Schliemann Turns Over a New Leaf

The Heinrich Schliemann Papers are one of many treasures in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The collection was started a century ago with a gift of Schliemann letters from the architect Francis H. Bacon. It became a true archive in 1936 with gifts from Schliemann’s children, Andromache and Agamemnon, that included personal documents, diaries, notebooks, manuscripts, correspondence, financial documents, expenditure books, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, and photographs amongst other materials. Today, materials continue to be added to the collection and scholars from around the world consult the archive as research on Heinrich Schliemann grows and evolves and as digitization makes the archive more accessible to those who are unable to travel to Athens.

Schliemann’s English edition of Troy (left) and Evans’ book on stone implements (right)

The Schliemann archive is invaluable for the proper evaluation of his achievements and contributions to archaeology, especially as Schliemann’s reputation has undergone dramatic changes since his death in 1890. During his lifetime, Schliemann’s reputation was positive, even heroic, and he was especially popular in the United Kingdom and the United States. His reputation continued to grow for much of the twentieth century. Schliemann oftentimes received extravagant praise, for example being described as the “Father of Mediterranean Archaeology” (Traill 1995: 301). Such an accolade was not based on critical examination of his life and work, but echoed instead Schliemann’s own estimate of his accomplishments as described in the autobiographical introductions to his later published works and in an autobiographical sketch published by Sophie Schliemann after his death (S. Schliemann 1892). Schliemann’s reputation changed dramatically in the 1970s with new scholarship by several scholars, especially David Traill, William Calder, and Donald Easton. These scholars used the Schliemann papers in the archive to re-assess Schliemann’s career and produced a radical reinterpretation of Schliemann as a bumbling amateur, a pathological liar, a thief, and—perhaps worst of all—a scoundrel who faked artifacts and salted his excavations in an effort to deceive. Schliemann’s reputation plunged as a result of this revisionist scholarship and his name seemed on the way to becoming a byword for archaeological mendacity and fraud. Since 1990 this harsh picture of Schliemann’s reputation has changed as new research occasioned by the centennial of his death has thrown new light on Schliemann’s life and work, a reassessment that continues to be informed by the careful study of his papers in the archive. Scholars have debunked, for example, many of the claims of fraudulent behavior such as the one that Schliemann salted his excavation of the Shaft Graves at Mycenae with a faked gold Death Mask of Agamemnon (Dickinson 2005). In addition, study of his diaries and letters shows that most of the more unsavory aspects of his personality and life are either untrue, exaggerated, or at least largely irrelevant to his archaeological work (see the chapters in Hellmayr 2021 for re-evaluations).


Front cover of Evans’ book on stone implements

Gift inscription by John Evans in Schliemann’s copy of his book on stone implements

Illustrations in Evans’ book on stone implements

More illustrations in Evans’ book

I have been involved in a small way in “rehabilitating” Schliemann’s reputation by focusing on the history of his excavation reports which show an evolving professionalism over time as Schliemann shed his earlier uncritical enthusiasms and adopted a more rigorous and scientific approach to the interpretation of the results of his excavations (Runnels 2007, 2020). The increasing rigor of his scholarship during his 20-year career can be seen in the physical form and content of the books he published detailing the results of digging and analysis. The beginning of Schliemann’s true professional publication efforts can be traced to London in 1875, and one book may help to illustrate the tale.

The story goes like this. In 1875, not long after the discovery of Priam’s Treasure at Hisarlik and at the height of the public and scholarly enthusiasm—and controversy—about the identification of Homer’s Troy, Schliemann visited London to lecture before the Society of Antiquaries. In a later engraving (1877), we see a similar scene: Schliemann reading a paper before a packed crowd of antiquaries, including the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, William Gladstone. He was warmly received in the United Kingdom by scholars and the public alike. While he was in London he also worked with the publisher John Murray to publish an English translation of his first report on the Trojan excavations. This book was published in 1875 under the title Troy and Its Remains. In my view Schliemann’s positive reception at the Society of Antiquaries and the subsequent publication of Troy and Its Remains are connected. Among the scholars at Schliemann’s lectures was Sir John Evans, perhaps Britain’s most famous archaeologist, and also father of Sir Arthur Evans. John Evans may have been responsible—directly or indirectly—for Schliemann’s choice of formats for his first English archaeological publication. In 1875, John Evans was a pioneer in the presentation of archaeological data in print and it is probable that he encouraged Schliemann to adopt a “modern” mode of archaeological publication. The two men certainly knew each other, as attested by Joan Evans in her account of her half-brother Arthur, who met his father’s “acquaintance, Henry Schliemann” when Arthur was a young man (Joan Evans 1943: 299).

Front cover of Schliemann’s Troy

Title page to Schliemann’s original German publication of Troy

Front cover to Schliemann’s German Troy

Illustrations in Schliemann’s English edition of Troy

To understand the significance of the selection of a new publication format, we must examine Schliemann’s first attempt at formal archaeological publication. After three seasons of excavation at Hisarlik capped, as Schliemann believed, by the discovery of Priam’s Treasure, he needed to present his findings and arguments to scholars and the public in order to support his identification of Hisarlik as Homer’s Troy. Ever the entrepreneur and innovator, Schliemann decided on a bold format and ambitious even radical plan of publication. He chose to present a bare-bones narrative report of the excavations as a small volume published in German in Leipzig by Brockhaus with the title Trojanische Alterthümer. This book had 319 pages of text but no illustrations. The all-important images of artifacts as well as views of the site and its stratigraphy were published separately in a large album titled the Atlas Trojanischer Alterthümer. The illustrations in the Atlas were original photographic prints, some being photographs of artifacts and others photographs of drawings and plans, and each copy of the Atlas (there were 500 copies in German and French) had 218 photographs mounted by hand largely by Schliemann and his wife Sophia. This achievement required the handling of more than 100,000 photographs. It is among the first archaeological reports to be illustrated with original photographs and like many an innovative idea this one did not work out as planned. Schliemann was dissatisfied with the quality of the photographs which range from poor to execrable in quality with some images hardly visible at all. The separation of the narrative text from the photographic evidence was another problem. It was hard to use the text volume and the photo atlas together as they were of different sizes and the images are not keyed to the text. Cross referencing was difficult, especially as crucial information, such as the depths within the site where the artifacts were found, was lacking. The small print run also resulted in the very limited distribution of the books, which are today exceedingly rare (Runnels 2007). Unsurprisingly, Trojanische Alterthümer and the Atlas were neither a popular nor a commercial success. As he would do in his business ventures and his personal life, when one venture failed Schliemann pivoted and tried something else. And this is what he chose to do with his English translation of Troy and Its Remains in 1875.

More illustrations in Schliemann’s English Troy

Now we return to London and Sir John Evans. Recently, while preparing an article for a publication tied to the observance of the bicentennial of Schliemann’s birth, I highlighted a connection between Schliemann and Evans (Runnels 2021). The connection is based on a book from Schliemann’s personal library that is presently in my collection of Schliemann memorabilia and books (a promised gift to the Archives and the Gennadius Library of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens). I acquired my book in 1995 from an antiquarian bookseller in Oakland, California, who obtained it from the Swedish archaeologist Åke Åkeström who had purchased it in Athens in 1964 along with other books from Schliemann’s library. The book is titled Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments, of Great Britain and the author is Sir John Evans who, according to an inscription on the half title presented this copy to “Dr. Schliemann, F.S.A. [Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries].” The book is 24 centimeters tall and has 640 pages with 476 engraved illustrations of stone artifacts integrated in the text and two folding plates with artifact drawings at the end. This method of publication used consistent artistic conventions selected by Evans for representing the appearance of the artifacts in the engravings. Importantly, the illustrations are integrated in the text at the place where the artifacts are discussed. This arrangement made this handsome book eminently useful for the scholar and general reader and it became the standard style for archaeological publications for the next century. While it is probable that this book was presented by Evans to Schliemann in 1877 when Schliemann was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, it is additional evidence that they communicated professionally for several years.

Scliemann’s Troy

I see no reason to doubt that Schliemann’s first English book Troy and Its Remains was influenced by the format of Evan’s book on Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments. Side by side the relationship is self-evident. Troy and Its Remains looks like Evan’s book: it is 24 centimeters tall with 392 pages with 300 engraved illustrations integrated in the text with the addition of folding lithographic plans and 52 plates of artifact drawings at the end. The bindings of the books are similar in color and both bindings have gilt images of antiquities on the front cover. The most significant change from Schliemann’s first effort at publishing archaeological evidence is seen in the illustrations. While actual photographs may seem like a good idea, the means of making good prints and of placing them in large print runs of books were still a work in progress in Schliemann’s day. So in 1875 Schliemann replaced the photographs with engravings made from photographs and positioned them where they appeared alongside their discussion in the text. Depths of findspots in the excavations were also added. As David Trail notes it “was a much more convenient and attractive book than either the German or French editions [and that] S was delighted [with the result, remarking that] ‘the volumes before me are beyond all praise’” (Trail 1995: 135). Like Evan’s book, Troy and Its Remains is good looking, compact, and easy to use. Not surprisingly it was an immediate popular, professional, and commercial success.

