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Wade Catts’ UD education prepared him for a successful 40-year career as a historian and archaeologist.
Many kids love
digging in the dirt looking for lost treasures. Some, like University of
Delaware alumnus Wade Catts, never grow out of it.
Catts, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 1981 and master’s degree
in 1988, is an internationally recognized historian and historical
archaeologist. His career in cultural resource management has spanned
more than four decades. During 2022, he was the principal investigator
for a public archaeological project at Red Bank Battlefield National
Park in Gloucester County, New Jersey. It was the site of the 1777
Revolutionary War battle between German Hessian soldiers fighting for
the British against American forces. The dig led to the discovery of a
mass burial space that has captured media attention around the world.
Everything that led up to this remarkable discovery can be traced
back to Catts’ UD training. His Blue Hen roots run deep. He and his
wife, Lynn Riley, a class of 1990 graduate, are Double Dels, and his
family’s expansive UD legacy goes back several generations to his
grandfather (class of 1918). His father, the late Dr. E. Paul Catts,
Jr., was an alumnus and professor of entomology and applied ecology.
“My UD education gave me a solid basis in American history that I
continue to draw on,” said Catts. “My hands-on training in the field was
just as important as spending time in the UD Libraries and University
Archives. It’s important to get the full picture of a historical event
by studying the documents in addition to objects under the ground.”
While in graduate school, Catts worked at UD’s Center for
Archaeological Research and gained experience at historical sites
throughout the Delaware region. During his professional archaeology
career, he has helped change the traditional interpretation of several
famous Revolutionary War battles. Notably, Catts’ findings at Princeton
Battlefield State Park in Princeton, New Jersey, rotated the location of
the battlefield 90 degrees based on excavated cannon and musket balls
and validated by first-person accounts.
“You do background research and have a general sense of what you’re
going to find, but there’s always the excitement of discovery,” he said.
“It’s fun putting all the pieces together and balancing different
interpretations. Sometimes you even argue against yourself. You can’t
deny the physical evidence and it must be explained somehow. It’s a lot
The fourth day in a series of public archaeological days at the Red
Bank Battlefield project took place in the summer of 2022. Catts worked
alongside Jennifer Janofsky, director of Red Bank Battlefield Park and
Rowan University public historian, in addition to other professional
archaeologists, West Chester University Archaeology Field School
students, Rowan students and volunteers. No one in the group thought
they would discover human remains that were 245 years old.
The site of the dig was a trench that surrounded the formidable
man-made Fort Mercer barrier at the north end of the park. It was there
on Oct. 22, 1777, that Hessian soldiers fought for the British Crown in a
45-minute assault that resulted in a nearly 25% loss for the German
brigade — one of the most significant upsets in the Revolutionary War.
Using ground-penetrating radar and metal detection prior to
excavation, Catts expected to find objects at the bottom of the trench
associated with the abandonment of the fort. Instead, his team found
fired musket balls, grape and canister shot, and surprisingly, a nearly
pristine and incredibly rare 1766 King George III gold guinea. A little
over a month’s pay for the average Hessian soldier, Catts’ current
interpretation is that it belonged to a commanding officer.
“It was one of the most remarkable objects I’ve ever found,” Catts
said. “At that point, it was a career highlight, and I was happy. But
there’s an old adage in archaeology that you always find the most
amazing object in the last hour of the project and that’s exactly what
On the last day of the dig, the team decided to expand the radius of
the excavation site. Upon doing so, they were shocked to discover what
appeared to be a human femur. The scope of the project was immediately
and drastically altered. New Jersey State Police Forensic Anthropologist
Anna Delaney was called to the site to confirm the finding was from a
By the end of the fieldwork in August 2022, Catts and his colleagues
meticulously recovered about 15 sets of human remains believed to be
Hessian soldiers. All were careful in handling delicate bones but were
also deeply aware of the sensitivity and magnitude of what they found.
“In the 1770s, the Hessian army was one of the best in Europe. Now,
we have a real opportunity to look at the humanity of these young men,”
said Catts. “We want to extract everything — pathologies, diet, stature,
age, sex — we can to get to know who these individuals were. Maybe we
can provide closure to families that didn’t even know they needed
Researchers have been in contact with the German Embassy and the
remains have since been turned over to the New Jersey State Police
Forensic Unit. There, forensic anthropologists are currently conducting
lab analysis with the hope of using DNA testing to identify the Hessian
soldiers’ ancestors. They are also examining several objects recovered
at the site, including tracing blood residue found on musket balls.
“We have this view of the American Revolution as this glorious,
wonderful event with the image of George Washington crossing the
Delaware River. But it was a brutal, nasty war,” Catts said. “The
evidence we found was very sobering. I think we would be in a much
different place as a country if people really understood American
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Article by Tiffany Hess-Bennette, photo courtesy of Rowan University Published December 13, 2022