A Fascinating Chapter on Women in Archeology:  Ann Axtell Morris at Canyon de Chelly

White House Ruin, the only one you can visit
White House Ruin, the only one you can visit

Unique and mysterious, Canyon de Chelly National Monument stands out from any other site we visited in the southwestern US. Largely spread out in broad fertile valleys below thousand-foot canyon walls, it’s been inhabited continuously for 3,500 years, longer than anywhere on the Colorado Plateau, today by the Diné of the Navajo Nation. It was surveyed by one of the world’s most famous couples—can you guess who? Its treasures were discovered by another power couple, their success credited almost entirely to him—but his wife’s incredible contributions (and places visitors aren’t allowed to see in Canyon de Chelly) will be brought to light in the film Canyon del Muerto to be released this year.

In the early days of our marriage, we were friends with an engineering colleague of Magellan’s, and his archeologist wife Pat Sutherland. I’ve never forgotten Pat telling us the story of her career choice. A book on archeology given to her by an uncle for Christmas when she was nine sparked an immediate desire to devote her life to the field. She adored Lynn, a toddler at the time, and told me that having children of her own would be incompatible with field research in the Arctic.

In 1906 at the age of six, Ann Axtell was asked by a family friend what she wanted to be when she grew up. “I want to dig for buried treasure, and explore among the Indians, and paint pictures, and wear a gun, and go to college,” was her precocious (and prescient) reply.

While studying at Smith College, where she was considered the smartest girl, Ann visited a cousin in New Mexico and met her hero, Earl Morris, the father of Southwest archaeology. Smitten with Ann, Earl would have gladly offered her a job on a dig. But with the prejudice against women in archeology, his sponsors, which included the Carnegie Institution, would never have allowed it. “Needless to say my teeth are furrowed from much grinding,” Ann wrote in a letter to her parents. After graduating from Smith, she sailed to France, joining the American School of Prehistoric Archaeology for training in field excavation. While there, she received a letter from Earl, eleven years her senior, proposing marriage.

Magellan and I spent a full day at Canyon de Chelly. But as you can see from our photos, except for the White House, visitors must imagine the cliff dwellings based on what can be seen from overlooks on the two rim roads. A pamphlet we bought at Canyon de Chelly says, “Earl H. Morris spent several field seasons during the 1920s working deposits at Mummy Cave, Battle Cove, and Big Cave.” Ann is not mentioned. And yet Mummy Cave, a double cavern of hollowed-out sandstone 200 feet above the canyon floor housing a three-story tower built between 1253-1284, was where Ann spent her honeymoon with Earl, brushing off bejewelled mummies and shooing away mice.

For the rest of the 1920s, the career couple lived a nomadic existence, Ann “wielding a trowel and sleeping in a camp full of men, including Native American men, in extremely remote places.” Ann and Earl were the first archaeologists to hire Navajo people to work in their digs. Earl spoke the language and Ann learned a bit, too.

Imagine unearthing not one but two pairs of “brand-new” 1,400-year-old sandals artistically and technologically unlike any other Native American footwear ever discovered. Woven from yucca with patterns of red and black like embroidery, the sandals mirror today’s high-performance footwear. In those days, they were a usual accompaniment to the dead to facilitate a quick journey to the Happy Hunting Ground. The Morrises also uncovered what was considered the top prize: not one but four wooden flutes. Now in various museums, these artifacts and others at Canyon del Chelly that they recovered—magnificent pieces of pottery, cotton cloth, turkey-feather blankets, bone dice, twined bags, flint knives, shell-bead jewelry—filled a boxcar!

Although Ann helped interpret their findings, wrote large sections of technical reports signed by Earl and created drawings and watercolours of the areas they worked in, Earl got all the credit, obscuring her achievements as one of the first female field archaeologists in America. She authored two successful books, Digging in the Southwest and Digging in the Yucatan—both marketed to older children because the publishers didn’t believe a woman was capable of writing literature about archaeology for adults.

Inga Calvin, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado who is writing a book about Ann, says

The way that Ann dressed in the field—striding around in jodhpurs, gaiters and men’s clothes—was radical for a woman in the early 1920s…It didn’t help that she was a young, pretty, vivacious woman who loved to make people happy. Nor did it help that she was popularizing archaeology through her books. Popularizers are looked at with scorn by serious academic archaeologists. It was girl stuff to them.

