Ruth DeEtte “Dee” Simpson, an archeologist for the Southwest Museum in Highland Park and later the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, has died. She was 81.
Simpson, who excavated prehistoric tools and other artifacts in Arizona and California’s Mojave Desert, was also director of the Calico Early Man Archeological Site. She died Jan. 19 in Redlands after a series of strokes, said project acting director Fred E. Budinger Jr.
The archeologist had guided the Calico project, which is on the National Register of Historical Places, from its inception in 1964. The site is near Yermo, Calif., about 140 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
As a curator at the Southwest Museum, Simpson became interested in the Calico area in the 1940s when a dairy farmer named Ritner Sayles brought her some rocks he thought bore the marks of man. Simpson agreed.
She began collecting some of the curious surface rocks from the area and took samples to London to consult European scientists. There she interested archeologist and paleoanthropologist Louis S.B. Leakey in the Calico site. He came to California to do preliminary surveys, and served as the project director from 1964 until his death in 1972. Simpson, who always ran the field operations, then assumed his title.
Over the years, Simpson, volunteers and a handful of paid assistants unearthed about 60,000 rocks which she believed to be man-made tools created 50,000 to 200,000 years ago.
“We have about 1,000 really good pieces, tools of mint quality,” Simpson told The Times in 1990 as she directed volunteers in sorting, classifying and analyzing the picks, axes, anvils, hammer stones, cutting implements and other tools.
“Some of the tools made of chalcedony, chert, jasper and siliceous limestone resemble similar tools found in China, Korea and Siberia,” she said. Simpson, characteristically seen in jeans, khaki work shirt and pith helmet, theorized that the site yielding the trove had been a prehistoric stone-tool workshop, quarry and camp for early man.
Other scientists have disputed her claims, arguing that the tools were in fact merely rocks shaped by nature, and that firmly validated evidence supports man’s presence in the Western Hemisphere for only for the past 10,000 to 12,000 years.
Richard S. Golden of the State Lands Department said in a tribute to Simpson in 1973 that, despite the controversy among scientists, “the work at Calico Mountains has been meticulous, tremendously industrious and scrupulous.”
Educated at USC, Simpson first worked as curator at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, where she conducted research on the Mogollon Rim of Arizona.
During her tenure at the Southwest Museum, she worked with archeologist Mark R. Harrington on digs in Tule Springs and Gypsum Cave in Nevada, and Borax Lake and Little Lake in California.
She was curator of the San Bernardino County Museum from 1964 until her retirement in 1982, and had continued to direct the dig at Calico until her health failed.
A memorial service for Simpson is scheduled for 2 p.m. Sunday at the San Bernardino County Museum, 2024 Orange Tree Lane in Redlands.