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Remembering Olaf Prufer (1930-2008) PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mark F. Seeman   
Thursday, 02 October 2008
       Olaf Herbert Prufer died of cancer on July 27, 2008.  Olaf was a well-known and respected professional archaeologist, and a major contributor to the study of Ohio’s prehistoric past for over forty-five years.  He spoke 6 languages and wrote 16 books or monographs and over 140 articles and book reviews, many of them on Ohio archaeology. He loved animals (especially cats), respected competence, and did not suffer fools gladly.
 
     Olaf Prufer was born in 1930 and lived a privileged, but not necessarily a happy, childhood.  For the curious, there are published pictures of little Olaf on an outing in the Bavarian countryside and also arriving in Rio de Janeiro as his father assumed the role of Hitler’s ambassador to Brazil (McKale 1987).  It is hard to recognize him without his khaki bush jacket.  After the war and an interesting stint in India, which included his first formal work in archaeology, Olaf was singled out by the Old World Paleolithic archaeologist Hallam Movius (remember the Movius Line) for attention and professional development.  Courtesy of Movius, Olaf arrived at the door of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts with a young Indian wife and no high school degree in 1955.  While at Harvard, he excelled as a Thaw Fellow, and was intellectually influenced by many notable anthropologists, working directly with Clyde Kluckhohn and Stephen Williams after a stormy falling out with Movius, the latter a devote Episcopalian.
 
     In 1959 and while still a Ph.D. student at Harvard, Olaf came to Ohio to assume a position at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History with an additional lectureship at the former Case Institute of Technology (now Case Western Reserve University).  The social pathways to these positions were informal and would not stand the critical eye of a contemporary Affirmative Action officer.  The Ohio connection to the Cleveland Museum and Case provided the geographic base for Olaf’s two-volume dissertation on Ohio Hopewell which was accepted in 1961.  This work was massively descriptive, and although it served as the basis for several articles and his monograph on Ohio Hopewell ceramics, it always has been difficult to directly access.  It is full of useful information even by today’s standards.
 
     Based on practical experience in both Bavaria and India, Olaf initiated his first project in Ohio with a major field component in 1959.  The focus was on Palaeo-Indian (note the preferred OHP spelling).  Following the path charted by Ronald Mason to the north in Michigan, Olaf began to assemble distributional, typological, and raw material data from Ohio artifact collectors and the major public repository, the Ohio State Museum.   At the time, Prufer developed strong and real connections to the amateur/collector community that were probably more genuine than the professional connections extending at the time to the Ohio State Museum and its then curator, Raymond S. Baby.  Prufer had established an intellectual beachhead in Cleveland that called into question the traditional archaeological authority of Columbus in a very real way.  His drive, resourcefulness, charisma, and breadth of intellect went way beyond that which was available in Columbus at the time.  Although Baby was a second author on the classic Palaeo-Indians of Ohio (1963), his contributions did not extend much beyond providing access to the collections of the Ohio State Museum—“Baby’s Little Kingdom”—as Jimmy Griffin called it.  This uneasy relationship continued for some time as Olaf built a research base in Cleveland with a number of loyal students and collaborators such as John Blank, C. Owen Lovejoy, Douglas McKenzie, Oriol Pi-Sunyer, Orrin C. Shane, III, and others.  Palaeo-Indians of Ohio represented a work with a data base and scope that was decades ahead of any other work on the subject in eastern North America.  The connections it provided to the local community served as the basis for subsequent Palaeo-Indian workshop and habitation site excavations such as McConnell (1963), Mud Valley (1966), and Welling (1970).   The tone once again was on ample description and minimal theorization, hallmarks, Prufer felt, of what a useful archaeology should be.   Some of the Palaeo-Indian work was funded by research grant money received from the National Science Foundation; in fact, Olaf received six NSF grants, a feat that never has been duplicated by another Ohio archaeologist (and probably never will).
 
