By: Jessica Cieslewicz
Max Schrabisch was one of New Jersey’s first professional Archaeologists. He was a German immigrant born on March 1st, 1869. He attended the University of Berlin and later the University of Munich where he obtained a master-of-arts degree. After Schrabisch came to America while in his twenties, he moved to Paterson, NJ. He was a linguist fluent in 5 languages including Greek and Latin. He also had the gift of music; he would often play the piano and teach music to others as part-time work. He was never married and has no known descendants. Despite the fact that Schrabisch wrote extensively, including archaeological surveys, books, and hundreds of newspaper articles, we know little about his personal life. However, we can assume that he had a passion for prehistoric Native American sites and artifacts because of his published works. Max Schrabisch passed away on October 27th of 1949, leaving his mark in the archaeological world where much of his research is still cited today.
Known today for his published surveys of Native American sites, Max Schrabisch recorded thousands of prehistoric sites in northern New Jersey and areas nearby in Pennsylvania and New York. Although his techniques could be labeled as primitive by today’s standards, it certainly did not limit his ability to publish his work prolifically. Even before the states started sponsoring any efforts to explore sites of the first Americans, he was recording archaeological sites within the tristate area. His first major article, “Indian Rockshelters in Northern New Jersey and Southern New York,” was published in 1909 in The Indians of Greater New York and the Lower Hudson, part of the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History series. Schrabisch’s work documents the abundance of prehistoric sites that were uncovered in the region. He also wrote 3 bulletins which were published in the Geological Survey of New Jersey between the years 1913 and 1917. Bulletin 9, co-authored, by Alanson Skinner is an Archaeological survey of the entire state of New Jersey. Bulletin 13 focuses on Indian Habitation in Sussex County and bulletin 18 examines the archaeology in Warren and Hunterdon Counties. Schrabisch was one of the first to recognize the importance of rock shelters and he was good at finding them. He expressed his interests in rockshelters by stating,
“To one fond of prying into the mysteries of the past the exploration of an aboriginal rock shelter is a most fascinating undertaking. To such a one these places are invested with an irresistible charm, for it is here, on the well-defined space underneath the rock, that he fancies to come nearer to the Redman and to enter into greater intimacy with him.” — (Bulletin 13, 1915: 20)
It has been suggested by Richard Veit (2002:69), that Schrabisch’s interests in rock shelters could have stemmed from archaeological digs in France and Germany where the remains of Neanderthals were being found along with stone tools that are tens of thousands of years old; perhaps Schrabisch hoped to find something similar here in America.
While Max Schrabisch could usually be found searching for sites that contained prehistoric lifeways, he also spent time conducting historical archaeology for the remains of General Knox’s artillery park from the Revolutionary War. General Knox was a part of the Continental Army and was known as Washington’s artillery chief. Grant Schley, a wealthy landowner from Pluckemin, NJ, retained Schrabisch to search for and later excavate the remains of the park. Schrabisch spent nearly three months between 1916 and 1917 unearthing soldier’s huts that contained fire pits, nails, pottery, and other objects from the daily lives of soldiers that included buttons, food remains, and even a flagstaff. One of the more significant finds was the possible blacksmith shop. There were ox and horse shoes, nails, hooks, and a lot of iron found in the area. It is also possible that the location could have been a workshop where armorers did their repairs for guns and prepped the munitions. Whatever the case, Schrabisch kept little documentation of the artillery park which might suggest a lack of interest in the historic site.
The majority of Schrabisch’s writings and work pertains to prehistoric Native American sites. The Lenape, also known as the Delaware Indians, lived in areas of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, and Delaware. Their ancestors have lived in New Jersey for more than ten thousand years. They had many names such as the Raritans or Aquackanoncks, depending on what area of New Jersey they lived in. They began as mobile hunters and gathers but over time the groups tended to settle more and more. One significant example of Schrabisch’s finds was the Owen’s Cave, a rockshelther, which is located near the town of Vernon on the Wallkill River. These rockshelters were generally used by the Lenape for hunting and fishing camps. He suggested that they were short-term camps that were passed down from hunter to hunter. Pieces of cord-marked pottery, projectile points, flint chips, and other objects were found throughout the rockshelter (Bulletin 13, 1915:70-73). Schrabisch also unearthed the stump of an iron blade of European manufacture with a deer horn handle which would suggest that the Lenape traded with the Europeans. Ultimately, he considered this site significant because bone fragments, most likely animal for the making of tools and weapons, had been found. Schrabisch stated in his work that “the occurrence of bone implements here is unique and places this shelter in a class by itself compared to the others of the county.” (Bulletin 13, 1915: 73) This is because bone is organic and usually decomposes, therefore, not lasting long.
Max Schrabisch’s legacy lives on in New Jersey archaeology. His surveys for the State Geological Survey are frequently referenced and cited by archaeologists. The New Jersey State Museum houses numerous collections from his excavations. In fact, 91 of the first 105 collections are attributed to Schrabisch. These artifacts will continue to be used by researchers and educators to teach visitors about how prehistoric people lived in New Jersey, far into the future.
Dupont, Ron. “Vernon History: The Indian Cave at Owen’s,” The Record, (Woodland, NJ), October 3, 2013.
Lenik, Edward. Max Schrabisch: Rockshelter Archaeologist, Wayne: Wayne Township Historical Commission, 1998.
*(Includes an annotated Schrabisch bibliography)
Schrabisch, Max. “Indian Rockshelters in Northern New Jersey and Southern New York.” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History: The Indians of Greater New York and the Lower Hudson. Ed. Clark Wissler. New York: Order of the Trustees, 1909. Vol. 3, 141-165.
–“A Preliminary Report of the Archaeological Survey of the State of New Jersey.” Geological Survey of New Jersey. Bulletin 9. Trenton: MacCrellish & Quigley Co, State Printers, 1913.
–“Indian Habitations in Sussex County New Jersey.” Geological Survey of New Jersey. Bulletin 13. Union Hill: Dispatch Printing Co, 1915.
–“Archaeology of Warren and Hunterdon Counties.” Reports of the Department of Conservation and Development, State of New Jersey. Bulletin 18. Trenton: MacCrellish & Quigley Co, State Printers 1917.
–Archaeology of Delaware River Valley between Hancock and Dingman’s Ferry in Wayne and Pike Counties. Vol. 1. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical Society, 1930.
Veit, Richard. Digging New Jersey’s Past: Historical Archaeology in the Garden State, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002.
Woll, Stephan. “Following in the Tracks of Paterson Archaeologist Max Schrabisch,” Paterson Times, (Paterson, NJ), May 25, 2015.