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John Witthoft Papers


Held at: University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives [Contact Us]3260 South Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 19104-6324

This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.

Overview and metadata sections

John Witthoft was born the eldest of four siblings on October 4, 1921 in Oneonta, New York to Henry John and Janet Lucey Witthoft. When Witthoft was five years old, he became an avid reader. At age six, he was expelled from Catholic elementary school for arguing with the nuns about evolution. Shortly thereafter, he developed scarlet fever and remained quarantined for six months in the attic, where he read western novels to pass the time. The scarlet fever left Witthoft with extreme nearsightedness and tremors in his hands for the rest of his life. After he returned from isolation, Witthoft was told that his illness was related to his argument with the nuns. As a result of this accusation, Witthoft denounced the church.

Witthoft began traveling and working odd jobs to help support his siblings and himself, since his mother refused to accommodate anyone who forsook the faith. At age 13, he joined the New York Archaeological Society, and was encouraged by Percy Van Epp to pursue archaeology. Throughout high school, he worked in the used bookstore of Samuel Lockridge that sold manuscripts and rare books. In 1944, Witthoft received a Bachelors Degree in Biology and English from the State University of New York, Albany. He then finished his Masters Degree in Anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania two years later. He was one of the last students of Frank Speck, who developed the Department of Anthropology.

His teaching skills were first employed in 1942, when he became a Student-Instructor at New York State. In 1945-46, he served as an Army Specialized Training Program Instructor in Japanese language and culture.

In 1945, Witthoft married Jean Fischer and they had three children. They later divorced and Witthoft raised two of the children himself. He remarried in 1966 and his second wife died in 1969. In 1973 he married Bonita Freeman, who shared his interest in anthropology. In 1991, they adopted two children from Guatemala.

From 1948 to 1966, Witthoft worked at the Pennsylvania State Museum in Harrisburg while serving as State Archeologist, Chief Curator, and State Anthropologist. In 1966, he became part of the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in the Anthropology Department, and retired from this position in 1986. Witthoft had a strong interest in Native Americans and their ethnohistory, and spoke out for Native American rights. He enjoyed doing fieldwork, but this was cut short after some medical problems with his back.

Witthoft died in 1993 due to heart failure.

The papers of John Witthoft consist of 0.2 linear feet of correspondence, unpublished manuscripts, and teaching materials. They cover a small period of time from 1963-1974. These papers were recovered from classroom number 329 of the Anthropology Department of the University of Pennsylvania. They had apparently been left there after Witthoft retired in 1986, but were not examined until 2010, seventeen years after his death. The material transferred consisted mainly of books and reprints. The few papers deemed significant do not seem to have a designated order or much importance toward's John Witthoft's works, though they do give glimpses into his personal life. The papers are divided into three series: Correspondence, Manuscripts, and Teaching Materials.

The correspondence consists of a variety of letters, sorted into chronological order. Three manuscripts were recovered from the papers, one of which has been attributed to Witthoft, but has no author has been listed. The teaching materials comprise mainly syllabi and one exam for courses taught by Witthoft at the university.

These records do not comprise the entirety of John Witthoft's career. The archives staffs assumes that the majority of the records may be with his widow, Bonita Freeman Witthoft.

A related collection in the Museum Archive are the records of John Witthoft and Frank Speck's expedition to the Cherokee in 1946.

University of Pennsylvania: Penn Museum Archives
Finding Aid Author
Finding aid prepared by Zach Rubin

Collection Inventory

Series Description

The correspondence series consists of letters to John Witthoft during a short period of his career from 1968-1974, organized chronologically. The most notable of these are four letters from John Pfeiffer in June 1968. In these letters, Pfeiffer discusses his upcoming book on Anthropology, which Witthoft seems to have a hand in editing. Pfeiffer also discusses other topics relevant to their field, such as flint typology and primate evolution, and criticizes the work of Louis Binford, calling him “an angry young man.” Another letter found addressed to Dr. Froelich Rainey in April 1969, discusses investigations of the Calico Hills. Three letters were found expressing gratitude to Witthoft, thanking him for using his knowledge to speak at a Lenape Land Association meeting, assemble a spear- and arrowhead collection for schoolchildren, and help with research concerning catlinite pipes. Finally, there are several letters and postcards from Witthoft’s close friends and children.

Physical Description

1 folder

Correspondence 1967-1974.
Box 1

North American Archaeology Exhibit.
Box 1
Notes on North American Lithics.
Box 1

Series Description

The manuscripts series consists of three papers (one unpublished) by or attributed to John Witthoft from 1963-1967, each in its own folder, arranged alphabetically by title. The first, “The Curves of Time,” is attributed to John Witthoft although no name is given. It was presented at the 1963 Annual Meeting of the Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology. The second, “Notes of the Archaic Cultures of the Appalachian Mountain Region,” was printed in “The Bulletin,” published by the New York State Archaeological Association, though no date is given. The final article is an incomplete preliminary draft of a paper entitled “The Primitive Metallurgy of Native North America,” co-written with Frances Eyman in August 1967.

Notes on North American Skin Dressing and Tanning 1958.
Box 1
The Curves of Time 1963.
Box 1
Notes on the Archaic Culture of the Appalachian Mountain Region.
Box 1
The Primative Metallurgy of Native North America 1967.
Box 1
Fire Clay Ms. 1952.
Box 1
"Technology of the Calico Site".
Box 1
"Dying American Speech-Echoes from Connecticut" n.d. [Annotations by F.G.Speck].
Box 1

Series Description

The teaching materials series consists of syllabi prepared by John Witthoft for his Anthropology classes at the University of Pennsylvania from 1967-1974, arranged chronologically. These also include reference sheets and bibliography. There is also one mid-term exam, of which there are two copies: one blank, and one with an answer key.

Syllabi and Exam, 1967-1974.
Box 1

Print, Suggest