     The most important phase of Olaf Prufer’s career was undertaken in the Scioto Valley of southern Ohio beginning in 1963.  Here he initiated a program of survey and excavation that culminated in the excavation of the McGraw site in Ross County, Ohio.  McGraw was the archetype Hopewell hamlet and the linchpin of the “vacant center” settlement model, both of which are still strongly attached to his name (Prufer 1965).  The settlement system-orientation and focus away from the excavation of mortuary mounds is very notable, as is the multi-disciplinary analyses that characterized the McGraw report.  The corn discovered at McGraw and analyzed by Hugh Cutler and Richard Yarnell caused all sorts of problems.  The McGraw work was presented in a more synthetic context to a popular audience a year earlier, along with Olaf’s interpretation of Hopewell ceremony (Prufer 1964).  Although the direction of this Scioto Valley work seems to strongly reflect the Young Turk values of the of the “new archaeology” as espoused at the time, Olaf’s actual intellectual allegiance was much more with Gordon R. Willey (Viru Valley survey) than with Lewis Binford.  After all, Olaf’s birthright was Harvard and not Chicago.  Alva McGraw, a towering 230 lb. figure of a Scioto valley farmer, entrepreneur, and amateur archaeologist, and more importantly, a good friend to OHP, remarked that during that time “Olaf could drink more for a little man than anyone he had ever seen.”
 
     After McGraw, Prufer turned his attention to the numerous rockshelters of eastern Ohio.  This class of archaeological site largely had been ignored since the time of W.C. Mills.  Prufer saw them not only as a self-contained, finite, and manageable data source (with poison ivy rather than scorching sun), but as a logical way to pursue the question of what happened to Hopewell and what precipitated a “Dark Age” of apparent Late Woodland cultural stagnation and accompanying intensive rockshelter occupation in the uplands.  Chesser Cave was the major excavation (Prufer 1967).  The results of this work brought him again squarely up against Baby in reference to concepts such as a Peters phase (Prufer) versus a Cole tradition (Baby) (Prufer and McKenzie 1966:250; see also Dancey and Seeman 2005).  At the time, Olaf did not appreciate the depositional complexity of shallow Ohio sandstone shelters, but corrected some of his initial interpretations in his recent review of that work (Spurlock, Prufer and Pigott 2006). 
 
     Coincident with excavations ongoing at rockshelter sites such as Rais and Wise, largely under the control of graduate students or colleagues, Olaf initiated another large scale excavation at Blain Village, an early Fort Ancient site in Ross County (Prufer and Shane 1970).  It was the first large-scale Fort Ancient excavation since WPA days.  Focusing on the ceramics, Prufer boldly reworked the classic McKern-inspired scheme for the Late Prehistoric period in the Ohio Valley that had been developed by James B. Griffin.   Prufer reformed the taxons according to his impression of localized variability into the tradition/phase classification of Willey (here is Willey again) and Phillips (1956).  This brought a predictable reaction from Griffin and others (e.g., Schambach 1971).  The fact that subsequent to the Blain report, Ohio-area archaeologists continue to refine, debate, and argue about the appropriateness of several alternative models for this period makes clear the difficulties involved in working out these relationships, some of which are certainly the result of trying to compare materials collected in the 1880s to those collected in the 1980s. 
 
     Olaf Prufer’s last major archaeological field work came in 1970-1972 with the excavation of the Libben site, a huge Late Woodland cemetery in Ottawa County, northwestern Ohio.  After a long hiatus filled with administrative and teaching duties, Olaf had begun to work these materials up for publication approximately two years before his death and  he was well on the way to finishing something he considered his final professional responsibility.  The Libben site data has proven to be a central collection for our understanding of early maize-farming paleodemography and paleopathology in eastern North America (e.g., Lovejoy et al. 1977; Lovejoy et al. 1990).
 
     Prufer was concerned with the general flow of culture history in Ohio rather than any particular problem, and wrote on matters pertaining to all of the recognized subdivisions.  Most recently, he had turned his attention to developments within the Archaic, which he considered tremendously under-researched.  He kept his hand in this for a long time, with regular surface collections at the Lukens Hill site close to his Kent residence.  Conceptually, he was influenced strongly by William Ritchie’s vision of a Laurentian Archaic or “lake-forest” adaptation.  When efforts by another area archaeologist to pull together a volume of papers on this topic began to flag, Olaf took control, and published his own summary, bringing with him many of the papers intended for the initial treatment (Prufer, Pedde, and Meindl 2001).  Dr. Prufer could be patient only to a point, after which he moved with his typical dispatch and energy.
 
