In Memoriam: James J. Hester

In Memoriam: James J. Hester

from: The SAA Archaeological Record — September 2016, Volume 16, Number 4

Vance Haynes

I recall meeting Jim while he was a graduate assistant for Professor Frank C. Hibben at the University of New Mexico.This was in 1960, when George Agogino, also at one time a graduate assistant of Hibben, and I were investigating the geochronology of Sandia Cave. After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona in 1961, Jim went to work for the Museum of New Mexico in Santa Fe, where he worked with the director, Fred Wendorf, in pioneering the field of salvage archaeology, later to be known as Cultural Resource Management (CRM). Jim assisted Fred in forming the Society of Professional Archaeologists.

In 1962, Jim Hester became a major player in Wendorf’s Southern High Plains Paleoecology project, centered mainly in the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) of eastern New Mexico and western Texas (Wendorf and Hester 1975). That summer, I was hired by Wendorf to work as a geologist with Jim. We visited most of the Paleoindian sites and many playa lake deposits to collect samples with stratigraphic control for paleoecological studies by such specialists as Kathryn Clisby, James Schoenwetter, and Frank Oldfield studying fossil pollen, Matthew H. Holn, diatoms, Bob Slaughter, vertebrates, and Robert H. Drake, mollusks, to name a few.Our work centered on the gravel pit exposures at Blackwater Locality No. 1, the Clovis type site. The owner and miner of gravel, Sam Sanders, allowed me and Jim to camp on the property using his abandoned Airstream trailer. It became a comfortable dwelling only after we divested it of buckets full of dead moths and eolian silt.

In late November, Sam’s mining equipment exposed the skeleton of a mammoth while geologist F. Earl Green of Texas Tech University, Lubbock, was present. With the help of James M. Warnica, founder of the El Llano Archaeological Society, they were able to get Sam to stop mining in that part of the pit, while Jim, with some members of the El Llano Archaeological Society, and Earl, with a crew from Lubbock, began scientific recovery of what turned out to be the remains of five mammoths with associated Clovis artifacts (Warnica 1966) . Fred Wendorf then assigned Jim Hester to represent the State of New Mexico at the Clovis site, where Jim not only conducted excavations, but began the systematic documentation of the 1962 finds as well as those of all previous excavations back to 1934. The result is his monumental book Blackwater Locality No. 1, published in 1972.


In it he not only covers the history of all previous excavations at the site, but also adds sections on all of the artifacts known from the site at that time and includes extensive tables on the typological aspects in Appendix I and on the location, association, and date of finds in Appendix II. In Appendix III, he provides tables of the vertebrate fossil finds and their association with strata, artifacts, and other faunal elements. He includes sections by vertebrate paleontologist Ernest Lundelius, Jr. And stratigrapher Roald Fryxell, who recovered stratigraphic monolithic columns that are archived at Eastern New Mexico University (ENMU) and have yet to be studied.

I missed out on the 1962 mammoth finds because, at the recommendation of archaeologist H. Marie Wormington, I had been hired by the Nevada State Museum to study the geology of the Tule Springs site during a major effort to evaluate the archaeological and paleoecological significance of this, at the time, a probable pre-Clovis site from which Willard Libby had obtained a radiocarbon age in excess of 28,000 B.P. Whereas our work showed no evidence of pre-Clovis occupation at Tule Springs, it did provide significant paleoecological data for the Las Vegas Valley (Wormington 1967).

By the time I got back to Blackwater Draw in early 1963, the Clovis type site had come under the control of ENMU, with George Agogino in charge. Jim Hester had returned to Santa Fe, frustrated that the plundering of artifacts by some amateur individuals was beyond his control in part because some were close friends of Sam Sanders. But Jim went on to publish his indispensable tome.

Wendorf and Jim made a major effort to have the north wall part of the site set aside as a state monument by having the governor visit the spectacular display of the mammoth skeletons. Sanders had agreed to sell that part for $80,000, but the deal was not approved, so the skeletons were removed to storage at ENMU by Agogino and his student crews. Earl Green took one to Lubbock, while Sanders resumed stripping off the late Pleistocene strata to access the commercial gravels below. This exposed a spring conduit with strata containing Clovis, Folsom, and Agate Basin artifacts. Once again, Sanders held off while Earl Green and Jim Warnica salvaged what they could from the fresh exposures (Haynes and Warnica 2012).

Before the Clovis site work, Jim had published the first scientific evaluation of the time of the extinction of the Pleistocene megafauna in North America based on all available radiocarbon dates at that time (Hester 1960). He continued with the Paleoindian theme in several subsequent publications, including the contributions that 14C dating by accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) had made (Hester 1987). His study of the Elida Folsom site (Hester 1962) shows what significant information can be gleaned from a surface scatter of artifacts in a blowout when systematically collected (by Warnica in this case). He also published on the origins of the Clovis culture (Hester 1966).