In brief, I conclude that Schliemann discussed with Evans the best way to publish archaeological data and took the advice of the more experienced archaeologist (a pattern followed throughout his career) and adopted the standard format of Evans’ 1872 publication to ensure the proper quality of production and guarantee that the book would receive a positive reception. Troy and Its Remains was the first in a long series of increasingly professional archaeological books in the same format that would issue from Schliemann’s pen over the next fifteen years. Indeed, it is probable that the new format adopted by Schliemann for his books in 1875 was helpful in establishing his popularity amongst readers at all levels, securing his reputation as perhaps “the emblematic archaeologist of all time” (Traill 1995: 306).


Dickinson, Oliver T. P. K., 2005, “The ‘Face of Agamemnon’,” Hesperia 74: 299–308.

Evans, John, 1872, The Ancient Stone Implements, Weapons, and Ornaments, of Great Britain. Longman, Green, Reader, and Dyer: London.

Evans, Joan, 1943, Time and Chance: The Story of Arthur Evans and His Forebears. Longmans, Green and Co.: London

Hellmayr, Leoni, ed., 2021, Heinrich Schliemann und die Archäologie. Philipp von Zabern: Darmstadt.

Runnels, Curtis, 2020, “Heinrich Schliemann,” in Corinne Ondine Pache, ed., The Cambridge Guide to Homer. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, pp. 381-383.

Runnels, Curtis, 2021, “Mehr als ein Laie: Schliemanns Bücher liefern den Beweis” in L. Hellmayer, ed., Heinrich Schliemann und die Archäologie. Philipp von Zabern: Darmstadt, pp. 69-77.

Schliemann, Heinrich, 1874, Trojanische Alterthümer: Bericht über Die Ausgrabungen in Troja. F. A. Brockhaus: Leipzig.

Schliemann, Henry, 1875, Troy and Its Remains: A Narrative of Researches and Discoveries Made on the Site of Ilium and in the Trojan Plain. John Murray: London.

Schliemann, Sophie, 1892, Heinrich Schliemann’s Selbstbiographie. Brockhaus: Leipzig.

Traill, David. A., 1995, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit. St. Martin’s Press: New York.

Lithic Artifacts Associated with Desert Pavements in the Sweeney Canyon Area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

Lithic Artifacts Associated with Desert Pavements in the Sweeney Canyon Area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California

By Priscilla Murray and Curtis Runnels

We examined carpets of stones called “desert pavements” in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in southern California. Archaeologists have long been interested in the fact that these pavements and others like them in the Mojave Desert to the north incorporate lithic artifacts in quantity. We picked a study area in the Sweeney Canyon area of the park in an effort to gain some insight into the behaviors of the past inhabitants there. We found that the artifacts suggest multi-purpose loci with stone tool manufacture being only one past activity.

Desert pavement in Anza-Borrego

Three pavements with concentrations of lithic artifacts in Sweeney Canyon were of particular interest to us: SDi 1194 is situated on the highest and oldest fluvial (river) terrace, SDi 1195 is on the lowest and youngest terrace, and SDi 1210 is located on the middle terrace below SDi 1194 in elevation. A modern intermittent watercourse (Carrizo Creek) runs below and around all three terraces and feeds into the now-vanished Pleistocene/Holocene Lake Cahuilla to the northeast. There is a geologic fault within the study area.

Close up of the pavement at SDi 1194 showing artifacts next to matchbox

SDi 1194, 100 meters above Carrizo Creek, is a fairly intact desert pavement and of the three locations it has the greatest density of sub-angular and rounded pebbles and cobbles and angular artifacts (cultural materials in the form of unmodified cores and flakes as well as core and flake tools). SDi 1195 has the least dense concentration and is probably an eroded lag deposit. SDi 1210 is not as tightly packed as SDi 1194 because it consists of one or more broken/eroded desert pavements with no “epipedon” preserved (see below). All three pavement locations have the same suite of artifacts. In the landscape surrounding the study sites there are scatters, sometimes in clusters, of the same types of artifacts. Many of the cobbles making up the pavements (consisting of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks) and associated artifacts (notably porphyry, basalt, and quartz) have varying degrees of desert varnish (coating) of unknown origin. In addition some cobbles and artifacts are rubefied (reddened) on their dorsal, ventral, or both surfaces presumably from contact with the underlying iron-rich soil horizon.

Quartz artifacts among pavement pebbles and cobbles of other materials

The pavement at SDi 1194 is relatively level and has no vegetation because of its compact nature and is larger in horizontal extent than the pavements at the other two sites. Immediately beneath the cobbles and pebbles (clasts) making up the pavement at SDi 1194, the first soil horizon is thin (5-8 cm thick) and vesicular. This Av horizon as it is called and the surface soils below it are lumped together and called the epipedon by Pelletier and his colleagues (2007) in their studies of pavements in the Mojave which is in the same desert system as Anza-Borrego. They state that airborne dust accumulation creates the epipedon which co-evolves with the pavement on top of it as clasts migrate to the surface from below. This process occurs over thousands of years. If a pavement with tightly interlocking clasts and an equally mature epipedon is disrupted it will heal relatively quickly (decades to hundreds of years). They posit therefore that some desert pavements may not have been destroyed completely with climate change at the beginning of the Holocene some 12,000 years ago and may be Pleistocene in age. The same could be true of the Sweeney Canyon pavements and the makers of the artifacts, therefore, could have visited (and re-visited) them anytime after their formation, through the Pleistocene and later into the Holocene.

Large bifacial implement

If the toolmakers inhabited Anza Borrego in the Pleistocene, they could have been hunters of the large mammals present at the time. If, on the other hand, the toolmakers were more recent Holocene hunters and gatherers, we would expect to see archaeological evidence of their use of the Sweeney Canyon sites, but there is none. There are no stemmed arrowheads or other chipped stone artifacts of chert, obsidian and other imported materials as seen at prehistoric or historical sites in other parts of the park. There are also no potsherds, stone mortars/pestles, glass, shell, or metal artifacts. There is no rock art or fire-cracked rock, nor are there hearths, burials, or other rock features such as cairns.

Flake struck from a preferential core

The artifacts which are found at SDi 1194 are either floating on top of the pavement or are embedded in it, possibly depending on their size/shape, and may be in original context. The artifacts there, and at the other two sites, were made by reducing (knapping) cobbles, the largest stones comprising the pavements. Cores for making stone tools were both amorphous and shaped to a predetermined form for the extraction, by knapping, of flakes with preferential forms. Some of the cores were knapped on both faces into large tools that in some cases show evidence of use; these include large pointed bifacial implements (some carefully shaped, others very crude), massive scrapers, choppers, and chopping tools. Other artifacts include flakes and points that were struck from preferential cores. We also observed some small tools made from flakes through edge modification (retouching), including side scrapers, end scrapers, notched pieces, denticulates, and piercing tools. The large bifacial implements are too thick to be classified as preforms for reduction into other artifacts such as arrowheads or other projectile points (Runnels 2020). They also show evidence of use through impact fractures on their distal ends and/or re-sharpening of the edges. Differential atmospheric weathering of some flake removals may indicate artifact re-use.

Stone tool manufacture was one past activity at the three sites because, along with the finished tools, we observed remnants of all the stages of the knapping process (many unmodified/discarded cores and flakes). We also found some ovoid or spherical stones (hammerstones) used to reduce the pavement cobbles. Plant and animal food processing and base camp construction and maintenance are other possible activities at the sites which may also have served as lookouts for animals. It is known that hunters and gatherers often leave finished tools behind when they move away from a site so that they can use them during their next visit (Bailey and Galanidou 2009). Finished tools at a site can also signal use spots or territory claims to incoming visitors.

In conclusion, we may say that our close inspection of the artifacts at the sites associated with the desert pavements in the Sweeney Canyon area has confirmed what some archaeologists in the past had concluded: that the materials are not solely debris from knapping activities. We observed a variety of complete stone tools, signaling a range of human behaviors at the sites. The location of our sites near watercourses and lakes and corresponding animal pathways would have made them ideal hunting stands and base camps in the Pleistocene when the climate was wetter than in the succeeding Holocene. Yet we cannot confirm a Pleistocene age for either the pavements or the artifacts. We await the results of future geological studies of both to establish date ranges and to further evaluate the stratigraphic integrity of these artifact-rich desert pavements.


Bailey, G., and Galanidou. N., 2009. Caves, palimpsests and dwelling spaces:
Examples from the Upper Palaeolithic of south-east Europe. World Archaeology 41:

Pelletier, J. D., M. Cline, and S. B. DeLong, 2007. Desert pavement dynamics: numerical modeling and field based calibration. Earth Surf. Process. 32: 1913–1927. DOI 10.1002/esp1500.

