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World renowned SMU archaeologist Fred Wendorf has died

July 15, 2015

DALLAS (SMU) – Noted archaeologist Fred Wendorf, credited with contributing more than any other individual to our understanding of early human life in northeast Africa, died in Dallas Wednesday, July 15, following a long illness. He was 90.

Fred Wendorf
Fred Wendorf

Wendorf’s career as a field archaeologist on two continents spanned six decades and left an unsurpassed record of seminal discoveries in both Africa and the American Southwest. Wendorf spent four decades on the faculty of Southern Methodist University, retiring in 2003 as the Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory Emeritus

Wendorf was born on July 31, 1924, in Terrell, Texas, and as a teenager developed a keen interest in archaeology while roaming the fields of Kaufman County in search of Native American artifacts. He began studying anthropology at the University of Arizona in 1942, but suspended his study the following year to report for active duty in World War II. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he was assigned as a rifle platoon leader with the 86th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division. He was severely wounded while leading his platoon in an assault on the Nazi line in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy. He was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star medals and spent the next two years recovering in Army hospitals.

Wendorf returned to the University of Arizona to earn his B.A. in anthropology in 1948, followed by a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University in 1953. In the early 1950s, he directed the world’s first pipeline archaeology salvage project during construction of a natural gas pipeline in New Mexico. He also conducted archaeological salvage projects on highways in New Mexico and later contributed wording to federal highway legislation requiring site excavations during construction.

In 1954 Wendorf’s excavation of the so-called “Midland Man” site in the sand hills near Midland, Texas, was his first archaeological milestone, achieved when he was 29 years old. This Late Pleistocene human burial was at the time one of the oldest human remains to be found in the Americas. In the mid 1950s, Wendorf received the first of what would be several dozen National Science Foundation research grants, this initial one for a study of the late glacial archaeology and paleoecology of the High Plains of western Texas and eastern New Mexico. It was an important interdisciplinary scientific project that brought together American and European scientists.

While working as an archaeologist for the Museum of New Mexico, Wendorf was enlisted in 1956 to locate the long-abandoned pre-Civil War Cantonment Burgwin of the U.S. First Dragoons near Taos. He not only found the buried ruins of the fort, but also supervised its painstaking excavation and reconstruction as an academic campus. He also began excavations at Pot Creek Pueblo, the ancestral home of both Picuris and Taos Pueblos, located near the fort. This activity led to establishment of the Fort Burgwin Research Center, with Wendorf as its director. Also in 1956 he joined the anthropology faculty at Texas Tech University and held the first summer archaeological field school at the fort under the auspices of Texas Tech. In 1958 he returned to Santa Fe as associate director of the Museum of New Mexico.

In 1964 SMU recruited Wendorf to establish its Anthropology Department, now one of the University’s strongest departments, offering degrees from bachelor’s to Ph.D. In addition to his SMU teaching responsibilities, Wendorf continued his activities at the Fort Burgwin Research Center, which merged with SMU in 1968. SMU began acquiring the Fort Burgwin property in 1964 and added facilities to accommodate students for summer classes beginning in 1973. Through the years, SMU has added land and facilities for what has become SMU-in-Taos, today including 423 acres with 33 buildings, nestled in the Carson National Forest of Northern New Mexico. SMU-in-Taos now offers credit courses in the natural and social sciences, humanities, arts and business and an annual archaeology field school. The annual Taos Cultural Institute provides a summer weekend of informal classes for adults taught by SMU faculty members. In 2004 the Fred Wendorf Information Commons, a state-of-the art computer facility and library, was dedicated on the Taos campus in honor of Wendorf.

“Fred Wendorf had a global impact on the field of archaeology and an extraordinary impact on the University where he served for four decades,” said SMU President R. Gerald Turner. “We are indebted to Fred for bringing his expertise to SMU in 1964 to establish the University’s Anthropology Department and for the international significance of his ongoing archaeological research in regions ranging from the American Southwest to northeast Africa. We also are grateful to Fred for his vision and personal involvement in the University’s acquisition of the Fort Burgwin property and the development there of SMU-in-Taos, a unique campus offering students opportunities for study and research enhanced by the region’s distinctive mix of cultures and rich natural resources.”

Beyond his archaeology fieldwork in the American Southwest, Wendorf was involved in the protection of historical shipwrecks. His investigation of a Spanish shipwreck off the coast of Texas ultimately led to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987, an important law protecting historical shipwrecks in U.S. waters. Blending public activities with his scientific investigations, Wendorf was a sustained and committed advocate for the preservation of archaeological sites and collections for future generations of scientists and for humanity more generally.

By the time Wendorf joined SMU in 1964, his primary archaeological interest had begun to switch from the American Southwest to northeast Africa. In the early 1960s, archaeological monuments in Lower Nubia were threatened with obliteration from construction of the Aswan High Dam in the Nile River Valley of Egypt. UNESCO launched an international salvage operation in an effort to save the region’s rich archaeological heritage.

