Aztec West Great House, Aztec Ruins National Monument
In the spring of 1892, an expedition headed by Warren K. Moorehead traveled through northwestern New Mexico to collect archaeological specimens for the Chicago World’s Fair to be held the next year. Moorehead was a young man from Ohio who had already conducted considerable excavations there that had drawn the attention of Frederic Ward Putnam of the Harvard Peabody Museum. Putnam hired Moorehead to collect artifacts in Ohio and elsewhere for the World’s Fair. Moorehead’s Ohio work was important to the definition of the Hopewell Culture and the acquisition of the Fort Ancient site by the Ohio Historical Society, and by the time of his death in 1939 Moorehead was considered one of the preeminent American archaeologists. He wrote up some of his observations from the 1892 New Mexico expedition in an article published in 1908 which contains some important early information about the archaeological remains along the Animas and La Plata Rivers before those areas were extensively developed.
Moorehead’s party surveyed the major ruins at Aztec, but John Koontz, who owned the site at the time, would not let them excavate there. (This is an issue that would recur in Moorehead’s Southwestern adventures.) The 1908 article contains a decent description and plan of the West Ruin at Aztec, including the observation of an obvious road leading to a nearby quarry site that was the apparent source of building stone. The more important part of the article, however, deals with the La Plata, where the group spent more time and were apparently given permission to excavate several sites. Moorehead noted very extensive irrigation systems along the valley bottom, which he suggested accounted for the numerous prehistoric sites and the apparently very large population they indicated. Since the La Plata Valley has been extensively developed for modern agriculture since Moorehead’s time, these observations are very useful for understanding the perennially understudied archaeology of that area. It’s not totally clear how many sites the group excavated, but Moorehead describes one burial with numerous associated pots and mentions a large, three-story site surrounded by many smaller sites. This is probably the community now known as the “Holmes Group,” after William Henry Holmes, another early archaeologist who studied them. Moorehead estimated about two hundred rooms in the community, half of them in the great house.
The Moorehead party excavated many graves and collected the pottery left with them, but Moorehead says that the bones themselves “were in such a state of decay that it was not possible to preserve them.” The group also found an interesting vertical masonry shaft, fourteen inches square and eight feet, five inches deep. The bottom of the shaft was paved with slabs and connected to a horizontal passage leading north, which Moorehead’s group excavated for about four feet before they “were compelled, unfortunately, to abandon the work; and thus were prevented from gaining sufficient evidence to determine the purpose of the structure.” Moorehead doesn’t explain what compelled this stop to the digging. He does speculate about the possible purpose of this shaft:
It could not have been a chimney, for neither the stones nor the logs showed signs of smoke or heat, although fragments of charcoal were found occasionally during the excavation; nor is it likely that the shaft was used as an air flue for the purpose of ventilation, both on account of the narrowness of the perpendicular portion (fourteen inches), and the apparent disregard manifested by the ancient Southwestern villagers of everything that might tend to promote hygienic conditions.
Zing! In fact, this shaft almost certainly was a ventilation shaft associated with a kiva, similar to those documented by Jesse Walter Fewkes at Mesa Verde. The fact that it led north is a clear indication, and Moorehead’s objection on the basis of size doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. His snide comment about hygiene is odd, though perhaps indicative of the gentlemanly racism common among early anthropologists, and it would perhaps be unfair to tar Moorehead too much with it, as he actually was quite concerned with the fair treatment of Indians and worked hard throughout his life to advocate for their interests in a rather paternalistic way, which was not a common thing for archaeologists to do. Still, he was a man of his times, and he was apparently unimpressed with the sanitary conditions of the modern Pueblos.
Opening of Vent Shaft to Kiva L, Pueblo Bonito
Moorehead’s attitudes may have been slightly more progressive than those of his archaeological contemporaries, but his methods weren’t. His style of archaeology was very heavily based on recovering artifacts for his various patrons, first Putnam and later Robert Peabody, who made him head of the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Anthropology at Phillips Andover. As shown by his 1908 article, he did do some documentation of the sites he investigated, but the focus was always on the artifacts rather than the sites. The Ohio History Society’s short biography of him notes, rather defensively, that this was not uncommon at the time:
Moorehead sometimes is remembered unkindly for his supposedly crude excavation methods and for his involvement in the buying and selling of artifacts. Both criticisms are unfair. In the light of today’s standards his field methods certainly would be considered deficient, but for their time they were not all that unusual. The practice of buying and selling artifacts, particularly specimens considered to be duplicates, also was not unprecedented at the time.
This is true, but it’s not so much a defensive of Moorehead as an indictment of archaeology as a discipline at the time. The contrast with Richard Wetherill and George Pepper’s excavations at Chaco in the 1890s is instructive. Their methods are often defended along the same lines, but in fact compared to the likes of Moorehead they did a very good job of documenting their work. Pepper’s site report on Pueblo Bonito, though based on his sometimes sketchy field notes and quite inadequate by modern standards, is a wonder of careful documentation of artifact contexts and room features compared to Moorehead’s typical work. Furthermore, Wetherill was a skilled amateur photographer at a time when that was rare, and there are numerous photographs of the excavations at Bonito. I don’t know of any other excavation projects in the 1890s that were photographed as systematically as those at Bonito. Moorehead never took any pictures of his work as far as I know.
