Photo Credit: Geoff Welch.
By Steve Sears
Edward Lenik’s resume lists a wealth of business and archaeological experience, especially relating to his love of archaeology and American Indian rock art. He has taught at four colleges, served on landmark and historical commissions, authored a number of books and pamphlets.
However, to Lenik, who is a listed in the Registry of Professional Archaeologists, nothing is more important than the thrill of the “find.” “You have to also tell them (youngsters) they have a responsibility,” he says when asked what aspiring archaeologists need to know. “Finding an artifact out of context is meaningless. You have to be able to tell where you found it, what does it mean, what does it tell you, who left it there, why did they leave it there, how was it made…all these questions come to mind that are just wonderful and thrilling. If you’ve got any sense of adventure, archaeology is the way to go.”
Lenik, who grew up in Passaic, (“My family was immigrants, and the first 18 years of my life I lived in a three-room, cold water flat. That gives you some idea of my beginnings”) remembers the year and spot he found his first artifact. “In 1960 – that was the real break in my outlook and career. I joined the West Milford Township Historical Society. I was always interested in local history and they were meeting at that time. One of the members was James Norman; he was a postmaster in Newfoundland. There was a newspaper article that said they were going to conduct an archaeological excavation on the Pequannock River in West Milford of an 18th century ironworks.”
Lenik attended the first meeting, met Norman, inquired about volunteering for the dig, and Norman included him. He showed up on the first day of the excavation, and Norman stated that the group had to establish the original floor level of the original ironworks building, a structure adjacent to the river. The site had originally been built in 1762, 198 years prior. Lenik found it intriguing, trying to find the remains of a 1762 iron furnace. Norman asked him to dig a square and be very careful. “We were all amateurs,” recalls Lenik vividly, “and I had never excavated anything before in my life.” After sifting soil for a short while, Lenik reached dark, black soil that turned out to be charcoal, and in there he found a piece of iron. “My first artifact. Oh boy. Was I thrilled!” Lenik brushed off the 8’ piece of rusted cast iron and showed Norman. “I said to him, ‘Look at this – it looks like there’s a number 2 cast into the top of it.”
Norman’s response was lackadaisical. “Ah, okay…I’m glad you found something.”
However, what Lenik had excavated was of great importance. “About a week later I get a telephone call from him (Norman). ‘Hey Ed,’ he said, ‘I cleaned off that artifact you found. I brushed it off and cleaned it pretty good and got the rust off, and guess what? It wasn’t any number 2 on there. What was cast into the top of it was the date 1770!’”
“Talk about beginner’s luck,” says Lenik with a chuckle. “After several years of digging, that was the best artifact found at that site.” The artifact is now part of the archives of the North Jersey Highlands Historical Society, the successor organization to the original West Milford group. Lenik currently serves as a trustee.
Call him an archeologist, rock art (Indian carvings and symbols and pictures on rocks) expert, or label him a historian, the 86-year-old Lenik answers to all those titles.
Lenik’s older brother, who was ten years his senior, loved the outdoors, and he would take his younger sibling hiking in the woods. “That’s how I really got started. I loved the outdoors, and whenever I could with whatever time I had available, I would go and hike and learn the culture and history of various areas. That’s how it developed; that was my beginning.” He reflects further. “To get away from a three-room, cold water flat into an atmosphere of beautiful trees and brush and animals and things like that, that was a joy. We played on the streets, I also lived very close to the Passaic River – I also swam in the Passaic River when I was a kid. Boy, that got me going.”
Lenik, currently a member of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in Rutherford, got his B.A. in Psychology, worked a job to support his family for many years, all while volunteering as an archaeologist to further learn his craft. He then went back to school and received his M.A. in Anthropology from New York University in 1987, left his job, and started his own cultural resource management firm, Sheffield Archaeological Consultants, which he ran for a number of years until he retired.
Lenik’s books have primarily centered around American Indians and their carvings on bedrock surfaces and artifacts, especially here on the east coast. “Occasionally an artifact would show up that would show some symbolism on it, but no overall study was done,” he says. Lenik embarked on that study, trying to document Indian rock art in the northeastern part of the United States. “I did that and published, Picture Rocks: American Indian Rock Art in the Northeast Woodlands.” Published (in 2002) by the University Press of New England, the book covered the states of New England, the Atlantic part of Canada, New York and New Jersey. “For an academic exercise, it was quite a hit. It had never been done before. Quite frankly, right now, it’s the bible for Indian rock art in the northeast.”
Among Lenik’s other books are 2011’s Ramapough Mountain Indians: People, Places and Cultural Traditions, Lost Arrowheads and Broken Pottery. A History of Native Americans in Bear Mountain State Park (2010) and Making Pictures in Stone: American Indian Rock Art of the Northeast, published in 2009. His first book, Indians in the Ramapos, was published by the North Jersey Highlands Historical Society in 2000.
Lenik is currently working on three books simultaneously, all in various stages of production. “My final book about the Ramapough Mountain Indian people, the manuscript is complete, and it’s in the hands of a book designer right now who is doing the layout work, editing, and putting in illustrations. Once that’s done, that should be published by the end of August this year. The second book is a rock art book, again on the northeast with new finds I have uncovered with petroglyphs sites in various states in the northeast – that’s in the working stage. The third book that I’m almost finished with is the pictographs and petroglyphs of Pennsylvania. I will be asking the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission if they would be interested in publishing that.”
“I have a lot to do.”
Lenik, who claims that archeologists never look up, but always down (“Well, that’s how you find stuff,” he exclaims) has never been a true collector, his finds passed on to other eager hands. “I used to walk the fields of the Wanaque Reservoir,” he recalls. “In the 1960s we had a severe drought, and you could see the actual riverbed. I got permission from the water company to walk the area and began to find what people call arrowheads today, and other Indian stone tools, so I did collect initially. Once I learned what archaeology was all about and did it professionally, I was never a collector after that.” He pauses, then continues, “I gave the arrowheads to my kids. They have them,” he adds with a laugh.
In addition to his writing, among Lenik’s current activities is hiking, quite a challenge since he had a recent hip surgery, but that births another interesting tidbit. Many years ago, Lenik started an annual yearly activity he called a New Year’s Day hike. “It was unheard of in the area. I started that 36 years ago and today every organization is doing it.” The 2018 hike was to Campagaw Reservation (in Mahwah). 2019 hiking spots are still under consideration.
Per Lenik, you interest people in topics by giving a lot of lectures, which he does regularly. “Books are nice and people are interested,” he says, but then adds with rising voice, “but when you are before a group and if you’ve got the enthusiasm, and you describe what you find – I mean, that fact that you can dig into the ground and come up with an artifact no one has seen for thousands of years, an Indian arrowhead, an axe or other stone tools for example, how thrilling that can be!”