Aztec Ruins
Administrative History
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Few Southwestern archeological sites are more identified with a single individual than is Aztec Ruins with Earl Halstead Morris. He first came there in 1895 as a child of six and later remembered the exact room (West Ruin, Room 1212) which he and his father had entered. He recalled his astonishment at the human bones they saw stretched out on an adobe platform raised above the floor. [1] As a youth, with shovel over shoulder and trowel in hip pocket, he dug in many of the valley's antiquities in search for pieces of pottery. Just out of college, he persuaded one of the most prestigious institutions in the nation, the American Museum of Natural History, to undertake the excavation of the largest of the Aztec Ruins and to put him in charge of a proposed five-year program there. In the process, he established an enviable scientific reputation in regional archeology and was granted the right to live adjacent to the site in a house he constructed using some reclaimed twelfth-century materials from the ruins. After the National Park Service took over ownership of the property, he served for a time as its first custodian. Later, he rebuilt its major ceremonial edifice, a Great Kiva, which simultaneously became a monument to the aboriginal builders and to his own insight and ingenuity. And at the end, one summer dawn in 1957 his ashes were spread into the cushioning earthen floor of an inner room. To know Aztec Ruins, one necessarily must also know something about this man who was so intimately associated with the place for more than 60 years and whose work is essentially what today's visitor sees in the monument.

Ettie (Juliette Amanda Halstead) and Scott N. Morris of upper New York state were among the throng of adventuresome persons drawn west in 1879 by the gold rush at Leadville, Colorado. After mining activity slowed, Scott found employment in regional sawmills and construction camps and in freighting goods to them. Ettie taught school wherever her husband happened to be working. In 1889, their only child, a son, was born in Chama, New Mexico, where Scott then clerked in a drugstore.

The year before Earl Morris's birth, Southwestern archeology was launched with the discovery of two spectacular cliff houses on the Mesa Verde of Colorado -- Cliff Palace and Spruce Tree House. It is likely the ruins had been seen earlier by wandering white miners or trappers who failed to publicize the find. [2] By the time Morris was 10 years old, several hundred other cliff-side and mesa-top ruins were known and identified as Anasazi, or Old Pueblo. An earlier culture (Basketmaker) was unearthed in caves of southeastern Utah. Most important was a four-year program that cleaned out a portion of the huge structure of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon to the south of the San Juan Basin. Every exploration seemed to support the notion that at some unknown time ancestors to the modern Pueblo Indians of the Rio Grande and Zuni valleys and the Hopi mesas once lived on the Colorado Plateau. These exciting finds might have passed unnoticed by the small Morris lad, except for his father.

During the 1890s, Scott Morris joined the ranks of a dozen Farmington, New Mexico, men in prospecting for prehistoric artifacts as a means of supplementing their incomes. There were no federal laws prohibiting this activity on public lands. Those persons developing farms welcomed diggers as a way to get rid of the nuisance of heaps of fallen stone walls in their tracts. Since the vicinity of Farmington formerly supported a large, now absent, Indian population, the pickings were good. Scott sold several collections for nominal sums. The search for specimens became an enjoyable pastime for him and his young son. On every possible occasion, they hitched a team of horses to a wagon and took off exploring the back reaches of northern New Mexico. In later years, Morris credited his father with having given him an invaluable working knowledge of practical mechanics and earth moving. His companionship with his father also imparted a lifelong passion for the quest of artifacts and introduced him to a site that eventually was to be a personal memorial.

Scott's murder when Earl was 14 years old intensified the boy's interest in his pothunting avocation. Young Morris spent even more of his spare time after that tragedy seeking out signs of what he called the Old People. In compensating for the loss of a dear parent, Morris was at the same time building an unrivaled fund of field experience concerning how and where to dig. [3] He often fantasized about excavating the largest of all the ancient remains in the vicinity, the Aztec Ruins.

Ettie Morris saw to it that, when the time came, her son attended the University of Colorado. To make that possible, she tutored youngsters in her home. Earl pitched in by chopping wood to earn tuition money. At the university, he achieved the education and maturity to transform outright pothunting into an earnest search for knowledge. As he later observed in a biographical sketch: "When I came in contact with those who gave me the scientific point of view, it served as a key to a previously sealed book which enabled me to put in order the fund of information gleaned from my boyhood pothunting." [4]

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Last Updated: 28-Aug-2006