It’s no better today. A study published in 2019 by Washington State University found that although 70 percent of archeologists in Canada and the US are female, “Male academics, who comprise less than 10 percent of North American archaeologists, write the vast majority of the field’s high impact, peer-reviewed literature.”

Digging in the Southwest is out of print, but hopefully that will change with the release of the movie about Ann’s life. In the book, Ann provides evidence that people in this area were not always nomadic hunter-gatherers, identifying their cities, culture and individual periods of civilization at Canyon de Chelly—Basketmakers from 200 BC to 1300 AD, followed by the Ancestral Pueblo and the Hopi.

Her description of archeologists is a delight. “Like a species of industrious gophers, they have spread from Alaska to Patagonia. They dig and they pry and they probe. They photograph and they map and they measure. Lost cities are being found again, fallen temples are being rebuilt, and broken pottery is being mended…each one has taken it on himself to restore some small fraction of long-lost history to its rightful place.”  She saw prehistoric culture not as a smooth blanket but more a “patched quilt with spots of high color and intricate pattern.” And described her life with Earl as “vibrating between the more civilized and the wilder parts of America,” the latter where she’d nearly starved and drowned “not once but several times.”

And then…

Ann and Earl settled in Boulder, Colorado, and had two daughters, Elizabeth Ann in 1932 and Sarah Lane the following year. At some point in the 1930s, Ann, who was diabetic, suffered from arthritis and by then an alcoholic, became a recluse in her upstairs, off-limits room. A family member has said that by 1940 she only came downstairs twice a year to see her children. Severely depressed toward the end of her life and in pain caused by spinal tumors, she died at the age of 45.

Her grandson Ben Gell has said that her self-imposed detachment remains a mystery, a subject the family did not discuss. But he thinks being a stay-at-home mom was a difficult transition for his grandmother after her adventuresome years on the pioneering edge of archaeology. Inga Calvin agrees. And in Digging in the Southwest, Ann writes about “the restless ebb and flow of inquietude which can be satisfied only by action and travel and a lot of both;” the book’s final words describing her urge to dig at a new site beyond the headwaters of Canyon del Muerto.

Perhaps having children brought a different perspective to what she and Earl uncovered at the ominously named Canyon del Muerto inhabited by the earliest-to-latest prehistoric civilizations, a place they went back to for nine consecutive years. In 1805, Spanish soldiers and Opata Indians rode into the canyon to avenge a Navajo raid and capture slaves. Ann and Earl discovered the white-and-green-plaster walls of the cave pockmarked with bullet holes—and skeletons of approximately 25 of the 100 Navajos who had been hiding there: the elderly, women and children, slaughtered. And even as an archeologist it must have been heart-wrenching to find, at the bottom of a cistern in a nearby cave, the bodies of four children and fourteen more babies and infants.

Did you guess the famous couple who were here? Another Anne—and her husband, Charles Lindbergh.

In 1929 Charles, an advisor to Transcontinental Air Transport, was exploring Arizona and New Mexico for flight routes between the west and east coasts that didn’t require soaring over the Rockies. He too was part of the Carnegie Institution, which supported Southwestern archaeology. His aerial photography (and Anne’s, for she accompanied him as pilot and/or camerawoman) offered a new and expansive vista of prehistoric ruins.

Ann Morris saw the Lindbergh’s plane in the sky over Canyon del Chelly and expected they were just delivering mail. She didn’t know they had landed nearby and later when the Lindbergh’s visited their camp, she and Earl were away. The topographical details Anne and Charles shared with the rest of the Morris archeology team led to the discovery of an unknown cave eleven miles away. “The Lindbergh’s survey’s impact on archeology was incalculable,” A. Scott Berg wrote in his biography of  Charles. “Media coverage of this latest adventure spawned a new interest in both the science and the early civilizations.”

The serendipitous nature of life as it unfolds over centuries, years and days fascinates me. Had we posted the story of our visit to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced de SHAY) before the film was announced, we’d have known nothing of Ann Morris. Now we (and you!) will be able to see Canyon del Muerto because the Navajo Nation, for the first time ever, has allowed film crews in! In addition to working with the Navajo Nation and National Park Service, who jointly manage the monument, the film’s director Coerte Voorhees made 22 scouting trips into Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto and consulted with more than 30 archaeologists to ensure accuracy and cultural sensitivity. Coerte was inspired to create a film about Ann when he discovered her story while a high-school student volunteering at the Museum of Natural History at the University Colorado in Boulder.