Runnels, C., 2020. The Piney Branch site (District of Columbia, USA) and the
significance of the quarry-refuse model for the interpretation of lithics sites.
Journal of Lithic Studies 7(1): 1–117. DOI 10.2218/jls2986.

Archaeology and Eiseley’s Illusion of Two Cultures

A measure of the success of archaeology is its popularity. Archaeology has a presence in the public eye, at least in the United States, fueled by popular novels such as James Michener’s The Source (1965), movies like The Mummy (1932), the Indiana Jones series (began 1981), and recent films such as The Dig or Canyon del Muerto (discussed previously in this blog). Further proofs of the public’s appetite for antiquities are the many popular organized tours to the centers of high civilization in Egypt, Greece, Mexico, Peru, and beyond. These tours have a long history. They are modeled on the tour which set out from the United States on the steamship Quaker City bound for the Mediterranean in 1867, which was chronicled by Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad. Then as now, highlights of that tour included visits to the ruins of the great Mediterranean civilizations.

Today the internet is alive with archaeological news and chat. The interest in archaeology displayed on social media boggles the imagination. A Google keyword search at the time of this writing, for example, yielded 573,000,000 hits on archaeology, and anecdotal accounts from journalists indicate that web sites, blogs, and other social media that have anything to do with archaeology can be counted on to generate clicks and views. Clearly, the taste for antiquities has grown steadily since Mark Twain’s day. Why does archaeology have such broad public appeal? The explanation lies in the peculiar capability for wonder that uniquely characterizes human consciousness. We are curious about our past and the discoveries of archaeology fuel the popular imagination.

Consider this. The Earth came into existence some 4.5 billion years ago and the first forms of life appeared in the geological record 3.7 billion years ago. Despite five mass extinctions (with a sixth now underway) life has evolved throughout earth history and myriads of life forms have had their day in the sun. The prodigious creative force of biological evolution has nevertheless brought into existence only one species of animal that has become conscious and developed an awareness of itself. We have dared to ask whence we came and why we are here, leading archaeologists to search for the origins of humanity and explore our evolution, our dispersals around the world, and everything from the origins of art and technology to the emergence of urban civilization. We have discovered that we alone, so far as our scientific inquiries have taken us, appear to be curious about the past. We alone work to accumulate evidence about the past while, so far as we know, other animals live in the eternal present with neither the recognition of their origins nor an awareness of their future. Yet it was barely a hundred years ago that humans discovered their past through the work of archaeologists, paleontologists, and geologists (among others). Despite the short history of the scientific study of our past we have learned much. We have discovered that our origins were in Africa some three to four million years ago; that we evolved into different species of the genus Homo; that we adapted to our physical environment through the unique human invention of culture, which embraces social forms, technology, and the arts; and some two million years ago our ancestors emerged from Africa in a series of demic waves that led to the peopling of all habitable parts of the globe.

In time humans settled in large social groups based in cities supported by agricultural food production, invented writing, which has enabled us to record our mental cultural world, a rainbow of thoughts and memories and learning about how to do things and what things mean, and adopted the methods of science for learning about the natural world. In the course of this immense journey—as Loren Eiseley called it—we became aware of our past and began to keep records of it (the birth of history) and, eventually, to probe the evidence of our journey preserved in the earth itself through archaeology, the most recent historical science.

Archaeology enriches our personal lives through the awareness of our history. And the findings of archaeology are transformational as we come to know our place in nature. It is this curiosity about our past and the search for the purpose of our existence that continues to draw students to archaeology and the public to the presentation of our discoveries. Archaeology is a humanistic discipline in the widest sense of the term, even as it draws upon the natural and social sciences to interpret and explain the material remains of the human past.

Because of this I believe that archaeology can bridge the divisions that are being felt in higher education.

Archaeology’s success is arguably due to the use of the methods of rational scientific inquiry. Yet there seems today to be doubt in the academic world about how our commitment to the methods of the natural sciences is affecting the humanities. This uneasiness arises from the suspicion in some quarters that our institutions of higher education are abandoning, or at least downgrading, their commitments to the humanities—including archaeology—in favor of science and technology. The acronym STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) is often used by critics who claim that STEM studies are taking over the university. The rise of STEM is a lament that has haunted the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, a widely read newspaper in the academy, for the last 50 years (if not longer). If true, it would be a tragedy if we abandoned our investigation of the human past at the very time when we seem to have discovered it!

The fear that STEM studies will overshadow or even eliminate disciplinary studies that focus on the human past may be overstated.

I asserted above that humans are unique in that we have knowledge of our own past. Yet it is a curious fact that this has not resulted in archaeologists becoming public intellectuals or celebrities in the pantheon of academy. Perhaps surprisingly there are few famous archaeologists that come to mind. At least in this country if you ask someone to name an archaeologist they are likely to think of Indiana Jones or perhaps a presenter on a television program, someone like Zahi Hawass or Josh Gates. One name, however, that may stand out from the rest is Heinrich Schliemann who was born two hundred years ago and is remembered today for his discovery of the ancient site of Troy in Turkey and the royal tombs at the Greek site of Mycenae. In another publication I claimed that Schliemann is “the most famous archaeologist in the world,” while a recent biographer calls Schliemann the “emblematic archaeologist of all time” (Traill 1995: 306). I have often been asked about my profession and after saying “I am an archaeologist” one response has been for the questioner to search their memory for the name of an archaeologist to show that they know something about the field. Schliemann is the usual name that comes up. (The other comment is typically along the lines of “I wanted to be an archaeologist but I decided to do something more practical.”)

This collective amnesia is regrettable. One archaeologist not likely to come to mind is Loren Eiseley who was the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and History of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and the curator of Early Man at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. At the height of his popularity (1957-1977) he was well known to the American public and was the very face of archaeology for many people. That he is largely forgotten today is our loss because he had much to say about the relationship between the sciences and the humanities. In his memorable essay (“The Illusion of the Two Cultures”) he addressed this subject and his conclusions are still relevant for our own day. But to appreciate Eiseley’s contribution to the topic we need some background.

As I have indicated, the current debate in universities about the importance of STEM versus the humanities is nothing new. More than 60 years ago the scientist and novelist C. P. Snow drew attention to what he believed was a rift between the sciences and humanities in an essay titled The Two Cultures (1959). Snow argued that “the intellectual life of the whole of western society” was divided into the sciences and the humanities and in his view the humanities were dominant in academe. Snow contended that this dominance was a hindrance to solving the world’s problems which required a greater commitment to the natural sciences and technology.

The concept of the Snow’s two cultures has been widely discussed ever since. Some commentators believe that the divide between the two cultures is growing wider and that now it is the natural sciences that are dominant in the academy. The notion of a divide between different ‘cultures’ is what has led some critics to argue that the humanities are threatened.

This view is not universal. In an essay, “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” published in 1964, Loren Eiseley challenged C. P. Snow’s thesis. He agreed with Snow that there was mutual distrust between the different cultures of the humanities and the sciences, but contended that this was due not to differences in methods or purpose, but instead to the “institutionalism of the method [that brings about] an unpleasant suggestion of fenced preserves [which dominate] the university atmosphere.” These arbitrary barriers were erected more by the need to acquire funding than from anything else, a circumstance which led to “unreasoning fear, professionalism, and misunderstanding” in the academy. Eiseley challenged Snow’s hypothesis of two cultures by delineating the common substrate of the disciplines which consists of the shared sense of wonder at the mystery and beauty of the natural world.

Eiseley illustrated his meaning with a Palaeolithic stone tool known as a handaxe that had been crafted in the infancy of the human race hundreds of thousands of years ago. This tool was wholly utilitarian and according to Eiseley “nothing if not practical.” Noting that the maker crafted this seemingly simple artifact to solve a precise purpose, Eiseley asserted that the handaxe was “[i]n its day and time…as grand an intellectual achievement as a rocket.” Eiseley went on to argue that the handaxe was an “early example of the empirical tradition which has led on to modern science.” Eiseley then related a “remarkable discovery” that he made as he handled the flint tool and pondered the question of the two cultures. Though we might expect a stone-tool maker to be satisfied with the gross practicality of the tool, Eiseley found that for this toolmaker there was no “distinction…between the scholarly percipience of reality and…the [so called) vaporings of the artistic imagination.” He recognized that the toolmaker had “wasted time” with a “virtuoso’s elegance” to embellish the tool with aesthetic expression in the symmetry of the form and the polish of the workmanship that went beyond utility “to beautify…it until it had become a kind of rough jewel, equivalent in its day to the carved and gold-inlaid pommel of the iron dagger placed in Tutankhamen’s tomb.” Creativity, imagination, and aesthetics were blended in a single artifact, or mindprint as Eiseley preferred to call it, echoing Henry David Thoreau’s term for artifacts like stone tools. Eiseley concluded that “creation in science demands a high level of imaginative insight and intuitive perception…just as it does…among writers, musicians, or artists.” In other words, creativity and imagination are the wellsprings of both the sciences and the humanities.