Fred Wendorf at Nabta Playa in Egypt
Fred Wendorf at Nabta Playa in Egypt

In response to the UNESCO appeal, in 1962 Wendorf invited teams of scientists from Great Britain, France, Belgium, Poland and Egypt to participate in the rescue of the Nubian prehistoric monuments that would disappear under the waters of Lake Nasser with the completion of the new dam. This multinational research body became the Combined Prehistoric Expedition, which Wendorf directed until 1999, along with his collaborator Romuald Schild, professor at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology at the Polish Academy of Sciences (whom Wendorf affectionately referred to as his “brother”). The Nubian Campaign made possible the discovery and rescue of hundreds of prehistoric sites along the Nile in the stretch extending on both sides of the river between Tushka in Upper Egypt to the southern end of the Second Cataract in Sudan. The Expedition has continued to carry out researches in Upper and Lower Egypt, the Western Desert of Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Sinai.

“The Combined Prehistoric Expedition, under Fred Wendorf’s direction, became the most enduring prehistoric expedition in the history of African archaeology, covering in its field work and subsequent publications almost the entire chronological expanse of prehistory from the Early Stone Age to the late predynastic and Bronze Age times,” said Schild. “The work of the Expedition over the past half century has provided comprehension as never before of human settlement, beliefs, social interaction and adaptation to the natural environments along the main Nile Valley, the deserts of eastern Sahara and Sinai, as well as the rift valleys of Ethiopia.”

The Combined Prehistoric Expedition has provided many new insights into early human occupation and behavior along the Nile and in the Desert. Over the years, the Expedition has engaged an international assemblage of archaeologists, geologists, botanists, zoologists and other earth scientists and has resulted in publication of more than 30 books. Wendorf shared his own personal recollections in the book Desert Days: My Life as a Field Archaeologist, published in 2008.

“Fred Wendorf, and his close colleague and collaborator Romuald Schild, stand as giants in their contributions to Northeast African archaeology,” said John Yellen, founder and president of the Paleoanthropology Society and program director for archaeology at the National Science Foundation. “Through his multiple expeditions and fully and carefully presented results, Wendorf has provided a solid foundation from which future generations of archaeologists will work. His contributions and insights also constitute a guiding framework.” 

Wendorf’s fieldwork has resulted in findings that displaced numerous previously held theories. Many Paleolithic sites were discovered and excavated in Nubia, where it was thought no sites existed. Early Saharan pottery was found and dated several thousand years before the oldest pottery in the Nile Valley, previously thought to introduce pottery to the Sahara. Domestic cattle were discovered to be about 2,000 years earlier than the first domestic cattle in Southwest Asia, long thought to be the source of domestic cattle in Africa. Wendorf’s study of unusual megalithic structures at Nabta Playa suggests an emerging social complexity in the Late and Final Neolithic. His excavations at Wadi Kubbaniya clarified the Late Paleolithic cultural sequence in the Nile Valley.

In order to preserve archaeological records for future generations, in 2001 Wendorf donated to the British Museum in London his entire collection of Egyptian and Sudanese artifacts and environmental remains excavated over a period of 40 years. Helping to extend back the story of the beginning of Ancient Egyptian civilization by more than 5,000 years, a selection of these materials is now on permanent display in the newly refurbished gallery of Early Egypt at the British Museum. Amounting to over six million artifacts, the Wendorf Collection is housed in dedicated storage areas within the museum and has been the focus of much study by researchers from all over the world.

Wendorf’s contributions to the understanding of early human life in both the New World and northeastern Africa have been recognized with numerous awards. Foremost among them, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987. He received a medal in 1974 from the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt. In 1988 he received the Distinguished Service Medal for Conservation Service from the U.S. Department of Interior. In 1996 the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology presented him with the Lucy Wharton Drexel Medal for Archaeological Achievement, one of the highest honors that can be bestowed upon an anthropologist-archaeologist. In 1997 he received the Egyptian Geological Survey Award for his study of the geology and prehistory of Egypt. SMU conferred an honorary Doctor of Science degree upon Wendorf in 2003, in recognition of his lifetime of scientific achievement in the field of archaeology. In 2012 he was elected as a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Wendorf is survived by his wife (and co-adventurer) Christy Bednar; sisters Mildred DiMaggio (and her husband Joe) and Mary Ann Stripling (and her husband Ray); daughters Gail Wendorf, Cindy Ruiz (and her husband Albert) and Kelly Wendorf (and her children Dakota and MacKenzie); and sons Carl Wendorf (and his wife Nicole), Michael Wendorf (and his wife Anna and their children Sarah and Laura) and Scott Wendorf (and his wife Andrea and their children Frances, Henry, and Miller).  He is also survived by stepdaughters Kathy Gallagher (and her husband Dan and their children Kai and Torrey) and Heather Nelson (and her husband Andrew and their children Juliet and Santiago), stepson Sean Gallagher (and his wife Susan and their children Molly and Ryan) and numerous other in-laws, nieces, nephews and friends.

The family suggests that those wishing to make donations in Wendorf’s memory may make them to SMU, designated to the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man (ISEM) or the Friends of SMU-in-Taos Fund (P.O. Box 750402, Dallas, TX 75275-0402).  Memorial service plans will be announced at a later date.

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