I, for one, can hardly wait to see the portrayal of one of the first female field archaeologists in America—and discover more about this haunting area.

Navigation

Berg, Erik. “THE EAGLE AND THE ANASAZI: The Lindberghs’ 1929 Aerial Survey of Prehistoric Sites in Arizona and New Mexico.” The Journal of Arizona History, vol. 45, no. 1, Arizona Historical Society, 2004, pp. 1–30,

Berg, A. Scott. Lindbergh. New York: Putnam, 1998.

Canyon de Chelly website.  We do not recommend camping at Spider Rock. The sites are too crowded and the rainstorm the night we arrived made it so muddy it was almost impossible to walk outside.

Desert USA. “Canyon de Chelly National Monument Survey of Archeological Investigations.”

Fall, Patricia L., McDonald, James A., and Magers, Pamela C. “The Canyon del Muerto Survey Project.” NPS: May 1981.

Filmoria link to the trailer for Canyon Del Muerto. Good luck; I couldn’t make it work.

First Line Films. Canyon Del Muerto 

Grant, Richard. “In the Land of the Ancient Ones.” Smithsonian. September 2021. This superb article introduced me to Ann Morris and the upcoming cinematic feature of her life.

Kizirian, Shari. “History of a Location: Canyon de Chelly.” Silentfilm.org, 2019. Even when Ann and Earl were here, films were being shot in this dramatic location.

McDonald, James A. “An Archeological Assessment of Canyon de Chelly National Monument.” NPS: June, 1976.

Morris, Ann Axtell. Digging in the Southwest. Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Inc., 1933. Although this book is out of print, you can download it for free here for an hour, as I did.

National Park Services has some extensive history on Canyon de Chelly here . And a bit on Ann Morris here.

Quirolo, Mary M., “The Cultural History of Canyon Del Muerto, Arizona: Basketmaker II-Pueblo I.” Simon Fraser University, 1982.

Roddy, Bridget. “Ann Axtell Morris & Canyon del Muerto.” Trowels and Tribulations blogpost. October 1, 2021.

Runnel’s Blog. “Ann Axtell Morris, Archaeologist of the Southwest.” August 30, 2021.

Szasz, Ferenc M. Larger Than Life New Mexico in the Twentieth Century.Albuququerque: University of Arizona Press, 2006.

Here’s Wiki’s entry on Earl H. Morris.

And Wiki’s entry on Pat Sutherland. We have lost touch with Pat, but it would seem the world still has a long way to go toward accepting women archeologists.

6 Responses

  1. Inspiring for sure. What a fabulous discovery of amazing lives. I look forward to the movie as well.

    1. I’ll update this blogpost when the movie about “one of the richest archaeological sites in the world” is released—it will be fascinating to have a look inside the interior of these caves and the interiority of Ann.

  2. Interesting area and the peoples that inhabited the area are most interesting to say the least, Navaho and Hopi seem to be names synonymous with mystery.
    This, no doubt is due in part to the harsh and inaccessible nature of their homeland.
    It seems we are again at fault for not giving credit we’re credit is due, seems we are very good at living these lies, or maybe misrepresenting fact as it really happened.
    Not sure a movie will correct this situation, too often the visual world only seems to sensationalize the information, not clarify and identify the facts, after all facts don’t sell viewers.

    1. I’m more hopeful given the director is young, discovered the story himself and is committed to telling it honestly (and with family involved) and has been granted previously forbidden access to the caves by the Diné Nation. So much left to fate: the advertising budget, the critics’ reviews, the public preference for blockbuster crapola…

  3. Thank you for digging up and unearthing the story of yet another remarkable career mother.
    This terrain is richly beautiful.

    1. We loved our day there but I struggled with how to write about this intriguing place. The art piece we bought from a local sitting by his car on the South Rim Road? The hike to the White House ruins with a school group around us? Delaying the story and then suddenly (accidentally) finding out about Ann and the film was totally enthralling. Glad you enjoyed it Pat.

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