A Palaeolithic handaxe from the site of Kokkinopilos in Greece discovered by the author and now on display at the Archaeological Museum in Ioannina, Greece.  It illustrates the combination of technological acumen and aesthetic and non-utilitarian creativity applied to a quotidian artifact by a prehistoric artisan.

Eiseley ended his essay by arguing that we all respond to the “mystery and beauty” of the universe in which we find ourselves, and in a powerful paragraph Eiseley explained why the sciences and the humanities should not be relegated to two different cultures. He returned to the handaxe as the evidence of the beginnings of scientific and of humanistic thought. This practical stone tool was analogous to the great power that we have gained as we “probed at the atom’s heart” and “[t]oday we hold a stone, the heavy stone of power. We must perceive beyond it, however, by the aid of the artistic imagination, those human insights and understandings which alone can lighten our burden and enable us to shape ourselves, rather than the stone, into the forms which great art has anticipated.” The humanities and sciences must work together if we are to be fully human. And to survive.

Today the Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson has provided a word—consilience—to characterize Loren Eiseley’s insight. Wilson argues that there is an underlying unity connecting the humanities and the natural sciences. He developed his thesis in a best-selling book (Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge) where he urged the pursuit of consilience among all disciplines of human inquiry. Consilience, according to Wilson is “[l]iterally a ‘jumping together’ of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation” (Wilson 1998 :7). Wilson believed that the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities would merge, despite using different methods and addressing different subject matters, because they shared the same goal: to understand our natural world and our place in it. Through consilience, the discoveries in one field can inform the discoveries in another and there are no barriers to inhibit the flow of discovery among disciplines except for our socially-created expectations and prejudices.

Let me provide an illustration. Biologists and paleontologists wonder about the origins of life and examine the records of the rocks to find answers, studying fossils and considering evidence derived from many fields such as chemistry, genetics, and physics. Humanists, writers, and artists also want to know about the origins of life. The natural scientists ask how life began and humanists ask what is the meaning and significance of life. Seemingly different ends, they are focused nevertheless on the same question: “What is life?” All attempts to answer that question are driven by curiosity and built upon creative thinking and imaginative conjecture. Consilience is the effort to share the insights from each discipline with those of the others to find the truth.

This conclusion begs the question: why then are the STEM disciplines gaining ground in American educational curricula at the expense of the humanities? The answer to this was explained by Eiseley many decades ago. It has nothing to do with different “cultures” of science and humanism and everything to do with funding and jobs. In an age of globalized economies, a revolution in production based on automation, and the growing world of service economies, robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, students—and let us be blunt, those who are paying for their education—are activated by the desperate hope that they can customize their education to fit them for well-paying jobs in a world dominated by science and technology. They demand STEM studies as the pathway to prosperity, as if prosperity was everything. So it was in C. P. Snow’s day, and so it was in Loren Eiseley’s time. Though the ascendency of the sciences may be papered over today by the promoters of our great educational institutions as the quest for “synergies,” “multidisciplinary studies,” and “interdisciplinary research,” the bald fact is that the academy is shifting its priorities not so much as a drive for consilience as a reaction to the ferociously competitive “market” for students and their dollars.

Yet Loren Eiseley and E. O. Wilson were optimistic. They believed that these “market realities,” however exigent, will not change the underlying impulses of wonder concerning our place in the universe or blunt the faculties of curiosity, creativity, and imagination that impel scientists and humanists alike to seek answers.

Archaeology has much to contribute to this noble enterprise. Archaeologists are the interpreters and reporters of the human condition. Archaeology is to be found at the intersection of the two cultures that C. P. Snow thought were at loggerheads. We may focus on explanations of the human past, but our discoveries arise from the same impulses found in all disciplines and our shared curiosity about the wonderful story of the origins and rise of humans as a species and our adaptation to our physical environment by means of culture. The immense journey must be of interest to all, and through archaeology and the consilience of the sciences and humanities we can look towards the unification of knowledge that in E. O. Wilson’s view is necessary to understand our place in nature.


Eiseley, Loren, 1964, “The Illusion of the Two Cultures,” The American Scholar 33 (3), pp. 387-399.

Runnels, Curtis, 2020, “Heinrich Schliemann,” in C. O. Pache (ed.), The Cambridge Guide to Homer. Cambridge (UK), pp. 381-383.

Snow, C. P., 1959, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge (UK).

Traill, David A., 1995, Schliemann of Troy: Treasure and Deceit. New York.

Twain, Mark, 1869, The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrim’s Progress. Hartford, Connecticut.

Wilson, Edward O., 1998, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York.

How Old is the American Palaeolithic? The Weak and the Strong Pre-Clovis Models Considered

A controversy concerning the existence of the American Palaeolithic has been ongoing for 150 years. The American Palaeolithic refers to the presence of anatomically modern humans or other hominin species in the western hemisphere during the Pleistocene, and the contemporary debate concerning the Clovis First and Pre-Clovis hypotheses encapsulates the controversial thinking on this topic.

The Clovis Culture with its iconic fluted projectile points was discovered as the result of the excavation of the Blackwater Draw site in New Mexico in the 1930s. It was only after 1949, however, that it was possible to date the Clovis Culture by means of the new radiocarbon method. The dates for Clovis clustered at the end of the Pleistocene about 11,500 years ago and there appeared to be no archaeological evidence for an earlier human presence in the Americas. As the dates for Clovis sites such as animal butchery sites and caches of flaked stone tools came in it also seemed that the Clovis Culture had appeared suddenly and spread rapidly. The narrow range of early dates for the rapid spread of Clovis in the United States and the overlap of this culture with the extinctions of nearly forty Pleistocene animal species was used to craft a picture of the peopling of the New World that came to be called the Clovis First hypothesis.

Clovis First is an idea with appealing simplicity that elegantly ties together a number of observed phenomena. In its textbook formulation, Clovis First traces the movements of modern humans (in the anatomical sense of modern) from an Asiatic homeland across the Beringian land bridge connecting Siberia and Alaska which was exposed during periods of low sea levels when seawater was captured in the polar ice caps and continental glaciers. People bearing the Clovis Culture were able to exploit a gap in the continental glaciers covering Canada known as the Ice Free Corridor to reach the lower 48 states of the US. It was once thought that there was only one period of time, about 12,500-11,500 years ago, when both the land bridge and the Ice Free Corridor were open to the passage of humans.

Thus a one-time event brought humans using the Clovis culture (identified primarily by flaked stone tools) through the Ice Free Corridor into the interior of North America where they encountered an abundance of wildlife unused to human predators. The Clovis population exploded and humans fanned out over the continent, eventually crossing the Isthmus of Panama and traversing South America. In an astonishingly short time, perhaps no more than 1,500 years after traversing the Ice Free Corridor, humans reached the southernmost tip of South America at Fell’s Cave in Chile (10,000 to 11,000 years ago). They had also filled all of the ecological niches between Alaska and Tierra del Fuego. In the course of this rapid expansion, Clovis hunters also wiped out more than three dozen species of megafauna (large animals like mammoths and mastodons).

These two events, the rapid peopling of the Americas and the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna were called the Blitzkrieg and the Pleistocene Overkill hypothesis in the 1970s. The use of military terminology from World War II and the Cold War reflects the zeitgeist of the anxious decades between 1950 and 1990, but it was intended to emphasize the rapidity and uniqueness of this incursion of early humans into a pristine world. Clovis First was a compelling theory and soon became the dominant explanation for how humans came to the Americas. It continues to dominate textbooks and the public media to the present day.

There were nevertheless some archaeologists who dissented from this consensus. Archaeology textbooks published before the 1970s routinely noted the existence of sites in North America that were earlier than Clovis, even if the evidence for them was admittedly sparse and difficult to assess. So despite the popularity of the Clovis First hypothesis, archaeologists continued to search for sites that might pre-date the Clovis and which would point to an earlier wave of hominin expansion in the New World. They found evidence to support what came to be known as the Pre-Clovis hypothesis that proposed that there were humans in the Americas before—perhaps long before—the appearance of Clovis. The well-documented Meadowcroft Rockshelter near Pittsburgh, which is dated to 19,000 years ago, is an example of an accepted Pre-Clovis site in North America. George Carter, a geographer and archaeologist at the Museum of Man in San Diego, conducted fieldwork in the 1950s that convinced him that humans were present in southern California even earlier, possibly during the last Interglacial ca. 116,000-129,000 years ago. And there were other claims from southern California for really early sites, like the site of Calico near Barstow that was excavated by Louis Leakey and Ruth Simpson in the 1970s and dated to 250,000 years ago. The Pre-Clovis hypothesis and its advocates, however, were treated by Clovis Firsters with definite contempt and subjected to ad hominin attacks, despite—or perhaps because of—the glare of national publicity such as that engendered by Leakey’s participation in the Calico excavations. Before things began to change in the late 1990s, the Pre-Clovis hypothesis was rarely discussed in academic circles and was often dismissed in a quite dogmatic manner. As one of my academic advisors in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kansas put it in 1972 when I was an undergraduate: “There is NO Pre-Clovis.” Case closed.

