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Celebrate Women’s History Month!

Dr. Florence Hawley Ellis at Chaco Canyon in 1940.

Celebrate Women’s History Month by learning about the women at Chaco Canyon who made important contributions to the history of archeology and to archeological method and theory. In the early 20th century, few women practiced archeology or had advanced degrees in the field. Chaco Canyon is notable as a place where a number of women got their start.

Women studied archeology at universities in the Southwest in the 1920s and participated in field schools at Chaco Canyon, now Chaco Culture NHP. Some were assigned minor field roles during the 1920s, but more typically they were tasked with artifact analysis and collections management. By the 1930s, a few women at Chaco became responsible for excavating a site or major feature. A number of women working at Chaco during the period went on to pursue higher degrees in archeology. A few who trained in the field school went on to pass the NPS service exam and became NPS archeologists in the 1930s. Women helped to create public interest in archeology—and demonstrate women’s competency in the field—through writing, teaching, and museum curation.

Among the women who made significant contributions at Chaco and to the field of archeology are:

Florence Hawley Ellis was a field archeologist and ethnographer, professor of anthropology, and expert witness for Pueblo land claims. She is especially known for being a pioneer in the field of dendrochronology, a method of archeological dating using tree rings. Ellis’s practice of dendrochronology provided a baseline for southwestern chronologies and a standard methodology. She applied the technique to tree ring analysis across the United States. At Chaco, her work made Chetro Ketl the best-dated ruin. She also conducted work at Tseh So. She also developed chronological sequences of ceramics by analyzing the statistical frequency of potsherds and associated bits of charcoal. Ellis’s 1936 manual on Southwestern ceramics was a standard reference for decades.

Dorothy Luhrs directed the excavation of Kin Nahasbas, located northwest of Una Vida, in 1935. The excavation investigated the great kiva, its antechamber, and a nearby room. She recognized early and late masonry in the structure, which was later interpreted by subsequent archeological studies to be superimposed kivas.

Bertha P. Dutton excavated and reported on Leyit Kin in 1934 and 1935 with the University of New Mexico/School of American Research field schools. The excavations documented four kivas and 27 rooms representative of occupations dating to three periods, A.D. 800-900, A.D. 1040-1275, and the reuse of the kivas by Mesa Verdians.

Anna O. Shepard pioneered technical ceramic studies that helped to establish a chronology of Chaco. Archeologists in the 1920s had begun to question classificatory schemes that treated small communities as predating larger towns. Shepard’s ceramic analyses from Site Bc114, A small house built around a plaza containing a single kiva, found that it shared ceramic types common to Chetro Ketl, implying that they were inhabited contemporaneously.

Want to learn more about women in archeology?

Join a Society for American Archaeology interest group concerning women’s issues in archeology.

Find out about the Impact of Women in Contemporary Archeology.

Or read:

Barbara A. Babcock and Nancy J. Parezo, Daughters of the Desert: Women Anthropologists and the Native American Southwest 1880-1890, University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Cheryl Claassen’s book, Women in Archaeology, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994.

Sue Hamilton, Ruth D. Whitehouse, and Katherine I. Wright (eds.), Archaeology and Women, Left Coast Press, 2006.

TSM/MJB