It wasn’t until he enrolled in an introductory archeology class during his first semester in college that he connected that personal passion to a career path.
When his archeology professor, Dr. Charles McNutt, called for volunteers to help on an archeological dig off of Beale Street in downtown Memphis, the Memphis State University freshman seized the moment.
“I jumped at the chance and never looked back,” he said.
Cultural anthropology followed in the spring semester. That summer he crammed in 12 hours of archeological field school where he learned the appropriate methods of excavating and documenting historical sites. That training prepared him for his first archeology-related job with the Tennessee Division of Archeology.
Through his studies Brandon grew to understand that the field of anthropology is basically “the study of all human culture.”
“My freshman year I realized that and I thought ‘That’s kind of like not having to declare a major,’” Brandon said. “[In anthropology] you can study anything, as long as it is related to human culture. I have friends in the field who study Moroccan raves, low-rider car culture in south Texas, ancient civilizations in Central America or Egypt, life in 19th century America, how Native Americans use plants for healing, the list goes on and on. It’s a wide open field. You could never get bored.”
After graduating, Brandon worked in the private sector for contract archeology firms and was involved in projects in 13 southeastern states from Florida to Missouri.
“Most people do not realize it, but the majority of professional archeologists out there are not academics. They work for private firms,” he said.
Just like environmental impact studies are done before the government launches a project, such as building roads, installing cell towers, cutting trees in a national forest, etc., an archeological study has to be done in order to make sure important historic sites, like Indian burial mounds, Civil War battlefields or forgotten cemeteries, are not being destroyed.
Brandon credits many of his prolific accomplishments to his stint in the private sector, but his desire to dig deeper into the field of archeology and to direct projects required further studies beyond his undergraduate degree.
“I had intended to simply get my masters in anthropology and return to the private sector or maybe start my own firm,” said Brandon. “But, while I was at the University of Arkansas, I fell in love with teaching and academia.”
While teaching in northwest Arkansas, he was offered a position with the Arkansas Archeological Survey (AAS) in 2005.
This made him the Southern Arkansas University Research Station Archeologist with the AAS, a position founded by Dr. Frank Schambach, a Harvard graduate. Schambach was not only a legend in the field of archeology, he was known for his extensive research and work on the pre-Caddoan cultures. His anthropology classes at SAU were quite popular among students. Schambach’s classes consistently met or exceeded capacity enrollment, according to Brandon.
With more than 25 years of experience under his belt, Brandon stepped in when Schambach retired from his SAU post. He has logged an extensive number of hours working on historic archeological projects around the region. In addition to carrying on Schambach’s legacy with the Caddoan culture, Brandon devotes time to work at Historic Washington State Park (Ark.), which was founded in 1820.
“Washington would have been along the edge of western expansion,” said Brandon. “In its earliest days, Washington was a border town with first Mexico and then the Republic of Texas, until Texas annexed in the late 1840s.”
Before teaching in north Arkansas, Brandon pursued his doctorate in Texas. While there he got the chance to work with Dr. Maria Franklin. She specialized in historic-period archeology and African-American heritage which blended well with his work with Van Winkle’s Mill – a 19th century Arkansas town in the Ozarks.
Today, Brandon does public outreach in addition to teaching at SAU. He also continues archeological research in southwest Arkansas (an 11-county area). In his public outreach role, Brandon has appeared on various radio programs, including NPR affiliates in Louisiana and Arkansas and other regional talk shows.
He has also contributed to the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial online podcasts and on two Arkansas Education Television Network (AETN) documentaries: “Silent Storytellers,” a documentary about cemetery preservation and “Sesquicentennial CW 150: Remembering the Civil War in Arkansas,” a one-hour program that explores why the Civil War is relevant in our modern culture – socially, economically and politically.
Brandon also continues Schambach’s work with Caddo archeology. He is currently working with graduate students investigating historic sites in the region including Battle Mound in Lafayette County, Crenshaw Mounds in Miller County and Ferguson Mounds in Hempstead County.
Asked about his teaching philosophy, Brandon said his classes emphasize skills more than “things.”
“I teach anthropology and archeology on a campus that does not have an anthropology major,” he said. “This means that, in all likelihood, my classes may be the only anthropology class a student ever has. The impression I give a student is the one that he or she is going to carry for a big hunk of their lives. I better make it relevant and interesting.”
In his teaching role, Brandon is motivated by knowing that his students understand what anthropology is, what questions anthropology is interested in asking and how it goes about answering those questions. If students leave his class with an appreciation for the diversity of human culture and can use the foundation of critical thinking started in his class in whatever field they pursue, he has succeeded.