There things stood until 1997 when a blue ribbon committee of archaeologists examined claims for a Pre-Clovis site at Monte Verde in Chile. The excavator of the site, Thomas Dillehay, maintained that the cultural levels at Monte Verde pre-dated the North American Clovis by at least one thousand years. If Clovis was the first archaeological culture in the Americas, how could there be an occupied site as far south as Chile more than a millennium earlier? After a careful examination, the committee found no fault with Dillehay’s claims and published their findings in American Antiquity, the journal of the Society for American Archaeology, concluding that the Clovis First hypothesis would have to be revised. Once it was accepted that there was a human presence in the Americas before Clovis, it was logical to assume that early archaeological sites might be found at even much earlier periods in the Pleistocene.

Today there are two modes of thinking about this question taking shape which I call the Weak Pre-Clovis and the Strong Pre-Clovis models (a la the Anthropic Principle in cosmology).

The Weak Pre-Clovis model is a modest adjustment to the Clovis First hypothesis and is presently the most popular theory. The origins of the first Americans in northeastern Asia and their migratory pathway through Beringia to enter the Americas remain the same as for Clovis First, but the timing of the first entry is placed in or around the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), approximately 21,000 to 27,000 years ago. Instead of a single push through an Ice Free Corridor across Canada, a maritime route south along the Pacific coast of North and South America is considered another—if not the principal—migration route allowing humans to trickle into the Americas, perhaps in three or more waves during the LGM.

Alternatively, the Strong Pre-Clovis model argues that if it was possible for humans to enter the New World in the Last Glacial Maximum—a period once considered impossible because the Ice Free Corridor was not open until the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago—then they could have arrived at almost any time in the past, so long as the coastal maritime route was available. Moreover, since anatomically modern humans are known to have been in Asia more than 120,000 years ago, it is at least possible that these humans (and perhaps other hominins who were in Asia even earlier) could have found their way into the western hemisphere. Even more intriguing is the suggestion that there may have been direct crossings of the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans during the Pleistocene. The Solutrean Hypothesis, for example, posits the movements of early humans from the area of France and Spain across the north Atlantic during the LGM following the margins of the sea ice to a landfall in the mid-Atlantic states. There is also evidence that hominins were crossing the Mediterranean more than 130,000 years ago and, at least in theory, it is possible that these seafaring hominins could have made oceanic crossings to South America. Other scholars, basing their hypothesis on genetic markers, have postulated that there were Pacific crossings from southeast Asia to South America.

New evidence supporting both the Weak and the Strong Pre-Clovis models has been published recently. Sites like Cooper’s Ferry in Idaho, which is dated to 16,000 years ago and has a flaked stone tool industry (Western Stemmed Tradition) that is different from Clovis, and White Sands in New Mexico, where human footprints have been dated to 21,000-23,000 years ago, support the Weak Pre-Clovis model. These sites have been published in high ranking peer reviewed journals and they indicate that humans were certainly resident in North America by the LGM and far south of any putative Beringian crossing. Based on this evidence it is certain that a human population must have been established in North America even earlier (on the principle that we never find the absolutely earliest sites).

The Strong Pre-Clovis model has also found support in recent years. Geochronologists, for example, have published new dates for the geologic deposits at Calico in California in which Leakey claimed to have found flaked stone tools. Their new date of 197,000 years is a minimum age for the Calico deposit and at the very least suggests that new research should be undertaken to verify the presence of artifacts in the deposits. The most important site at present is the Cerutti Mastodon Site in San Diego, California. The team studying this site believe that humans exploited the remains of a mastodon by breaking open and processing bones from the carcass using stone hammers and anvils about 130,000 years ago. This finding accords with George Carter’s discovery in the 1970s at the Texas Street site in San Diego, which is only ten miles from the Cerutti site, where he excavated flaked stone tools from within geologic deposits dated to the last Interglacial, i.e. about the same time period as Cerutti. I have examined the Texas Street artifacts and they are similar to flaked stone tool assemblages found throughout San Diego and Imperial counties in California and parts of northern Mexico. I noted that Carter wrote on several of the artifacts a note indicating that he found them embedded up to one meter in depth in the Pleistocene deposits. And finally, a team led by the late Richard McNeish in the 1990s found possible flaked stone tools in definite anthropogenic deposits in Pendejo Cave not far from White Sands that may date to as much has 75,000 years ago.

My own interest in the Pre-Clovis question took a long time to crystalize. In the 1960s I inspected an outcrop of a Pleistocene paleosol (fossil soil) in southeastern Kansas with my father who was a geologist and a specialist in that sort of thing. I was along for the ride. We were surprised to find flaked stone tools in the outcrop. My father and I looked at each other and he said “What are these doing here? This outcrop is at least 100,000 years old.” Good question, but one that we did not follow up. Then about 20 years ago I stopped at the Calico site in California on the way to Death Valley at the insistence of my wife who was curious to see a site that had been much in the news back in the 1970s. As we drove up to the site I was surprised by what I saw: a carpet of flaked stone tools, their facetted surfaces catching the early morning sun like little mirrors. There were thousands of them littering the area. What was surprising was that the only thing I knew about Calico at that time was that the “experts” claimed there were no artifacts at this site, only geofacts (naturally shaped stones). This too I stowed away in the back of my mind as a question “What are these artifacts doing here?”

My curiosity came to the fore following the controversy that greeted the publication of a book about the Solutrean Hypothesis in 2010 by Denis Stanford and Bruce Bradley. Realizing that I didn’t really know that much about the prehistory of the Americas, I decided to read the original literature on early sites in the United States. That summer I followed the trail of Pre-Clovis literature back to Calico, and George Carter, and eventually to the likes of E. B. Renaud and ultimately to the Great Palaeolithic War between C. C. Abbott and W. H. Holmes in the 1890s (see my blog posts for background). In my teaching of introductory survey courses on world prehistory, however, I had always presented the Clovis First hypothesis as the most likely model of the peopling of the New World. But after I read the primary literature I found reasons to doubt this. Because of my background as a Palaeolithic archaeologist who has worked for almost 50 years in southern Europe, I have a different perspective on this topic. The Palaeolithic occupation of Europe, for example, also had its controversy, with advocates of two different models squaring off in debate. One model known as Early Entry posited the arrival of hominins in Europe more than 1,000,000 years ago, while the Late Entry model postulated a date no earlier than 500,000 years ago. But here is the difference: archaeologists in my field tend not to argue as heatedly or to attack other archaeologists with as much venom as the Clovis Firsters do the Pre-Clovis advocates. This is not my imagination. Even the Editors of the prestigious journal Nature were obliged to scold American Clovis Firsters for their unscientific behavior in an editorial published in 2012. The wrote that “Researchers who went against that model [Clovis First] by reporting even older sites of human occupation endured brutal criticism from opponents who did not give them, or their evidence, a fair hearing. Scientists who supported the Clovis-first model countered that reports of pre-Clovis sites were examples of poor scholarship.” Colleagues in Europe, in my experience did not do this when they debated the Early and Late Entry models. Both models were taken seriously and were tested by new evidence produced by research that was carried out to find new sites, to solve questions about how to identify artifacts from geofacts, and to date the remains. (By the way, the early entry model turned out to be the correct one.)

In short, I was used to an approach where one does not assume one is right, but one evaluates competing claims with evidence. And as I read the recent Pre-Clovis literature by people such as Adovasio, Dillehay, and MacNeish, and before them, Carter and Leakey, I found claims that could be tested, and more to the point, should be tested, and not simply dismissed as “obviously” wrong. Yet many American archaeologists not only did not believe in testing the Pre-Clovis hypothesis, they actively argued against doing so!

My interest was piqued sufficiently that I decided to do a little investigation of my own. This led me to visit Pre-Clovis sites and to examine artifacts curated in museums. Eventually I would inspect materials in the Peabody Museum at Harvard, the New Jersey State Museum, the Museum of Man in San Diego, and the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Denver, as well as sites in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming. And since 2017, I have been working with a team of colleagues to investigate possible early sites in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in San Diego County, California, that were found by Robert Begole in the course of several decades of survey.

I have concluded based on first-hand inspection that the flaked stone implements from Trenton to Texas Street, Calico, and Blacks Fork are artifacts of human workmanship as their discoverers claimed. They may not be Palaeolithic but it is a waste of time to try and wish them away as “geofacts.” Likewise, the geologic deposits associated with the most promising Pre-Clovis sites belong to the Pleistocene age and some are likely to be of considerable age (i.e. > 130,000 years). What I also found, however, is that evidence of flaked stone tools within early geologic deposits or in association with the remains of extinct Pleistocene fauna are difficult to document and are rarely indisputable. In my view it is not possible at this time to say whether the Strong or the Weak Pre-Clovis model is to be preferred. The evidence is not sufficient to make such a determination.  But the evidence from the Cerutti Mastodon Site is very convincing, and my money is on the Strong Pre-Clovis model at the moment.  Even if I have not reached a definite conclusion, my inspections tell me that the only responsible course of action is to attempt to find good sites and to excavate then and date them. This is the only way to determine which model of the Pre-Clovis will ultimately prevail.

Debates should continue, and archaeologists should desist from blanket assertions, ad hominin attacks, and out-and-out denial of possibilities and engage instead in long-term, structured research projects aimed at identifying early sites and evaluating their contexts in as thorough a manner as possible. Again I quote the Editors of Nature: “Researchers must always consider that they might be wrong, and should look carefully at opposing data and conclusions. At the same time, scientists who make bold claims must marshal an extraordinary case, especially if they seek to topple a dominant model built on many previous studies. Such prescriptions sound obvious, but many scientists forget them, particularly in fields with limited data, such as archaeology.”

Take one example of what I mean. The publication of the Cerutti Mastodon Site in 2017 led to an outpouring of commentary and—let’s face it—posturing, about the veracity of the results. Follow up research on the site continues, but what seems obvious to me is that archaeologists of all stripes should now target 130,000-year old geologic deposits throughout the Americas and search them for sites. This approach to research has been advocated for many decades by a wide range of archaeologists and geoarchaeologists (see Holcomb et al. for a summary). It is not a new idea. If humans were in the Americas at an early date the evidence will be there in the deposits of the right age, but we cannot know whether it is there—or it isn’t—unless we go and look.

Further Reading

Adovasio, J., and D. Pedlar, 2016, Strangers in a New Land: What Archaeology Reveals About the First Americans. Firefly Books.

Bennett, M. R., et al., 2021, “Evidence of humans in North America during the Last Glacial Maximum,” Science 373: 1528-1531.

Carter, G. F., 1957, Pleistocene Man at San Diego. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Davis, L., et al., 2019, “Late Upper Paleolithic occupation at Cooper’s Ferry, Idaho, USA, ~16,000 years ago,” Science 365 (6456) pp. 891-897. DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9830

Editors, 2012, “Young Americans: the rancorous debate over when people first arrived in America has not helped science,” Nature 485 (6).

Holcomb, J., et al., 2020, “Deposit-centered archaeological survey and the search for the Aegean Palaeolithic: A geoarchaeological perspective,” Quaternary International 550: 169-183.

Holen, S., at al., 2017, “A 130,000-year-old archaeological site in southern California, USA,”
Nature 544: 479-483.

MacNeish, R., and J. G. Libby, 2003, Pendejo Cave. University of New Mexico Press.

Meltzer, D., et al., 1997, “On the Pleistocene Antiquity of Monte Verde, Southern Chile,” American Antiquity 62 (4): 659-663.

Owen, L. A., et al., 2011, “Surface ages and rates of erosion at the Calico Archaeological Site in the Mojave Desert, Southern California,” Geomorphology 125: 40-50.

Stanford, D., and B. Bradley, 2010, Across Atlantic Ice: The Origin of America’s Clovis Culture. University of California at Berkeley Press.

Dr. Charles Conrad Abbott and the Curious Case of the American Palaeolithic

Apart from historically-minded citizens of Trenton, New Jersey, the name of Dr. Charles Conrad Abbott has been forgotten. This was not always the story, for once upon a time Dr. Abbott, a naturalist and amateur archaeologist, was a popular writer and was hailed as the Father of Prehistoric America. What happened?

The prehistoric antiquity of humans was recognized in 1859—a year known as the annus mirabilis—with the acknowledgement by archaeologists, geologists, and paleontologists that stone tools in Europe occurred in direct association with the fossilized remains of extinct animals like mammoths in very old geologic deposits laid down in the Pleistocene (aka the last Ice Age). These stone tools were denominated by archaeologists as Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) and examples of them, such as the iconic Acheulean handaxe, were recognized in glacial deposits throughout Europe. By the 1870s reports were common of similar finds in lands around the Mediterranean and in Southwest Asia and it seemed likely that evidence of Palaeolithic humans would be found throughout the world. Thus reports of Palaeolithic stone tools in the United States that appeared in 1872 seemed credible. And the credit for their discovery belonged to Dr. Charles Conrad Abbott.

Acheulean handaxe

Acheulean handaxe, a type of stone tool named for the place where the earliest finds were made in the 1830s at St. Acheul, France (Wikipedia, accessed 27 December 2021)

A native of Trenton, Dr. Abbott was a physician who studied medicine at the University of Pennsylvania where he received his M.D. in 1865. Other than his service as a surgeon in the Civil War, he did not practice medicine professionally. Instead, he settled along the banks of the Delaware River at Trenton to become a gentleman farmer. His homestead is known as Marshlands and is today the Abbott Farm District National Historic Landmark. It was at Marshlands that Dr. Abbott wrote more than 20 books on fossil animals, archaeology, and nature. He is known today, however, chiefly for his archaeological discoveries. In the 1870s and 1880s fluvial terraces of the Delaware River called the Trenton Gravels were being exposed as roads, bridges, and railroads were being built. The exposed terraces were searched by Dr. Abbott and he found large rudely flaked stone tools in them that resembled the Acheulean handaxes being found in Europe. He called the stone tools from the Trenton Gravels “paleoliths” and claimed that they were evidence of prehistoric humans in the region during the glacial period, in other words, an American Palaeolithic.

Dr. Abbott believed that the American Palaeolithic was the same cultural phenomenon as the Palaeolithic of the Old World, and in his view it was evidence that North America had been inhabited by humans in the vast primeval antiquity of the world. The dramatic discovery of paleoliths in the Trenton Gravels was accepted by the American public and by scientists at home and abroad. His great discovery was enough to secure appointments for him as assistant curator of the Peabody Museum at Harvard (1876-1889) and as the first curator of the University of Pennsylvania's Department of American Archaeology in the 1890s. His fame at the time was similar to another archaeologist, Dr. Heinrich Schliemann, whose exciting reports in the popular American press about his discoveries at Troy in the 1870s jostled with Dr. Abbott’s reports of the American Palaeolithic.

Abbott paleolith

One of Dr. Abbott’s “paleoliths” from the Trenton Gravels curated at the Peabody Museum at Harvard.

But there were doubts, which were expressed forcefully in the 1890s by William Henry Holmes of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution who represented a new breed—the professional archaeologist. Holmes challenged Abbott’s finds, arguing that he was far from diligent in recording the details of findspots and other details of his fieldwork. Though Abbott claimed to have found paleoliths within glacial deposits, for instance, he did not publish the documentation of the stratigraphic context necessary for archaeologists to be able to verify his finds. A tireless advocate of careful fieldwork and observation, William Henry Holmes was concerned enough to have a student do a test excavation for a few weeks in one of the Trenton gravel deposits, and when the student failed to find paleoliths in the deposits Holmes rejected the whole of Dr. Abbott’s American Paleolithic and launched an attack on the concept. He criticized Abbott’s methods, his interpretations, and—perhaps unnecessarily—Abbott himself, whom Holmes considered to be an old-fashioned amateur naturalist lacking in scientific training and method. And thus began what David Meltzer has called the Great Palaeolithic War, which ended with a complete victory for Holmes and the repudiation of Abbott’s discoveries. The American Palaeolithic was erased from textbooks in the 1890s and disappeared from public view until the 1920s when other discoveries of human activity dating back to the end of the Pleistocene, namely the Clovis and Folsom cultures in New Mexico, brought it back in a revised form. This partial vindication of Dr. Abbott’s views came a decade after his death.

The story does not end there. Perhaps Holmes too was mistaken? In his zeal to overthrow what he believed were the amateurish misinterpretations of archaeological evidence by Abbott, Holmes may have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. He argued that Abbott’s paleoliths were not Acheulean handaxes but lithic “preforms,” roughly worked pieces of stone that were intended to be turned into projectile points (such as small arrowheads), which had been made by Indigenous people no more than a couple of centuries ago. In other words, paleoliths were not finished tools but only the discarded debris left over from the manufacture of other artifacts.

To lay to rest the American Palaeolithic once and for all, Holmes conducted excavations at a site called Piney Branch in Washington, D.C. where he interpreted the finds as proving that the so-called paleoliths were nothing more than unfinished debris (Holmes called them “mere trash”) from a quarry workshop. After a reexamination of Holmes’ published results from Piney Branch, however, I found that his claim that all paleoliths were quarry debris is not as well supported by the evidence as Holmes would have us believe. Some of the pieces at Piney Branch may have been finished tools just as Dr. Abbott claimed. They may have been used on the site which was possibly occupied and used by Indigenous peoples for long periods of time, perhaps 4,000 years or more.

