Waldo Wedel was born in 1908 in North Newton. As a young man, he chose archeology as a profession at a time when those making a living as archeologists made up a very small group indeed. He, in fact, received the first anthropology degree with an emphasis in archeology ever awarded by the University of California at Berkeley. Waldo Wedel became one of the most preeminent archeologists of the 20th century, specializing in the archeology of the central plains. He is best known for his many professional accomplishments and long list of significant publications contributed during his career at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
A lesser-known fact is that one of his close childhood friends was Emil Haury, with whom he hunted for archeological sites along Sand Creek. Emil Haury also turned out to be a major figure in 20th century archeology, with a specialty in the archeology of the Southwest and a long career at the University of Arizona. Their childhood association is being acknowledged by the city of North Newton in a planned series of interpretive panels placed along a walking trail near where they looked for sites on Sand Creek. As an example of just how small a profession archeology still is, both of the author's graduate advisors, Dave Breternitz at the University of Colorado and Al Johnson at the University of Kansas, were students of Emil Haury.
In the late 1930s a young Waldo Wedel, just beginning his career at the Smithsonian, began a program of archeological research in Kansas. At that time Kansas, along with much of the central plains, had seen little archeological research and was poorly understood. Wedel undertook analysis of existing collections as well as test excavations at sites across the state. His results were presented in An Introduction to Kansas Archeology, published by the Smithsonian Institution as Bulletin 174 of the Bureau of American Ethnology. It remains one of the best known and most widely cited among his dozens of publications. The volume has been out of print for many years but is still available from libraries and rare book dealers. Kansas' archeological research has, of course, continued all the years since, but despite the passage of half a century since its publication, An Introduction to Kansas Archeology is still a useful resource.
In 1939 he married Mildred Mott, an archeologist and ethnohistorian, and together they began exploring Plains archeology. Wedel ran the Smithsonian Missouri River Basin Surveys Project, which was a massive archeological undertaking that covered over 500,000 square miles of the basin. From the collection of artifacts he found during this project, Wedel created a chronology of the Great Plains prehistoric cultural groups, and became the leading source for Plains archeology. Wedel died in 1996 in Boulder, Colorado.
The legacy of Wedel's research in Kansas is clear to this day. It brought attention to a little-known area, and publication of his results in a widely disseminated volume stimulated additional work. That good work continues today. Along with additional research though, there were other good consequences. Not the least among them is an enduring legacy of good relations between professional archeologists, landowners, and avocational archeologists, coupled with a genuine concern for archeological resources among members of the public.
Entry: Wedel, Waldo
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: May 2011
Date Modified: April 2013
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