Dean Mark Kornbluh Blog: Honoring Dr. William Y. Adams

Dear Friends,

It is with great sadness I announce the passing of beloved anthropology professor William Y. Adams on Aug. 22, 2019. Dr. Adams had a long and distinguished career, joining the UK Department of Anthropology in 1966. The College of Arts & Sciences recognized Dr. Adams' passion for teaching by inducting him as the first faculty member in the College's Hall of Fame in 2009. Dr. Adams' research interests took him across the United States and around the world and, in 1972, he instituted a long partnership between the University of Kentucky and the Egypt Exploration Society (London). In recognition of his many contributions to the history of the Nubian region in Africa, the Sudanese government awarded Dr. Adams its highest civilian honor, the Order of the Two Niles. Dr. Adams never stopped traveling and taught in Beijing, China, and Almaty, Kazakhstan, and never stopped writing - publishing 26 books in his lifetime complete with his own illustrations of archaeological sites. Dr. Adams was a profound researcher, writer, mentor, teacher, colleague and friend, and he will be greatly missed. 


Dr William Yewdale Adams, 92, of Lexington, died August 22 in hospice at Markey Cancer Care.

He was born August 6, 1927, in Los Angeles, California, the second son of William Forbes and Lucy Mary (Wilcox) Adams of Eagle Rock, California.  At his father’s early death in 1935, Bill and his elder brother, Ernie, moved with their mother to Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo Reservation where she worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The boys ‘raised themselves’ all over the wild lands, attending a range of schools from Washington, DC, to Marin County, California, as they followed his mother to various jobs. Bill entered Stanford University at 16, though he spent summers and holidays hiking in the mountains around Mazanar, California, where his mother managed education and social welfare for interned Japanese-Americans. In 1945, he left college to enter the US Navy, where he served on amphibious support craft until 1946.

After the war, he completed undergraduate work in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. He stayed for graduate work, interspersed with trips back to the Navajo Reservation, where from 1951 he helped with sheep drives, assisting mounted Navajo herders from his 1946 Dodge pickup, a car he maintained himself and still owned at his death. Eventually, he transferred to the University of Arizona to complete his PhD dissertation on the role of the trader in Navajo society, running the trading post at Shonto, Arizona, while taking notes on his interactions with local people. In 1955, he married anthropology student Nettie Alice Kesseler of Tulsa OK, who joined him in a hogan beside the trading post.

Bill received his PhD in 1957 and went to work for the Museum of Northern Arizona, for which he surveyed the San Juan and Colorado rivers in advance of the planned Glen Canyon dam. He and Nettie floated down the river alone on a wooden boat, scouting during the day for archaeological sites requiring excavation and camping by the water at night.

In 1959, Bill and Nettie, who Bill often said ‘shared a career,’ moved to Sudan, where Bill initially worked as an aerial photographer for UNESCO, again scouting for sites, this time in advance of the planned Aswan High Dam. Detailing all his excavations would take several books, but the medieval potteries at Faras and the town sites at Meinarti and Kulubnarti stand out. He and Nettie lived in a variety of places in Sudan, notably Khartoum and Wadi Halfa. They had two sons, Ernest in 1960 and Edward in 1962, who grew up along with the work, which involved at that point devising a typology for Nubian pottery that is still in use throughout the land that was ancient Nubia (southern Egypt and northern Sudan today) to date archaeological discoveries.

In 1966, Bill became a professor in the anthropology department at UK and the family moved to Lexington. In 1972, he instituted a long partnership between the University of Kentucky and the Egypt Exploration Society (London), within which he excavated the town site of Qasr Ibrim periodically for 16 years, processing the finds during sabbaticals at Cambridge University; these included a great number of textiles, leading Nettie to become an expert on Nubian textiles in her own right, and  wherever Bill went, the whole family went along.

In 1977, Bill published Nubia: Corridor to Africa, a comprehensive history of the region. Award after award followed this work, until in 2005, the Sudanese government recognized his great contribution to knowledge about their country by awarding him its highest civilian honor: the Order of the Two Niles. 

The University of Kentucky recognized Bill’s passion for teaching by making him, in 2009, the first faculty member inducted into the College of Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame.  He developed more than twice as many courses as most professors, and he founded the William Y. Adams Award for Excellence in Teaching by a Graduate Student. (Donations are welcome, either by mail to University of Kentucky Gift Receiving, 210 Malabu Drive, Suite 200, Lexington KY 40502 – but please write the name of the fund on you check – or by visiting and searching for William Y Adams in the search box on the upper right of the page.)

Bill and Nettie continued to travel the world, teaching in Beijing, China, and in Almaty, Kazakhstan. He also never stopped writing, publishing 26 books in his lifetime—for which he drew his own illustrations of archaeological sites—with even more currently in production. From his earliest sports reporting for the Stanford Daily to a whole body of unpublished poetry, he was a prolific writer. He was also a baseball fan, a builder of furniture, a hiker who knew the Sierra Nevada like few can claim, an attentive father and a loving husband. As colleagues have said, “A world without Bill Adams feels like a world without the pyramids, or without Stonehenge”; “a terrible quiet has opened.”

A visitation will be held 5-8 pm Tuesday, Aug. 27, at Kerr Brothers Funeral Home, Harrodsburg Rd.

On Friday August 30, 4:30-6pm, the Department of Anthropology will host a celebration of life at the Boone Faculty Club.

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