Digging archaeology with Fred Wendorf

Fred Wendorf, Feb. 5, 2009A standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 turned out Feb. 5, 2009 at SMU’s DeGolyer Library for a book signing by renowned archaeologist and SMU Emeritus Professor of Anthropology Fred Wendorf.

Noting “this is the nicest day of my life,” Wendorf spoke briefly at the signing, telling a few of his adventures during his 60-year career as an archaeologist. Read more under the link below.

The retired SMU professor is notable for many important discoveries, especially most of what we know about the Stone Age prehistory of Northeastern Africa.

John Yellen, president of the Paleoanthropology Society and formerly an official with the National Science Foundation, and himself an Africanist archaeologist, has described Wendorf as an “archaeological Midas.”

Introducing Wendorf at the DeGolyer book signing was his friend and colleague James Brooks, SMU Provost Emeritus and chairman of the University’s Institute for the Study of Earth and Man.

Brooks characterized Wendorf as someone who has been a “risk-taker” throughout his career. He said Wendorf early on made a name for himself as a pioneer.

Wendorf was pivotal in helping preserve archaeological sites in the American Southwest when natural gas pipelines were laid in New Mexico. Then he advocated for “highway archaeology” as the U.S. interstate highway system was built. Later, Wendorf contributed wording to federal highway legislation requiring artifact preservation during construction, and to underwater archaeology legislation to require preservation when excavating historic shipwrecks.

In 1962, Wendorf organized an expedition into Northeastern Africa with funding from the National Science Foundation and the U.S. State Department in advance of construction of Aswan High Dam. He did so in the face of widespread skepticism and predictions that the venture was a waste of time and money. The firestorm of harsh criticism from some well-respected archaeologists widely disparaged Wendorf for even proposing the expedition.

But Wendorf’s risk-taking paid off.

“We surveyed and recorded over 200 sites in the Aswan reservoir,” Wendorf told his listeners at the DeGolyer. “We dug 107 of them. And they became the topics of three books that we did in 1965 and 1968.

“There was a whole new kind of archaeology in that reservoir. There were many different kinds of lithic industries and cultural traditions that were evident there,” he said. “It represented a whole volume of knowledge that the world would never have had unless we, or somebody, had gone in and done this reclamation, this salvage work, of the paleolithic archaeology. I’m extremely happy to say that it is a very valuable piece of knowledge. Of course, the river came in and the reservoir filled up, and the only thing we have left are the artifacts and those books.”

Wendorf’s finds are legendary. He and others continued to excavate throughout the region. Wendorf led the Combined Prehistoric Expedition from 1962 to 1999. The project continues today, and now ranks as the longest international prehistoric expedition in Africa. The work has resulted in the discovery of millions of artifacts in the Nile Valley and Eastern Sahara. It opened doors for many future researchers, Brooks said.

In 2001, Wendorf gave more than 6 million ancient Nile Valley artifacts to the British Museum in London. Most were excavated from 1963 to 1977 in Nubia, between Egypt and Sudan. The area was flooded beginning in 1965 to create Lake Nasser. The artifacts range in age from half-a-million years old to 5,000 years old and have helped shed new light on prehistoric humans.

The Wendorf Archive includes a 13,700-year-old burial site that is believed to be the oldest evidence of organized warfare. Of 58 skeletons found at a single site, 40 percent or more were men, women or children who show evidence of dying violently from the penetration of one or more stone points. In addition, there are pottery shards that are believed to be among the oldest in the world. The collection has formed the basis of several doctoral dissertations in archaeology by graduate students at SMU.

Wendorf founded SMU’s Department of Anthropology and SMU’s Fort Burgwin Research Center in Taos, New Mexico. His excavations in New Mexico unearthed the remnants of a log fort established by the U.S. Army in 1852 to protect the Taos-Santa Fe road from roaming Apache and Comanche. Wendorf reconstructed Fort Burgwin’s structures based on the archaeological evidence he found of the original vertical log buildings.

SMU began acquiring the property in 1964, which evolved into the campus for SMU-in-Taos and now offers academic courses in the humanities, natural sciences, and the arts as well as archaeological and anthropological research.

The author of more than 30 books, Wendorf has been a member of the SMU faculty since 1964. In 1987, he became the first SMU faculty member elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Wendorf’s book, Desert Days: My Life as a Field Archaeologist, has been published by SMU Press in cooperation with the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies.