Dr. John Schelberg is a product of his upbringing. The son of a nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, he has always been interested in working on important causes that go beyond his self-interest. And having grown up in the American West, he has always felt a strong connection and attraction to the unique and beautiful terrain of the region. These influences would eventually lead Dr. Schelberg to a career as an archaeologist, and like his father, he used his job in government to help make history, unlocking the mysteries of one of the most significant historic sites in the world.
After serving for three years in the U. S. Army and while undertaking graduate studies in archaeology, Dr. Schelberg was employed by the National Park Service’s Chaco Project. Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between AD 850 and 1250. It was a hub of ceremony, trade and administration for the prehistoric Four Corners area—unlike anything before or since. The Chacoan cultural sites represent a significant part of America’s cultural heritage, and are also extremely fragile and irreplaceable.
Before this project, Chaco Canyon had never been systematically surveyed. John participated in this historic survey and excavation over a ten-year period, and, in the process, he helped set a national standard for the recording, analysis and protection of cultural sites as well as the larger landscapes in which they are embedded. In 1987, this pioneering work led to Chaco Canyon being recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site—one of only 18 such sites in the United States. These efforts have made a major contribution to our knowledge of the history of the American Southwest, and to the protection and conservation of large numbers of sites for future generations.
Dr. Schelberg’s next endeavor took on a new emphasis: to document and protect cultural resources as an archaeologist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Albuquerque District. In this capacity, he was responsible for initiating and overseeing archaeological survey, excavation and management plans for the District’s civil works projects throughout New Mexico, Colorado and Texas, as well as for other Department of Defense agencies, Department of Justice, Bureau of Indian Affairs and Department of Energy. Foremost among these projects was work associated with the closure of Fort Wingate Army Depot. Dr. Schelberg led a comprehensive survey of 19,000 acres which revealed more than 600 archaeological sites and ethnographic documentation of the historic use of the Wingate area by the Navajo and Zuni people. John also served on a task force charged with planning and implementing government-to-government relations between the Army Corps of Engineers and Federally Recognized Tribes within the Albuquerque District.
John’s active role in mentoring young professionals has also made a lasting contribution to heritage management and protection by developing a culture of professionalism in both historic preservation and archaeology. He continues to participate in activities that teach the public about the value of these resources and knowledge derived from their study.
Beyond the United States, archaeologists and heritage professionals have made extensive use of the analytical and theoretical approaches advocated by John throughout his career. While the value of his contributions can be appreciated by current and future generations in the United States, they also serve as a model for cultural heritage approaches worldwide.
Not enough people remain loyal to their true passions and interests when making their career choices. Dr. John Schelberg remained true to himself and his own personal heritage, and it shows in the high quality of his work that has taught all Americans more about our common heritage.