Remembering Ralph S. Solecki, Who Discovered the Shanidar Neanderthals, the Hessian Hat Plate, and Ancient Maspeth

Ralph Solecki at the Maspeth Site, Newtown Creek, 1937

Ralph Solecki at the Maspeth Site, Newtown Creek, 1937

The riders found their seats as they piled into the subway car on a pleasant afternoon in 1985. Getting comfortable (no one had to stand), we were soon off on our return trip from Red Hook, Brooklyn to the EPA Region II offices in Manhattan. At first, I barely noticed one of my fellow passengers sitting a little away from me, but eventually I took in his distinctive way of dressing: khaki pants, khaki shirt, and red beret. I was thinking he was a Guardian Angel. Then I noticed the writing on the shirt. It said, “Angel Guardians.” Not Guardian Angels, but Angel Guardians. I was confused. Could he be a competing vigilante, or was he an imposter taking advantage of the Guardian Angels? Or maybe he was an actor in costume. My companion on this trip, Professor Ralph Solecki of Columbia University seemed to read my confused mind, observing obliquely that “Brooklyn is a remarkably vibrant and always interesting community.” I thought oh good. Whatever this means, it’s ok.

Ralph Solecki and I had been to the waterfront in Red Hook to visit a site where a sewer line was going to be installed. In a complicated arrangement, although I worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany, it was my job to evaluate and manage potential archaeological resource impacts for the EPA’s Section 106 compliance reviews in New York City. In doing so, I found that I had to make the case to my agency and the City’s Department of Environmental Protection that the approach to this should be appropriately contemporary and defensible. The EPA and various officials in other agencies were on-board with this, but not everyone else was, including some DEC and DEP engineers who were skeptical of the need to dig through the built-land along the waterfront. I don’t mean to speak in shorthand here. What I’m talking about is being on the inside convincing the agencies that were in consultation with the EPA (i.e., the outside) of the cases when digging (Phase 1B archaeological surveys) would be needed in addition to the previously stand-alone, (Phase 1A) research reports that commented on historic maps and documents. Ralph was the consultant hired to do the Phase 1A archaeological surveys for various sewer projects, and also had been allowed to walk open trenches during construction in case anything especially important was exposed. At Red Hook the Phase 1A research hinted that there could be Dutch tidal mill sites or other important archaeological data below the fill.

On a previous project, at Fulton Street in Brooklyn, Ralph was walking the open-cut sewer trench with a construction management supervisor he knew when they made a remarkable discovery. The way I heard the story, Solecki’s friend picked up a flattened, dirty piece of metal and handed it to him saying “What’s this Doc, is it worth anything?” Ralph looked at what he held in his hand, holding in a considerable surge of excitement and replied “No. It’s priceless.” They had found an extremely rare artifact of the Revolutionary War, a Hessian hat plate. This was an insignia from the hat of a Hessian mercenary fighting for the British and lost during or about the time of the Battle of Brooklyn. It was one of only three surviving Hessian hat plates from the American War for Independence (Solecki and Demeritt 1980). This discovery, of course, provides a cogent example of a reason to perform the field archaeology before digging the sewer trench.

Ralph was an effective ally in moving the EPA’s compliance program into a better position. He and I were in touch over the next year or so while I continued my work at the DEC, perhaps even a little longer, after I left for a position at the State Museum. When I met Ralph, he was a famous archaeologist primarily because of his discovery (with his wife Rose Solecki) of a group of Neanderthal skeletons at Shanidar Cave, Iraq. His interpretation of this to archaeology’s public audience (Solecki 1971) was informative, touching, even thrilling. At Shanidar, flower pollen recovered from what appeared to be grave sites, as well as the care that must have been afforded to a disabled individual interred in one of the graves, provided palpable senses of aesthetics, love, and ritual to Ralph’s story of these hominids so closely related to our own species (indeed, DNA research reveals that present-day people carry Neanderthal DNA unless their ancestry is only sub-Saharan African. So in a way Neanderthals are more than closely related to our species. Many of us are, in part, them). Ralph’s interpretation of Neanderthals was of a kinder, gentler sort than was current before his discovery. This soft view of Neanderthals has been challenged more recently, and excavations at Shanidar Cave have been renewed, despite the war with ISIS. Meanwhile, other research seems to broaden the perspective of Neanderthal humanity and underscore Ralph’s position. I tend to support the view of an essential Neanderthal humanity that Ralph’s interpretation required anthropologists to consider.

While Ralph was the archaeologist on the Brooklyn sewer projects his main research was on the cave site in Yabroud, Syria, which had produced evidence of an important Upper Paleolithic culture for a remarkable German archaeologist named Alfred Rust during the early 20th century (Rust was an amateur archaeologist who would ride his bicycle from Germany to Syria to excavate after he found this site; Bibby 1956). Ralph had connections he generously offered that were helpful to some young American archaeologists looking for fieldwork opportunities in Germany (not me, but people I knew). Despite his international projects, he had a long love for local archaeology because (as he explained to me) “I’m an old Brooklyn boy”.

