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Gradwohl, David Mayer

Published onJul 30, 2021
Gradwohl, David Mayer

(January 22, 1934 - March 10, 2022)

Quick Facts

Archaeologist, instructor to professor of Anthropology (1962-1994), professor emeritus (1994), founding Director of the Iowa State University Archaeological Laboratory, and poet.

The second son of Bernard Sam Gradwohl and Elaine Mayer Gradwohl, David was born and grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. After graduating from the University of Nebraska with majors in Anthropology and Geology, David went on to post-graduate work at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. Subsequently, he married Hanna Rosenberg, a German refugee he met in Lincoln when they were toddlers. He served with the U.S. Army in Germany prior to completing his PhD in Anthropology at Harvard.

David began his professional life in Iowa in 1962 when he became the first person hired to teach full time in anthropology at ISU. He designed the undergraduate major in anthropology and was major professor for the first student writing an MA thesis in anthropology (John D. Reynolds, 1970). David was Professor in Charge of Anthropology from 1968 to 1975. In addition to classes in cultural anthropology, archaeology, physical anthropology, and American Indian Studies, he also instructed students in laboratory conservation techniques and the theory and construction of museum displays. One of these students, Jerome Thompson, went on to become the Director of Iowa's State Historical Museum. David has served as curator of several museum exhibitions in Iowa, and consulted on the creation of new museums in the state, most notably the African American Museum in Cedar Rapids and the Iowa Jewish Historical Society Museum in Waukee. Over the years, David has served as Chair of the Association of Iowa Archaeologists, member of the Office of the State Archaeologist Advisory Committee, and Iowa's National Register of Historic Sites and Places Nominating Committee.

David's summer archaeological field schools and weekend field exercises, which he ran in Red Rock and Saylorville reservoirs from 1964 through 1993, are legend. His hands-on tutelage resulted in the training of many future professional archaeologists and anthropologists — four of whom went on to become State Archaeologists, two Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, as well as public highway archaeologists, National Park Service archaeologists, and university professors. In 1969 the National Park Service called upon David and his graduate students to assist in the documentation and excavation of the Bertrand, a Civil-War-era sternwheeler steamboat that sank in the Missouri River on the Iowa-Nebraska border. David's crews excavated other historic Iowa sites — notably the stoneware pottery industry of the 1860s-1880s. He was on the "cutting edge" of fostering the idea that the archaeology of historic sites was as important as the exploration of prehistoric sites in understanding Iowa's past. David's long time interest in Iowa's Native American inhabitants — both prehistoric and present-day — drew him to Iowa. Not only was he a pioneer in his professional field documenting where and how Native Iowans had lived and how they had made their living "in the land between two rivers" over centuries, but he continues to work tirelessly as an advocate and friend to present-day Native Americans. He co-founded and chaired ISU's American Indian Studies Program, and served as the first faculty advisor to ISU's United Native American Student Association and its American Indian Rights Organization. He was a co-founder of the American Indian Symposium and Lectures held annually at ISU since 1971. In recognition of their work with American Indians, David and Hanna were formally adopted into the Turtle Clan of the Yankton Nation by the late Maria Pearson, a strong advocate for Native American rights and the first Chairperson of Iowa's American Indian Advisory Committee.

In collaboration with his colleague, Nancy Osborn Johnsen, David explored the archaeological and ethnohistorical dimensions of the early-20th-century Buxton community — an amalgam of African-Americans and Euro-American immigrants whose common economic purpose was mining Iowa's coal. Their research resulted in the publication of a popular book, a chapter in Outside-In: African American History in Iowa, 1838-2000, several journal articles, and media teaching resources for Iowa's public and private schools.

In addition to maintaining these research interests, David has devoted attention to the Jewish historical presence in Iowa. With the assistance of Hanna, he has been documenting the settlement and cultural identities maintained by Jews in the tangible form of gravestones within Midwestern cemeteries. He is a charter member of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society, served on its Board of Directors, and contributed to the IJHS newsletter, The CHAIowan. In 1998 David was the curator of an exhibit in the Iowa Historical Museum entitled "Unpacking on the Prairie: The Iowa Story," adjunct to a traveling exhibit from the State Historical Society of Minnesota, "Unpacking on the Prairie: Jewish Women in the Upper Midwest Since 1855."

Throughout his life David has been a prolific writer on a wide array of subjects, with books, journal articles, editorials, and book reviews, as well as published poetry to his credit. He and Hannah resided in Ames.

Gradwohl passed away in March of 2022 while visiting family.

Selected Sources

The following selected publications reflect the range of David's research and contain bibliographies of many other sources: David Mayer Gradwohl, "From Turin to 2002: Reflections on My Career in Iowa Archaeology", In Always on the Edge (in the Prairie Plains): Essays in Honor of David Mayer Gradwohl, edited by Larry J. Zimmerman, Journal of the Iowa Archeological Society 50: 11-50 (2003). David Mayer Gradwohl, "Accidental Plains Archeologist: Neither Courage Nor Naiveté?", The Kansas Anthropologist 18 (2): 19-43 (1997). David Mayer Gradwohl and Hanna Rosenberg Gradwohl, "That is the Pillar of Rachel's Grave Unto This Day: An Ethnoarchaeological Comparison of Two Jewish Cemeteries in Lincoln, Nebraska", In Persistence and Flexibility: Anthropological Studies of American Jewish Identities and Institutions, edited by Walter P. Zenner, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988, pages 223-259. David M. Gradwohl and Nancy M. Osborn, Exploring Buried Buxton: Archaeology of an Abandoned Iowa Coal Mining Town with a Large Black Population, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990. The Worlds Between Two Rivers: Perspectives on American Indians in Iowa, edited by Gretchen M. Bataille, David Mayer Gradwohl, and Charles L.P. Silet, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.

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