     Olaf Prufer never attended a meeting of the Ohio Archaeological Council, and he had a notable dislike for some of the founding members of the organization.  He was never a friend of CRM and he was proud to remark that his pet parrot, Horace, had the good taste to give one of the original OAC members a nasty bite.  His influence on the organization, however, and Ohio archaeology in general is undeniable, not just through his research, but also in his teaching and support.  As many in our organization can testify, Olaf could always give a stem-winder of a lecture and he to some extent took refuge in this ability towards the end of his life.  All he needed were three or four words quickly written on a note card before class in his precise, dainty handwriting to launch forth into the stratosphere for an hour or so.  His cutting wit and steel-trap mind will be missed by his friends and students, and I think, even his detractors.  There is no doubt that Olaf’s wrath could fall mightily on the unjust, and a prime example would be his discussion of the ethical shortcomings played out at the South Park site (Prufer 1998).  On the other side of the coin, if you were a loyal friend of Olaf you had a better one in return.                                                                 

References Cited

Dancey, W.S., and M.F. Seeman

2005     Rethinking the Cole Complex: a Post-Hopewellian Archaeological Unit in Central Ohio.  In Woodland Period Systematics in the Middle Ohio Valley, R. Mainfort and D. Applegate, eds., pp. 134-149.  University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa.

 

Lovejoy, C.O., R.S. Meindl, T.R. Pryzbeck, T.S. Barton, D. Kotting, and K.G. Heiple.

1977      The Palaeodemography of the Libben Site, Ottawa County, Ohio.  Science 198:291-293.

 

Lovejoy, C.O., K.F. Russell, and M.L. Harrison.

            1990 Long Bone Growth Velocity in the Libben Population.  American Journal of Human Biology 2:533-541.

 

McKale, D.M.

1987 Curt Prüfer: German Diplomat from the Kaiser to Hitler.   Kent State University Press, Kent.

 

Prufer, O.H.

1963 The McConnell Site:  A Late Palaeo-Indian Workshop in Coshocton County, Ohio.  Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Scientific Publications, n.s. 2(2):1-51.

 

Prufer, O.H.

1966 The Mud Valley Site: A Late Palaeo-Indian Locality in Holmes County, Ohio.  Ohio Journal of Science 66(1):68-75.

 

Prufer, O.H.

The Hopewell Cult.  Scientific American 211(6):90-102.

 

Prufer, O.H.

1965 The McGraw Site: A Study in Hopewellian Dynamics.  Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Scientific Publications, n.s. 4(1):1-144.

 

Prufer, O.H.

            1967 Chesser Cave: A Late Woodland phase in the Hocking Valley, Ohio.  In  Studies in Ohio Archaeology, O. Prufer and D. McKenzie, eds., pp. 1-63.  The Press of Western Reserve University, Cleveland.

 

Prufer, O.H.

            1998 Response to David Brose on a Review of his South Park Village Report and Related Matters: Some Suggested Corrections.  North American Archaeologist 19(3):197-199.

 

Prufer, O.H., and R.S. Baby

Palaeo-Indians of Ohio.  The Ohio Historical Society, Columbus.

 

Prufer, O.H., and D.H. McKenzie

1966 Peters Cave: Two Woodland Occupations in Ross County, Ohio.  Ohio Journal of Science 66(3):233-253.

 

Prufer, O.H., and O.C. Shane, III

Blain Village and the Fort Ancient Tradition in Ohio.  Kent State University Press, Kent.

 

Prufer, O.H., and N.L. Wright

1970 The Welling Site (33Co-2): A Fluted Point Workshop in Coshocton County, Ohio.  Ohio Archaeologist 20(4):259-268.

 

Prufer, O.H., S.E. Pedde, and R.S. Meindl, eds. 

2001 Archaic Transitions in Ohio & Kentucky Prehistory.  Kent State University Press, Kent.

 

Schambach, F.F.

1971 Review of Blain Village.  American Anthropologist 73(6):1402-1404.

 

Spurlock, L.B., O.H. Prufer, and T.R. Pigott, eds.

2006 Caves and Culture: 10000 Years of Ohio History.  Kent State University Press, Kent.

 

Willey, G. R. and P. Phillips

1958 Method and Theory in American Archaeology.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

 

 

 
 
 

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