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Denver Fred Wendorf

1924 – July 2015

Appreciation by
Kimball Banks
Metcalf Archaeological Consultants Inc.

Fred Wendorf at the CPE camp at Nabta Playa, Egypt, 2006
Fred Wendorf at the CPE camp at Nabta Playa, Egypt, 2006

Denver Fred Wendorf (1924–2015), World War II veteran, noted American archaeologist, and the Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory Emeritus at Southern Methodist University, died in July 2015. He was a true Renaissance archaeologist as he was integrally involved with the rise of American archaeology and the appearance of cultural resource management in the 1950s, the advent of the 'New Archaeology' in the 1960s, the growth of cultural resource management in the 1970s and 1980s, and the development of North African archaeology from the 1960s to the turn of the century. Through it all, his unwritten creed and what he taught me was: "it's the data; if you do not have the data, you have nothing".

Fred was born in Terrell, Texas, and spent his youth roaming around Kaufman County collecting artefacts. In 1942 he entered the University of Arizona to pursue his interest in archaeology but then entered the US Army in 1943 as a second lieutenant. He was a rifle platoon leader with the 86th Infantry Regiment in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy, where he was wounded. For this he was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

He returned to the University of Arizona to earn a BA in anthropology in 1948. He then enrolled in Harvard University and earned a PhD in 1953. Following graduation, he went to work at the Laboratory of Anthropology in New Mexico. Here, he directed the first pipeline salvage archaeology project. This project and the resulting reports (Wendorf, Fox, and Lewis 1956), arguably can be considered to have ushered in the era of 'contract archaeology' or, as it is known today, 'cultural resource management'. Wendorf went on to conduct salvage projects for the New Mexico Highway Department and contribute to passage of the Federal Highway Salvage Act, which addressed impacts of highway projects on archaeological sites, the Antiquities Code of Texas and the Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987.

In 1954, Wendorf, along with Claude Albritton, Alex Krieger and T. Dale Stewart, excavated the 'Midland Man' site near Midland, Texas, in 1954. At the time, this burial was among the oldest human remains found in the Americas. Wendorf also received his first National Science Foundation research grant, for an interdisciplinary study of the late glacial archaeology and palaeoecology of the High Plains of western Texas and eastern New Mexico.

In 1956, Wendorf located, excavated and reconstructed the pre-Civil War Cantonment Burgwin of the US First Dragoons near Taos and began excavations at nearby Pot Creek Pueblo, the ancestral home of both Picuris and Taos Pueblos. These activities resulted in the establishment of the Fort Burgwin Research Center, with Wendorf as director. At the same time, he joined the Texas Tech University anthropology faculty and held an archaeological field school at Fort Burgwin. In 1958 he became associate director of the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe. Southern Methodist University (SMU) recruited Wendorf in 1964 to establish an Anthropology Department and, in 1968, arranged for the merger of the Fort Burgwin Center with the university.

In the early 1960s Wendorf's attention turned to Egypt and Sudan. Through UNESCO's programme to save Pharaonic monuments threatened by the construction of the Aswan High Dam, J.O. Brew, Fred's PhD adviser at Harvard and co-chair of the UNESCO committee preparing the Nubia Salvage Campaign, enlisted him in 1962 to salvage imperiled Palaeolithic sites. Fred organised an interdisciplinary team of British, French, Polish and American scientists for this task, building on his experience with the study of the palaeoecology and archaeology of the Texas High Plains. The result was Combined Prehistoric Expedition (CPE), one of the most enduring expeditions in African archaeology. Wendorf and Romuald Schild of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences were the principal co-founders and driving force behind the CPE, and during the subsequent four decades the CPE applied an interdisciplinary approach to studying the archaeology and paleoenvironments of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Egypt was the main focus of CPE activities. Here, Wendorf, Schild, and members of the CPE spent almost four decades reconstructing the paleoenvironments of the Nile Valley, the Western Desert, and the Sinai. Notable contributions were investigations of the Fayum; the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic at Bir Sahara and Bir Tarfawi; the Late and Terminal Palaeolithic complexes at Wadi Kubbaniya; and the Holocene archaeology and environments at Nabta Playa. Prior to the CPE, little was known about the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods in Egypt and Nubia. Palaeolithic and Neolithic archaeology was considered to be a dead end as sites were either thought to be gone or the area was a developmental backwater. The CPE changed that perception as the expedition documented a rich archaeological record that put these periods in Egypt and Nubia on the archaeology map. His work is documented in an enviable publication record. In addition to numerous articles, he and Schild and members of the CPE published 25 books between 1965 and 2010, or more than one book every two years, an unrivalled publication record.

In 2001 Wendorf donated his collection of over 6 million Egyptian and Sudanese artefacts and environmental remains to the British Museum. The Museum has housed the Wendorf Collection in dedicated storage areas and is available to researchers. A selection of the material on permanent display.

Fred was able to amass this prodigious catalogue of accomplishments because he had the ability to organise diverse personalities from diverse disciplines into a cohesive research team. For him the whole was more than the sum of its parts.

Fred was active in professional organisations. In the early 1970s he was elected treasurer for the Society for American Archaeology and then as president from 1979 to 1981. He then served as president of the Society of Professional Archaeologists from 1994 to 1996. He has received numerous awards in recognition of his contributions. The Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt bestowed a medal on him in 1974. The US Department of Interior gave him the Distinguished Service Medal for Conservation Service in 1988. In 1996 the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Anthropology presented him with the Lucy Wharton Drexel Medal for Archaeological Achievement. He received the Egyptian Geological Survey Award in 1997 for his study of the geology and prehistory of Egypt. Southern Methodist University conferred an honorary Doctor of Science degree to him in 2003. The two he valued most, though, were his election in 1987 to the National Academy of Sciences and, in 2012, as a foreign member of the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences.

I first met Fred when I became his graduate student in the late 1970s. I was walking down the hall of SMU's Anthropology Department when the chairman asked me if I wanted to go to Egypt. I was not advancing particularly fast in the programme in which I was enrolled and so said: "Sure". He said: "Go see Wendorf". Fred had a corner office, an endowed chair, and, because of his reputation, a mystique among the graduate students. Until that day, I had never said more than hello to him in the hall and I had never taken a class in Old World archaeology, let alone a class by him. I spent 45 nervous minutes talking to him, at the end of which he said "get me your passport". That meeting changed my life and began a relationship that lasted until his death. He was my teacher, mentor, colleague and, most of all, friend.


The author wishes to thank valued friends Drs. Maria Gatto and Romauld Schild, and Ms Anna Christine Bednar, Fred's wife, for their comments; thanks to Dr. Schild for providing a copy of his obituary of Fred in Sudan & Nubia, The Sudan Archaeological Research Society Bulletin 19, 2015, and to Maciej Jordeczka for the photograph.