Drainage.”

Following the completion of his PhD, Woods continued at SIUE but this time in the Department of Geography where he stayed for 17 years, working his way up the ranks to professor. He taught courses including physical geography, soils, field study of environmental problems, cultural geography, cultural landscape, regional geography, and Latin America. He was also an affiliated faculty member in the Environmental Studies Program and the director of the Contract Archaeology Program. In 2004 he left SIUE but remained an emeritus professor in the Department of Geography there until 2013.

Woods started at the University of Kansas (KU) in 2005 and stayed until retirement in 2014 as professor emeritus. He was a professor in the Department of Geography teaching courses on human geography, global environment and civilization, soils, anthrosols, Amazonia, cultural landscape, and sustainability and unsustainability. At KU he also served as director of the Environmental Studies Program and was a courtesy professor of anthropology, core faculty member of the Latin American Studies Program and the Center for Global and International Studies.

He was widely respected internationally and was invited to give seminars at universities across the world including Italy, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden, Poland, Costa Rica and Brazil.

Woods’ interests stood at the interface of geography, anthropology, and archeology, and included abandoned settlements, anthropogenic environmental change, cultural landscapes, soils and sediments, and traditional settlement-subsistence systems. Field study was always a significant aspect of both his teaching and research. He directed archaeological and geological investigations in the United States, Mesoamerica, South America, and Europe, serving as principal investigator on more than 110 projects.

He is perhaps best known for his work on terra preta (black earth) soils, also known as Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE). These are distinguished by dark, nearly black color, high carbon and nutrient content, and high productivity (in contrast to more nutrient-poor soils in the Amazon basin that were shaped by natural processes). In the early days, Woods was part of a small but interdisciplinary group of committed and enthusiastic people studying terra preta, and went on to become a world leader in this field.

In a number of collaborative projects with colleagues from Latin America, Europe, and the US, he investigated the origin and importance of the soil. He was directly involved in organizing seminars, conferences, workshops, field trips on ADE, was the co-editor of the four main books on ADE, and authored of numerous articles and chapters on the subject.

His research showed how terra preta was formed by the strategies for land use and settlement of prehistoric Indian cultures. This provided a deeper understanding of the environmental and cultural history of the Amazon basin, as well as clues to sustainable use of resources in the Amazon today and in the future. His work was crucial to the emergence of a new understanding of the Amazonian rainforest landscape that has evolved over recent years, from having been regarded as an untouched wilderness to being best understood as a cultural landscape.

Throughout his career Woods looked at other aspects of anthropogenic soils and environmental history too, particularly prehistoric cultivation. For example, during his tenure at SIUE, he directed the study of Monks Mound, one of the major earthworks at Cahokia in southwestern Illinois, the largest prehistoric Indian settlement in North America, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

He was also well known for his development of techniques for examining soils at archaeological sites, especially the quantitative analysis of soil phosphate. One of his last research topics concerned carbon sequestration in soils as a potential mitigating process for land degradation and atmospheric CO2 accumulation. An ancillary interest involved birds as an indicator of anthropogenic environmental change.

Woods’ cross-disciplinary interests were reflected in his society memberships: Association of American Geographers, American Geographical Society, Geological Society of America, Society for American Archaeology, American Chemical Society, Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers, and British Society of Soil Science. He also served on the editorial boards of Journal of ArchaeologyJournal of Ecosystem and Ecography, and PLOS ONE.

During his career, Woods received many awards and distinctions. At SIUE he received the 1999 Paul Simon Outstanding Teacher-Scholar Award, recognizing the interdependence of research/scholarship and teaching. The Association of American Geographers’ Cultural and Political Ecology Specialty Group awarded him the Robert Netting Award in 2006 for his impressive body of work in interdisciplinary cultural ecology. In the same year he received the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers’ Carl O. Sauer Distinguished Scholar Award given in recognition of a significant contribution towards Latin American geography.

In 2012, Uppsala University in Sweden conferred on him an honorary doctorate for his pioneering research on terra preta, and in 2013 he received the Rip Rapp Award, one of the Geological Society of America’s most prestigious awards, in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the interdisciplinary field of archaeological geology.

Aside from his influential scholarly work, Bill Woods will be remembered as a great mentor and supporter of young and emergent scientists, providing inspiration and always willing to give advice. He will be missed by colleagues and friends across the disciplines that he touched. He is survived by his wife Deanna, son Colin and daughter Gillian, former wife Sandi, and four grandchildren.