"Jimmy," as he was known to his numerous friends, died peacefully in his sleep on May 31, 1997, at the age of 92. Always noted for his incredible memory and quick wit, he possessed both until his death despite being ravaged by shingles the last few years. Jimmy was the dean of North American archaeology, although his research and travel brought him to Mexico, Europe, and the Soviet Union in his lifelong quest to learn more about the origins of American Indians and their cultural relationships within the New World.
Recognition came easily to him. During his distinguished career, he published more than 260 articles and some eight books and monographs. All reflected his passionate interest in ceramic studies as part of culture history and his application of other sciences to archaeology.
His publications include some of the earliest on radiocarbon dating to redefine the chronology of eastern United States archaeology, palynology and climatic change in human affairs, neutron activation analysis to source Hopewell obsidian, and geological studies to explain early Holocene archaeology.
He was the most honored archaeologist of his generation. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (1968). He received the Viking Fund Award and Medal (1957), the Fryxell Award (1980), and the Distinguished Service Award (1984), all from the Society for American Archaeology, the professional society he helped to found in 1935. In 1973 he was elected Special Honorary Fellow of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (Calcutta). The University of Michigan honored him with its Henry Russel Lectureship for outstanding research (1972) and its Distinguished Faculty Achievement Award (1976). The College of Literature, Science, and the Arts named him one of its ten most distinguished faculty members (1990). He received an honorary doctorate from Indiana University (1971).
His archaeological career was synonymous with the University of Michigan. After receiving a BA (1927), he tried the business world, but returned for an MA in Anthropology (1930), his second degree from the University of Chicago. He entered graduate school at the University of Michigan (1933) where he received his doctorate (1936) while a Fellow in Aboriginal Ceramics in the Museum of Anthropology. He was employed by the university until his retirement, first as Research Associate and then rising through the museum's curatorial ranks from 1937 to 1945, serving as director 1946–1975. He was named Professor of Anthropology in 1949 and served as chair of the Department of Anthropology from 1972 to 1975. He was a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley (1960), the University of Colorado (1962), Florida State University (1970) and LSU (1971). After being named emeritus professor at Michigan, he remained affiliated with the Museum of Anthropology as Research Scientist. He continued to do research and to publish as distinguished Regent scholar at the Smithsonian Institution until his reduced mobility prevented him from driving in Washington traffic.
Jimmy expressed satisfaction many times with his contributions to archaeology and with the numerous international friends he had in the profession. He would not have wanted life to be otherwise. He is survived by his second wife Mary Marsh DeWitt and three adult sons, John, David, and James. And, of course, he is remembered affectionately and admired by several generations of archaeological students, including the 40+ whose dissertations he chaired at Michigan. He was honored at the time of his retirement in 1975 by his students and colleagues with two festschriften, both edited by Charles E. Cleland: Cultural Change and Continuity (Academic Press, 1976), and For the Director: Research Essays in Honor of James B. Griffin (University of Michigan Museum of Anthropology, Anthropology Papers No. 61, 1977).
For a more personal account of James "Jimmy" Griffin, please read Jeffrey Parson's "Some Memories of James B. Griffin".
In 2003, the Museum transferred over 200 linear feet of James Griffin's correspondence, research notes, and early schooling files to the Bentley Historical Library to be archived. An on-line finding aid for his archive is available through the Bentley Historical Library web site.