Obituary: James L. Swauger / Associate director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History

Nov. 1, 1913 - Dec. 18, 2005

Share with others:


Print Email Read Later

James L. Swauger's cheerful, informal manner, meticulous research and ability to organize mountains of information served him well as associate director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where he worked for 44 years.

  
James L. Swauger

A handsome, neatly dressed man with a crew cut of snow white hair, Mr. Swauger seemed ageless, said John Rawlins, associate curator of invertebrate zoology at the museum. Mr. Swauger died of pneumonia Sunday at a nursing facility in Johnston, R.I. He was 92.

Mr. Swauger, who excavated Fort Pitt and Fort Duquesne at Point State Park, is best known for reviving the study of anthropology at the museum in the 1950s, said David Watters, the museum's curator of anthropology and section head.

"From about 1908 until about 1948, anthropology really didn't exist as a discipline here," Mr. Watters said.

In the 1950s, Mr. Swauger obtained a six-year grant from a local foundation that allowed him to hire two archaeologists, Bill Mayer-Oakes and Don Dragoo. The two men's research was published in a major book on the archaeology of Western Pennsylvania as well as an important monograph.

"That still is the foundation upon which all archaeologists working in this region measure and compare their results," said Jim Richardson, a curator of anthropology.

Mr. Swauger, Mr. Richardson said, "was never really trained as an anthropologist but he certainly learned on the job. He was really good at it, too," adding that his colleague kept meticulous records.

"His archives are incredible. Even with the Upper Ohio Valley program, he made sure that Dragoo and Mayer-Oakes made notes of when they saw somebody, what time of day it was. Today, when you look back at these archives, they are so precise that you don't really have to ask many questions," Mr. Richardson said.

Mr. Swauger wrote nearly 50 publications, including several books, about petroglyphs, a mysterious form of art carved on rocks by Native Americans. He documented petroglyphs in the Upper Ohio Valley and the northeastern United States.

During the 1950s, Mr. Swauger worked on excavations in Point State Park.

"They were basically looking for the outlines of the forts to reconstruct them," Mr. Richardson said, adding that "They got the outline of Fort Pitt and they reconstructed it."

Mr. Swauger thought he had uncovered Fort Duquesne when the excavation revealed burned posts, but a live electrical wire in nearby water prevented him from doing anymore work, Mr. Richardson said.

During the 1960s, Mr. Swauger participated in the excavation of Tel Ashdod, an ancient city in Israel that was a center of power for the Philistines.

"Our whole family would go and spend the summer. It was a terrific experience as a kid. I was 5 the first time we went," recalled Amy Swauger of New York City. One of the older layers found in the Israeli excavation revealed a thick level that dated to 3,000 B.C.

During his tenure as associate museum director from 1965 to 1975, Mr. Swauger established a visiting scholars program that attracted scientists, museum educators and exhibit builders from around the world to Pittsburgh. Ms. Swauger said her father was especially proud of starting the program.

A native of West Newton, Mr. Swauger lived in Edgewood for much of his life. He graduated from Turtle Creek Union High Schoolin 1930.

In 1935, he joined the staff of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, working as an assistant in archaeology and ethnology and later as a curator. He earned a bachelor's degree in zoology from the University of Pittsburgh in 1941.

In 1942, Mr. Swauger was drafted by the U.S. Army and attended officer's candidate school. He landed on Utah Beach in September of 1944. By that following January he was a first lieutenant and carefully recorded his wartime experience as an anti-aircraft artillery officer in Europe in diaries and photographs.

For his family and army buddies, he wrote a memoir called "My Life as a Dog," a reference to the D Battery in which he served. He was a captain in the Army Reserves through 1955.

After the war, Mr. Swauger returned to the museum and also earned a master's degree in history at Pitt in 1947.

While serving as associate director, Mr. Swauger also took his own time to organize the museum's insect collection and created a large card file.

"He kind of single-handedly began poking away at organizing it. He would see a massive challenge or a giant mountain, enough for 20 people to do, and he would leap right in," Mr. Rawlins recalled.

Besides his daughter, Mr. Swauger is also survived by one son, John Swauger of New York City; another daughter, Deborah Handsman of Warwick, R.I.; four grandchildren; and three great-grandsons.

Mr. Swauger was cremated and no funeral was held. The family requests memorials to the James L. Swauger Memorial Fund, Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Section of Anthropology, 4400 Forbes Ave., Pittsburgh 15213.


Marylynne Pitz can be reached at mpitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1648.


You have 2 remaining free articles this month

Try unlimited digital access

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here

You’ve reached the limit of free articles this month.

To continue unlimited reading

If you are an existing subscriber,
link your account for free access. Start here