Simply by coincidence, because I was visiting Gene Sterud on Staten Island, and before I actually met Ralph, I happened to be present when Ralph and others founded Professional Archaeologists of New York City (known by the acronym PANYC). PANYC advocates for wise cultural resource management policies and practices. The Hessian hat plate discovery was a recent experience at that point, but I have no doubt that Ralph had earlier experiences working to save the archaeological record from construction projects. One that easily comes to mind, and that is well documented, is the destruction of an Adena culture burial mound in Natrium, West Virginia in 1948 (Solecki 1953; Silverberg 1967 gives a short popular account of this excavation with emphasis on the cold, nasty weather). After a period in which the Natrium mound had been threatened intermittently with destruction by the expansion of a Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company chemical plant, which the company at least once had backed off from due to objections, Pittsburgh Plate Glass invited the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) at the Smithsonian Institution to salvage information from the mound because it was definitely going to be leveled. At the time Ralph worked for the BAE, and was the archaeologist sent to do this work with help from volunteers, company personnel, and a bulldozer. The excavation was conducted over a period of 20 days in December (including Christmas). The winter timing was provided by the company, accommodating their schedule. Ralph’s excavation recovered a great deal of valuable information about the Ohio drainage Adena culture, it’s mound construction and mortuary practices, and relations to other contemporary societies; but this success shouldn’t obscure the more general situation in which there are needs to avoid destroying such important sites as well as optimize the conditions and funding of archaeological investigations when destruction is inevitable. There were many experiences carried by various people into the room the day that PANYC formed; this was one of Ralph’s.

Later in his career, long after I visited Red Hook with him, Ralph made sustained efforts to publish the New York research conducted during his youth. One of these efforts is his article on a Late Woodland period pit containing 2 human burials with accompanying ceramics at College Point, Queens, excavated with his friend Stanley Wisniewski (Solecki 2006). Carlyle Smith included this discovery in The Archaeology of Coastal New York (Smith 1950). Ralph’s 2006 publication provided the critical contextual information regarding the excavation. Another example is the report on excavations at Fort Corchaug in the Town of Southold, Suffolk County which he co-authored with Lorraine Williams (Solecki and Williams 1998). Fort Corchaug was a Corchaug Indian stockade and wampum manufacturing site in the 1630s-1660s. Ralph used his 1936-1948 excavations as a basis for the thesis he wrote for his 1948 Columbia University Master’s degree. Lorraine Williams returned for further investigation in 1968. Their joint publication is a synopsis of the documentation they helped prepare to nominate the Fort Corchaug site as a National Historic Landmark: i.e., a site that has yielded “information of major scientific importance.”

I want to close this appreciation of Ralph Solecki by referring to a certain labor of love he completed in 2010 at the age of 93. This is the report titled The Archaeology of Maspeth, Long Island, New York and Vicinity which he co-authored with Stanley H. Wisniewski. When I say labor of love, I mean that Ralph continued his commitment to publishing his early archaeological work from the 1930s, and that after Stanley’s passing in 2008 Ralph saw the project through to the end for both of them. This 104-page book reports the investigations they made, not as professional archaeologists, but as children and teenagers in the 1930s. In general this is something children should not do. These two were mostly self-taught and aided by brilliance. Remarkably, they recorded what they were doing sufficient that their records proved useful when they wrote the book some 75 years later.

There was a remnant of the past yet to be discovered in this shore-fronted, industrial corner of Queens County at Furman’s Island along Newtown Creek, near a liquid carbonic acid factory. Ralph and Stanley lived about a half hour’s walk away. Here these two young men interested in archaeology made a considerable collection of prehistoric Indian artifacts, while also recording a 17th century fireplace site and the historic (mid-19th-early 20th century) Garvis pipe factory site. They mostly surface collected but did some digging at the fireplace site (which may have been part of a Dutch trading post), an oyster shell-filled pit, and an argillite concentration. Over the years while they were there, they witnessed the archaeological site disappear under a growing garbage dump.

The book contains maps that record where various features and artifact finds were made, including the pipe factory, the fireplace, the argillite concentration, the location where a Palmer (Early Archaic) point was found, and the oyster shell-filled pit. The authors’ mature hindsight brings a coherent perspective of the environmental setting and the nature of the excavations and collecting, while providing interpretation of the recovered data in a contemporary framework that clarifies coastal New York data, and especially with importance to the Early and Middle Archaic periods. This publication has been of great value to my research, and my work has enjoyed the expertise and accuracy with which Wisniewski and Solecki identified the projectile point types. In doing this they have reduced the confusion and found some of the expected evidence of early occupation that seems to be missing from certain reports others wrote in times when archaeological knowledge was more limited.

The last time I saw Ralph Solecki was at an archaeology conference in 2012, when I made a clumsy effort (in my opinion) to answer a question he had. These are the kinds of things we think of sometimes. Thank you, Ralph, and rest in peace.

References Cited

Bibby, Geoffrey
1956 The Testimony of the Spade. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Silverberg, Robert
1967 Men Against Time: Salvage Archaeology in the United States. The MacMillan Company, New York.

Smith, Carlyle S.
1950 The Archaeology of Coastal New York. Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Volume 43, Number 2, New York.

Solecki, Ralph S.
1953 Exploration of an Adena Mound in Natrium, West Virginia. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 151, Smithsonian Institution, Washington.

1971 Shanidar, The First Flower People. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

2006 A Late Woodland Double Indian Burial at College Point, New York. The Bulletin, Journal of the New York State Archaeological Association 122:70-79.

Solecki, Ralph S. and Dwight B. Demeritt
1980 An American Revolutionary War Relic from Brooklyn, New York. Journal of Field Archaeology 7(3):269-278.

Solecki, Ralph S. and Lorraine Williams
1998 Fort Corchaug Archaeological Site National Historic Landmark. The Bulletin, Journal of the New York State Archaeological Association 114:2-11.

Wisniewski, Stanley H. and Ralph S. Solecki
2010 The Archaeology of Maspeth, Long Island, New York and Vicinity. Researches and Transactions of the New York State Archaeological Association, Volume XVIII, Number 1, Rochester.