Jim’s interest in Paleoindian studies continued undiminished even as he went on to other endeavors, including what, at the time, was the ultimate archaeological salvage project. This was in 1963 to help recover archaeological data from the Nile Valley in Egypt and Sudan before its flooding by construction of the Aswan High Dam. In my geoarchaeological work with Wendorf’s Combined Prehistoric Expeditions in 1974 at Nabta Playa, it was interesting to learn that Jim Hester had discovered the Neolithic sites there a decade before us (Hester and Hobler 1969). The Egyptian Antiquities Department requires all expeditions to maintain a log book in which all finds are recorded and with photographs tipped in. This huge album is taken to the field each season so recording may be accomplished at the time of discovery. In it we found Hester’s entries for 1963 when our Egyptian agent, Ahmed Hindi, showed it to us in 1974. The locality, a deflated mud flat with thousands of stone artifacts and ceramic fragments scattered about, was not called Nabta Playa at that time, only a site by number. It became a major focus of Wendorf’s field work for many decades thereafter (Wendorf and Schild 1980).

Jim’s Bedouin guide in 1963 was Ayed Marif, who happened to be our guide in 1974 and for my expeditions for many years thereafter. On my second visit to Wendorf’s camp at Bir Terfawi, an Acheulian site about 200 km west of Nabta, I was being driven there in the company of Ayed and Dr. Rushdi Said, then director of the Geological Survey of Egypt. Rushdi and Fred were classmates at Harvard in the 1950s. Rushdi had the driver go via a remote blockhouse overlooking a shallow well at Bir Nakhlai north of the border with Sudan. Three of these had been made for Anglo-Egyptian forces during the Dervish war to prevent enemy use of the few watering places that exist in this hyperarid region of the Sahara. As we climbed the rickety wood ladder to the rampart of this small doorless edifice, Ayed said that in 1963 he and Hester had found a desiccated human body inside. It was dressed in Khaki pants, and a wallet contained Algerian currency of the 1940s. There was a bullet hole in the sternum. We moved the ladder to the square hole on top so as to enter the interior but found no body. A year or so ago I asked Jim to tell me more about this situation. He said it was at the blockhouse at Bir Shep, not Nakhlai, where they found the body. He said the fact that it was dressed in Khaki pants and not a traditional Bedouin galabiyah suggested to them that the body probably was that of a Sudanese camel caravan person taking camels to a market in Egypt, and perhaps the death was the result of dissention among the ranks.

As to why Ayed told us of the body being at Bir Nakhlai instead of Bir Shep, my best guess is that it is because we were not going by Bir Shep, 30 km to the west-southwest, so he told us the story as if it took place here. The stone blockhouses are identical and that at Bir Shep is on an ancient caravan route, the Darb el Arbain or Road of Forty Days, which is still used by camel caravans, whereas Bir Nakhlai is on a route that has not been used by caravans in the twentieth century.

This was pretty close to my last conversation with Jim Hester. He is survived by his wife, Adrienne, and sons, Michael A. Allen, Frederick Randal, and John David. I will miss him dearly.

Vance Haynes Regents Professor Emeritus University of Arizona


Haynes, Caleb V., Jr., and James M. Warnica 2012 Geology, Archaeology and Climate Change in Blackwater Draw, New Mexico: F. Earl Green and the Geoarchaeology of the Clovis Type Site. Eastern New Mexico University Contributions in Anthropology 15:1–205.

Hester, James J. 1960 Late Pleistocene Extinction and Radiocarbon Dating. American Antiquity 26(1):58–77.

1962 A Folsom Lithic Complex from the Elida Site, Roosevelt County, New Mexico. El Palacio 69(2): 92–113.

1966 Origins of the Clovis Culture. Proceedings of the XXXVI International Congress of Americanists, pp. 127–138.

1972 Blackwater Locality Nol. 1:A Stratified Early Man Site in Eastern New Mexico. Fort Burgwin Research Center Southern Methodist University, pp. 1–239.

Hester, James J., and Philip M. Hobler 1969 Prehistoric Settlement Patterns in the Libyan Desert. Anthropology Papers No. 92, Nubian Ser. 4, University of Utah Press, pp. 1–174.

Warnica, James M. 1966 New Discoveries at the Clovis Site. American Antiquity 31(3):345–357.

Wendorf, Fred, and James J. Hester (editors) 1975 Late Pleistocene Environments of the Southern High Plains.
Fort Burgwin Research Center, Publication No. 9, pp. 1–290.

Wendorf, Fred, and Romauld Schild 1980 Prehistory of the Eastern Sahara. Academic Press, New York, pp. 1–414.

Wormington, H. M., and Ellis D. (editors) 1967 Pleistocene Studies in Southern Nevada. Nevada State Museum Anthropological Papers No. 13, pp. 1–411.






About George Crawford

archaeologist, archer, primitive technologist, and wannabee fiddler...mostly
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