Florence Hawley Ellis

Florence Hawley Ellis
Florence Hawley Ellis

Florence Hawley Ellis at Sapawe, 1959. Courtesy of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.

Quick Facts
Archeologist, pioneer in dendrochronology and statistics, mentor
Place of Birth:
Cananea Sonora, Mexico
Date of Birth:
September 17, 1906
Place of Death:
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Date of Death:
April 6, 1991

Florence Hawley Ellis broke new ground in archeology through use of dendrochronology, statistical analysis, chemical analysis, ethnohistory, and ethnoarcheology -- often, all together. An advocate for women and equality, Florence taught and mentored students until her retirement. She is remembered as a tough teacher, a careful and thorough researcher, and a mentor to a generation of archeologists.

Florence and her father excavated sites together around their home in Arizona while she was a child. She received a Bachelors degree in 1927 with a major in English and a minor in anthropology and a Master's degree in 1928 in anthropology, both from the University of Arizona. While working on her Master's degree, Florence consulted with her father, an expert in chemical analysis, from whom she gained skill in precise descriptions of pigments for black pottery. Her Master's thesis distinguished three closely successive stages of pottery, separating three sequential types (Early, Middle and Late Gila Polychrome) and relating them to certain Mexican Indian pottery types.

Florence began teaching at the University of Arizona in 1928. The following year, 1929, she attended the archeological field school at Chaco Canyon run by Edgar L. Hewett, a professor at the University of New Mexico. Hewett was controversial for his time because he allowed, even encouraged, women to attend the field school alongside men. When the University of Arizona began laying off professors due to the war, Florence took a course in statistics, pocketed her savings and went to the University of Chicago, where she earned her doctorate in 1934. For her dissertation, Florence analyzed hundreds of wood and charcoal samples from Chetro Ketl at Chaco Canyon National Monument. When she became an instructor at Chaco Canyon, Florence trained students in artifact analysis. Florence took part in 11 out of 15 seasons between 1929 and 1942.

Florence's work at Chetro Ketl was seminal for archeology. In addition to her dendrochronology findings, she also identified that the many different styles of pottery in the stratified layers at Chetro Ketl could be analyzed to understand the changes to decoration patterns over time. Florence used tree ring dates to confirm her ceramic chronologies. Florence first used statistics to understand how the amounts of each pottery type differed between the midden layers. She then used bits of charcoal found within the layers to date each one. Using this method, she saw how the ancient Chacoans changed their pottery decorations and exactly when they did so. The project was one of the earliest uses of form statistics in archeology, setting a milestone for archeological analysis.

Beginning in the 1930s, Hawley conducted dendrochronological research across the United States. She did the first tree-ring dating work in the east at Norris Basin in Tennessee. Beginning in 1934, she and others implemented a six-year project to establish tree sequences within the central U.S. People from all over the country send wood samples from all kinds of places, like forest stumps and historic structures, to the University of Chicago laboratory. The results were analyzed, then compiled into master charts for dating ancient sites. In 1937, Florence collected 1,000 living-tree specimens in eight different states to identify the climate signal recorded by trees across the Midwest. This work was summarized in Tree-Ring Analysis and Dating in the Mississippi Drainage (1941).

She taught at the University of New Mexico in the Department of Anthropology beginning in 1934 until her retirement in 1971. She taught over 20 courses; indeed, despite teaching more than anyone else in the anthropology department, was paid less than the men. From the late 1950s through the early 1970s, Florence directed field schools through the university at ancestral pueblo sites, including at San Gabriel de Yunge, Sapawe, and Tsama.  Later in her life, she also taught field schools at Ghost Ranch and in the Gallina mountains. She continued to work and to teach students after retiring from the university. 

In the 1950’s, Florence worked on the Wetherill Project at Mesa Verde National Park. She brought groups of Rio Grande Pueblo Indians to Mesa Verde to examine archeological materials in the laboratory and invited their comments. She also worked with Keres-speaking peoples from Acoma, Laguna, Zia, and Santa Ana, and with the Tanoan speakers of Taos on oral tradition studies. Throughout her career, Florence advocated for using ethnography with archeology in order to remember that people made the things archeologists studied, and that their descendants still lived.  

Florence was an equal rights advocate for men and women, both in economic terms and professional recognition. For her leadership as an archeologist and a woman, she was honored at the "Daughters of the Desert" symposium and featured in a traveling Smithsonian exhibit of the same name. She served as President of the American Society for Ethnohistory in 1969 and in 1987. The University of New Mexico awarded Florence an honorary doctorate of letters in 1988.

Full image credit:
Florence Hawley Ellis at Sapawe, 1959. Catalogue No. 2010.35.1609. Courtesy of
the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico.

Hawley, Florence.
1934 "The Significance of the Dated Prehistory of Chetro Ketl, Chaco Canon, New Mexico." The University of New Mexico Bulletin, vol. 1, no. 1.
1937 "Relationship of Southern Cedar Growth to Precipitation and Run Off." Ecology 18: 398- 405.
1938 "A Dendrochronology in Two Mississippi Drainage Tree-Ring Areas." Tree-Ring Bulletin 5: 3-7.
1938 "Tree Ring Dating for Southeastern Mounds." In: Webb, W.S. (Ed.), An Archaeological Survey of the Norris Basin in Eastern Tennessee. Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 118. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution; Government Printing Office, 359-362.
1941 "Tree Ring Analysis and Dating in the Mississippi Drainage". Anthropology Occasional Paper 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
1988  From Drought to Drought an Examination of Archaeology. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press.
1989 San Gabriel Del Yungue as Seen by an Archaeologist: Examination of an Historic Site in New Mexico. Santa Fe: Sunstone Press.


Parezo, Nancy J., ed.
1993  Hidden Scholars: Women Anthropologist and the Native American Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Babcock, Barbara A. and Parezo, Nancy J.
1988  Daughters of the Desert: Women Anthropologists and the Native American Southwest, 1880-1980. University of New Mexico Press.

Nash, Stephen Edward
1999 Time, Trees, and Prehistory: Tree Ring Dating and the Development of North American Archaeology 1914-1950. Utah Press.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Mesa Verde National Park

Last updated: March 6, 2023