The idea that paleoliths could be stone tools in their own right, even if they are not chronologically or culturally the same thing as the Old World Palaeolithic, needs to be investigated further. Recent archaeological research in the arid west, for example, has shown that stone tools similar to Dr. Abbott’s paleoliths (handaxe-like forms) are found on lithic sites from Wyoming to northern Mexico where they appear to be tools used for purposes such as butchering wild animals. Add the discovery of new evidence for an American Palaeolithic such as the footprints from White Sands, New Mexico dated to 21-23 thousand years ago and the Cerutti Mastodon Site in San Diego dated to 130,000 years ago and one can wonder if Dr. Abbott hadn’t been right after all. Even during the Great Palaeolithic War some scholars were not convinced by Holmes’ arguments concerning the Trenton paleoliths. Frederick Ward Putnam, for example, who has been called the Father of American Archaeology, and who was the Curator of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, believed that his friend and colleague Dr. Abbott had indeed found finished tools in glacial contexts, not recent quarry rejects. On the strength of this conviction, Putnam appointed Dr. Abbott as Assistant Curator at the Peabody Museum and accepted Dr. Abbott’s collections of artifacts for the Museum, some 20,000 of them, which include artifacts representing a wide sweep of pre-Columbian cultural history along the Delaware. So as the Great Palaeolithic War was ending, seemingly with a complete victory for Holmes, Putnam wanted to get to the bottom of the paleolith problem. For two decades he supported the work of the archaeologist Ernest Volk who re-investigated the archaeology of the Delaware River valley and the Trenton gravels. Volk was a careful archaeologist who took his time to sort out what was in fact a knotty stratigraphical jumble made worse by the rapid pace of development and urban expansion in the area that was destroying the geological and archaeological record before his eyes. Volk published a final report in 1911 with evidence that stone tools were in fact found within glacial-age gravels as Dr. Abbott had claimed. But it was too late. No one was interested in the Trenton paleoliths by then. Putnam died in 1915, and Abbott and Volk died in 1919. William Henry Holmes outlived them all and was able to hold the line against any temptation to revive the American Palaeolithic, and by the time he died in 1933 Abbott’s American Palaeolithic was nothing but a short footnote to Holmes’ brilliant career.

Questions remain unanswered about the Trenton Gravel finds. Are Dr. Abbott’s paleoliths ancient artifacts, quarry preforms, or some other late historic tool like Middle Woodland hoes? Are they found within the gravel deposits at Trenton, and thus of glacial age, or are they surface finds from recent periods of cultural activity? I have examined Dr. Abbott’s paleoliths in the Peabody Museum and the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton and they appear to be tools as Dr. Abbott believed. He left notes claiming to have found particular specimens, like the one pictured here, within undisturbed gravel deposits of glacial age, but unfortunately, we have only his word for this. New fieldwork would have to be done at Trenton in order to address these questions and this is not likely to happen anytime soon. On a visit to Trenton in 2011 it was obvious that the research necessary to understand the archaeology of the Trenton Gravels would be difficult to do. Development and urban sprawl have accelerated since Volk’s day, and the geologic deposits that were exposed in Dr. Abbott’s time in the course of massive infrastructure projects are no longer available for study. The view over the Delaware River from the Trenton Morrisville Bridge makes the archaeologist’s heart sink. What isn’t under roads, buildings, factories, and parking lots is covered with dense vegetation and all but invisible. For all intents and purposes, Dr. Abbott’s “Palaeolithic” sites are gone. At least for the time being, Dr. Abbott’s last case remains unsolved.

Further Reading

Charles C. Abbott, 1876, “The Stone Age in New Jersey,” Annual Report of the Smithsonian Institution 1875. Government Printing Office, Washington D.C., pp. 246-380.

Clive Gamble, 2021, Making Deep History: Zeal, Perseverance, and the Time Revolution of 1859. Oxford University Press.

David J. Meltzer, 2015, The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America’s Ice Age Past. University of Chicago Press. https://doi:9780226293363.001.0001

Curtis Runnels, 2020, “The Piney Branch Site (District of Columbia, USA) and the Significance of the Quarry-Refuse Model for the Interpretation of Lithics Sites,” Journal of Lithic Studies 7 (1): 1 – 17.

Ernest Volk, 1911, The Archaeology of the Delaware Valley. Peabody Museum, Cambridge Massachusetts.

The Lost Site of Blacks Fork

In the summer of 2017 in the last days of innocence before the plague would blight our days, we found ourselves in southwestern Wyoming searching for a lost archaeological site. Discovered in the late 1930s, the site’s precise location had slipped away. The archaeologist provided only a rough sketch map of the location and no photographs of the site or its surroundings. Even more confusingly, the roads and monuments used on the sketch map for reference had been changed during road construction in the 1980s.

The site is important because it was once the center of an archaeological controversy, one that is being revived today. It is not an eye-catching ruin: it consists of large numbers of flaked stone tools made from chert scattered along the highest Pleistocene (last Ice Age) terrace of the Blacks Fork River a few miles from the historic site of Fort Bridger on the emigrant trail that led to Utah, California, and Oregon.

The site was discovered by the archaeologist E. B. Renaud, who has also slipped from view. Renaud was based at the University of Denver in Colorado where he specialized in the study of the earliest cultures in the United States and is perhaps best known, if at all, for the discovery of the site at Blacks Fork.

Renaud explored the Rocky Mountain states in the 1920s and 1930s following the discovery of the Folsom culture in New Mexico in 1926 that resulted in the recognition that early humans were in North America in the Pleistocene more than 10,000 years ago. He conducted numerous archaeological surveys and excavations that resulted in more than 100 publications.

In 1935 Renaud and his team surveyed the terraces of the Blacks Fork in response to a tip from local amateur archaeologists. E. B. (as he was known) was surprised by what he found. The stone tools along the terrace were not like the commonly known artifacts made by the indigenous peoples of North America in the last 10,000 years. They resembled instead the types of artifacts found in Africa and Europe that belong to the early Palaeolithic dating back more than 100,000 years. Though E. B. was unable to date the site, he knew that if the artifacts were Palaeolithic the Blacks Fork Culture (as he called it) could be a vestige of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas.

E. B. collected nearly 1,000 artifacts from Blacks Fork between 1935 and 1938 which are stored today in the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Denver (where we studied them in 2015). He published his findings and even took specimens to Europe to show to Palaeolithic specialists in an effort to confirm his findings. For a brief time the Blacks Fork Culture was the center of archaeological speculation about the peopling of the New World. This fame did not last: most research on the topic came to a halt during the Second World War and was slow to resume afterwards. Then a new idea, today called the Clovis First model, took hold. The Clovis First model posits that people only entered North America once, about 12,000 years ago, by crossing the Beringian land bridge from Siberia to Alaska and traversing an Ice Free Corridor in the glaciers to reach the lower 48 states of the US. An early Palaeolithic culture simply did not fit this model and the Blacks Fork Culture disappeared from the literature on the early prehistory of the Americas. Renaud retired in 1948 and was either unable or was unwilling to pursue his research at Blacks Fork. The publications would rest on library shelves and the artifacts in their boxes in the museum for 75 years. Even the location of the site was forgotten.

Who was E. B.? Etienne Bernardeau Renaud was born in Billancourt-Bologne, France, in 1880. He studied anthropology, paleontology and primitive art at the University of Paris before immigrating to the United States in 1909 (he became a citizen in 1913). He taught French in Santa Fe and studied at the Catholic University of Washington. In 1916 he returned to France as a soldier. He returned to Denver to earn a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder and in 1920 he became a lecturer at the University of Denver where he helped establish the Department of Anthropology. In 1923 he became Professor of Anthropology, and in 1931 he founded the Denver University Museum of Anthropology. E. B was also the French Consular Agent in Denver, for which service he received a medal from France. Professor Renaud died in 1973.

We are intrigued by Renaud’s background because his training and experience with Palaeolithic sites in Europe make it unlikely that his identification of the Blacks Fork artifacts was simply a mistake. He studied archaeology during a period when France was a leader in the field of Palaeolithic archaeology, and he returned several times to Europe in the 1920s and 1930s to keep in touch with the latest developments. During these trips he visited sites and studied museum collections. Photographs in the Renaud Archive show him at key sites like Le Solutré, Le Moustier, Laugerie Haute, La Micoque, and La Ferrassie in France, Spy in Belgium, Krapina in Croatia, and Ipswich in England. He had a keen interest in the archaeology of the cultures of the Neanderthals and early modern humans in the Palaeolithic from roughly 250 to 15 thousand years ago and had hands-on experience with their characteristic stone tools.

Our investigation began with a visit to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Denver to study the artifacts. We were surprised by what we discovered: E. B. had been right, at least in so far as the artifacts are indeed similar in form and method of manufacture to artifacts from the Palaeolithic cultures from Africa, Europe, and much of Asia. For example, there are large almond-shaped tools called handaxes (and a suite of stone tools that go with the handaxes called picks, cleavers, massive scrapers, and choppers), as well as pointed flakes struck from carefully prepared and shaped cores (called the Levallois technique). Archaeological methods, including the ways that stone tools are classified, have changed since E. B.’s time, yet our analysis showed these tool types, especially because they occur in coherent groups we can call “toolkits,” would be regarded as “Palaeolithic” if they were found along the banks of the Seine River in France rather than a remote outpost in Wyoming. The similarities of the Blacks Fork artifacts to Palaeolithic types is a controversial claim, but we believe that it should be taken seriously and investigated further.

There is a catch. E. B. was unable to assign the Blacks Fork Culture to a particular period of time because the artifacts are not found in layers that can be dated. They are found embedded in what are called desert pavements, layers of rocks that form hard surfaces and which have been created by natural processes. The location of the desert pavements on an old terrace that dates to the Pleistocene is suggestive—but not proof—of a great age for the artifacts. The fact remains, however, that they are “floating in time.” There is evidence that some of the distinctive characteristics of the Blacks Fork artifacts can also be found among the earliest sites in the region, like Cooper’s Ferry in Idaho that is dated to 16,000 years ago. That is old, but not as old as the Palaeolithic in the Old World.

The next step was to find the site. While we were at the University of Denver preparing a report on the stone tools we went through E. B.’s papers stored in the University’s Special Collections. In a box we found two photographs that showed E. B. standing in a barren western landscape, and on the back of one the pencilled notation of a site number. It happened to be the Blacks Fork type site. That photograph brought us to Wyoming where at Fort Bridger the helpful park docents explained how the roads and monuments on E. B.’s original sketch map showing the location of the site were no longer in the same locations. With their help we were able to reconcile the old map with a modern map and, after some back and forth searching, we found the exact spot where E. B. was standing and where, triumphantly, I assumed the same position as in E. B.’s photograph to fix the location.

What have we found and what is the significance of the Blacks Fork Culture today? Since the mid-1990s archaeologists have been moving gradually away from the Clovis First model and considering the possibility that humans may have arrived in the Americas much earlier in time. The Blacks Fork Culture may help to form a new picture of the spread of the first peoples in the Americas. This is not yet possible. Much new research must be done. At present our working hypothesis is that the Blacks Fork Culture may have been produced by early humans who brought with them a broadly Eurasian “Blueprint” for making simple tools necessary for hunting, foraging, and gathering, a type of stone tool culture that may have given rise to archaeological cultures like the Western Stemmed Tradition found at Cooper’s Ferry. How old is the Blacks Fork Culture? At present we have no way of knowing. It is time to dust off E. B.’s old notes and artifacts and pick up the story where he left it off on the banks of the Blacks Fork River.

Further Reading:

Curtis Runnels and Priscilla Murray, 2022, “The Blacks Fork Culture of Southwestern Wyoming: Quarry Refuse or a Lithic Culture?” in George Jefferson, Steven R. Holen, and Kathleen A. Holen, eds., New Discoveries in the American Paleolithic, pp. 95-108.  San Diego, California: Sunbelt Publications.

EB at Blacks Fork (undated photographs from Special Collections, University of Denver)

EB at Blacks Fork

CR at Blacks Fork

CR at Blacks Fork

Blacks Fork handaxe

Blacks Fork handaxe 1

Ann Axtell Morris, Archaeologist of the Southwest

Lovers of archaeology are in for a treat. Following the success of The Dig, a British film that chronicles the excavation of the Sutton Hoo burial in England in 1939, an American archaeologist is now coming to your favorite streaming device. Film crews are wrapping up their work in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona on the film Canyon del Muerto about the life and work of the undeservedly-forgotten archaeologist Ann Axtell Morris (1900-1945), in the 1920s and 1930s. The movie is slated for release this year.

Ann Axtell Morris' book on her Southwestern archaeological experiences
Ann Axtell Morris' book on her Southwestern archaeological experiences

Why make a movie about Ann Axtell Morris? Good reasons are found in her only publications, two books written for general readers, Digging in Yucatan, and Digging in the Southwest, which I discuss here. Her course through archaeology was meteoric, rising fast and high, and burning out all too soon. From her home in Nebraska, she went to Smith College in Massachusetts to study history, and then to France for a year to study prehistoric archaeology. Her goal was to do archaeological research in the American Southwest, a region that she thought had been sadly neglected archaeologically. At the precocious age of 23 she was able to achieve her goal after her marriage to the archaeologist Earl Morris, with whom she pursued field archaeology in all its many moods for two decades from the Yucatan in Mexico to the Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona (of which the Canyon del Muerto of the film’s title is a part). Sadly, the last ten years of her life saw a steady decline in her health ending in an untimely death, and today her notable achievements as a field archaeologist have been almost totally obliterated by time. I hope Canyon del Muerto will awaken interest in this pioneering archaeologist, and that her popular books will bring her knowledge and ability within reach of a new generation of readers.

Ann and Earl Morris worked on sites from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan to Mummy Cave in the Canyon del Muerto for two decades and achieved outstanding results which are unfortunately all but buried in technical reports (some of which incorporated Ann’s accomplished watercolors). There is nothing remarkable about this bare résumé; the first half of the 20th century was after all one of the most romantic periods of archaeological research and is a vast tale of great discoveries and colorful characters, often forgotten today. What makes Ann Morris stand out (apart from being a pioneering and successful woman archaeologist in a field dominated at the time by men) is the person who emerges from her books.

Ann Morris was a superb English stylist, remarkably so for such a young writer, and she tells her story with enthusiasm and excitement. Her prose has an immediacy that reminds one of an informal snapshot taken by a Kodak Brownie camera, as opposed to the serious formal posing required for studio photography. Her prose flows like a southwestern arroyo after a thunderstorm, and has a freshness that makes it a book of the sunlight outdoors in an Arizona desert, rather than a text composed in an academic study that “smells of the lamp.” She attempts to explain to her reader what archaeologists have found, their sites, and artifacts, monumental architecture, and art, but above all she wants to tell readers what archaeological fieldwork was like (as opposed to academic or literary archaeology). A few select (lightly edited) quotes from Digging in the Southwest (published by Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, New York, 1934) will give the flavor of her writing. I feel like saying “selected at random” because there were so many rich pages that could have been mined for nuggets. She tells us what archaeology is, “archaeology might be defined as a rescue expedition sent into the far places of the earth to recover the scattered pages of man’s autobiography”(p. xv), and what were its goals, “instead of being tethered within the small present, bounded on one side by a hazy tomorrow and on the other by a very few centuries of carefully dated yesterdays, the long stream of human existence can be traced ever backward through the millennia…ever backward, the trail runs, and it is given to the archaeologist to trace its way” (p. xvii). After noting that America’s rich claim to antiquity were buried in blind oblivion, she goes on to say “then came the Archaeologists! Like a species of industrious gophers, they have spread from Alaska to Patagonia. They dig and they pry and they probe. They photograph and they map and they measure. Lost cities are being found again, fallen temples are being rebuilt, and broken pottery is being mended…each one has taken it on himself to restore some small fraction of long-lost history to its rightful place” (p. 6). And finally, “[the goal of archaeology] may have been achieved and may have been a thrilling one, but…[the] method and meticulous points of prosy detail are enshrined in vast scientific tomes which but few people ever see and fewer have the tenacity to read. One receives a most unfortunate and false impression that archaeology is not really half as much fun as it ought to be, and that archaeologists are dry things, squeezed empty of all human qualities. Now I for one know better, for I have been and I have seen” (p. 10). And so she has.

I hope that this film will be a success and that Ann Morris’ books will delight a new generation of readers. Today they are very rarely seen on the secondhand book market. Yet they are among the best accounts of the thrill of archaeological exploration and faithfully and amusingly capture the romance of archaeology in an era that is becoming something of an “ancient artifact.” Though Ann was ahead of her time in many ways and wrote thoughtfully about the Indigenous peoples with whom she worked, her cavalier attitude to prehistoric human remains is no longer acceptable. And of course, the culture history is well done but is now obsolete, as is to be expected after a further century of fieldwork in the area. We must accept the books for what they are, and not for what they should be, because they succeed in telling the story of archaeological research with such verve and attention to telling detail that one can almost smell the smoke from the campfires, hear the excitement in the voices of the archaeologists, and feel the heat of the desert as the summer clouds pile up on the western horizon.

Loren Eiseley and Perspectives on Archaeology

"What," my wife asks, "do you want to be Loren Eiseley?" No, I do not.  I do want to follow his example in my choice of a medium of expression.  Eiseley wrote his thoughts on subjects that interest me, like archaeology, time, and chance in the form of short articles published in popular magazines.  I believe if he were alive today he would write a personal blog.

I have written a large number of peer-reviewed scientific books, book chapters, and journal articles, which permit only a very narrow range of expression.  I have other things I would like to write about that find no place in such venues.

Hence this personal blog.