South Wall of Room 53, Pueblo Bonito
Indeed, we can compare Wetherill and Pepper’s methods directly with Moorehead’s, because Moorehead excavated at Pueblo Bonito too. In 1897, Moorehead made another collecting expedition to the Southwest, this time on behalf of Peabody, and one of the stops he made was at Chaco Canyon. Wetherill and Pepper had begun excavations at Pueblo Bonito in 1896, sponsored by none other than Frederic Ward Putnam, who was at this point affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, and word of their spectacular finds such as the burials in Room 33 had probably gotten out. In any case, Moorehead showed up at Chaco in the winter, the offseason for the AMNH party, and proceeded to tear the hell out of two rooms just north of Room 33. These rooms, which Pepper would later designate Rooms 53 and 56, were apparently part of the same burial complex as Room 33, and they contained numerous burials and grave goods. The grave assemblages were apparently not as elaborate as those in Room 33, however, and Moorehead was not particularly impressed with what he found (which is perhaps why he didn’t continue to excavate). He did find one complete skeleton, wrapped in a feather robe, which he thought was of a young woman. Nancy Akins, who reexamined the remains from Pueblo Bonito for the Chaco Project, concluded that this burial was actually of a man aged 40 to 44. She also noted four skulls, now in the Field Museum, which were also probably from these rooms. The Moorehead group didn’t fully excavate the rooms, and when Wetherill and Pepper returned in the summer they excavated what was left and sorted through the mess left by Moorehead, who had apparently thrown the fill from the rooms around haphazardly. They found a few more artifacts and burials, but couldn’t say much about the original state of the rooms beyond noting two subfloor graves in Room 56 that Moorehead had opened.
Here’s what Akins had to say about Moorehead’s work in Rooms 53 and 56:
It is unfortunate that Moorehead plundered these two rooms. There are indications that a fair number of persons were buried in them. It is unlikely that they contained the amount of ornamentation found in Room 33, as none is mentioned by Moorehead in his report, little is listed in the Phillips-Andover catalog, and Moorehead stated that no remarkable
discoveries were made.
Moorehead did write an account of this expedition, which was published by Phillips Andover and is not easy to find. I haven’t been able to read it, but judging from his 1908 article on the other expedition and Akins’s comments I don’t expect that it contained much detailed information on his work at Pueblo Bonito.
South Wall of Room 53 from Room 56, Pueblo Bonito
Also on this trip, Moorehead stopped by Salmon Ruin, where the landowner, George Salmon, only allowed him to dig for three days. This frustrated Moorehead, and it indicates that Salmon, like John Koontz, was concerned with preserving his ruin and not letting archaeologists like Moorehead tear it apart wholesale looking for artifacts. Obviously Salmon was a bit more accommodating than Koontz, who apparently didn’t let Moorehead dig at all at Aztec.
In the context of Chaco, and especially in comparison to Wetherill and Pepper, Moorehead looks pretty bad, but it’s worth emphasizing that he really wasn’t that unusual at the time. The line between pothunter and archaeologist was really quite thin, and many archaeologists of Moorehead’s generation started out digging haphazardly for artifacts and later transitioned to more carefully documented digging for information. Earl Morris is a good example of a pothunter who successfully turned himself into a serious archaeologist, and Richard Wetherill is an example of a sort of semi-pothunter who tried to make that transition but failed. Moorehead’s background was similar, and he was more successful in ingratiating himself with the emerging academic archaeological establishment than Wetherill but probably less successful than Morris. Part of the issue was just the change in archaeological practice over time; Wetherill died in 1910 (101 years ago today), whereas Moorehead lived until 1939 and Morris, who was of a younger generation, lived until 1956.
Interpretive Plaque at Wetherill Cemetery
Wetherill often gets cast as a villain in the story of Southwestern archaeology. This is largely the doing of Edgar Hewett, who was an inveterate opponent of what Wetherill and Pepper were doing at Pueblo Bonito, which he characterized as large-scale looting. Hewett’s line was eagerly adopted by the Santa Fe press, and it has become entrenched in popular understanding and even implicitly adopted by many archaeologists today. It’s important to note, however, what Hewett was actually objecting to. The biggest problem as he saw it was not that artifacts were being taken out of Pueblo Bonito but that they were being taken to New York, to sit in the AMNH (where most of them remain to this day). Hewett wanted artifacts from Chaco not to stay at Chaco, but instead to be brought to Santa Fe and kept at his own institution, the Museum of New Mexico. His characterizations of Wetherill and Pepper’s activities tended to carefully omit the involvement of the AMNH, which helped to drum up support for his cause among locals outraged by outsiders coming in and taking away artifacts. Hewett eventually got his wish, and in the 1930s and 1940s he dominated archaeology at Chaco and throughout New Mexico.
Hewett’s success in tarring Wetherill as a pothunter shouldn’t blind us to the realities of the context Wetherill and Pepper were working in. Their methods were crude compared to today’s, but within the range of variation in methods at the time they really were quite good, and much better than Moorehead’s crude methods. Indeed, in some respects they were significantly better than the methods employed in Hewett’s own excavations at Chaco thirty years later. The dispute between Hewett and Wetherill wasn’t about methods, and it wasn’t about “professional archaeologists” versus “amateur pothunters.” Rather, it was a dispute between two groups of professional archaeologists and their institutional sponsors over who should be excavating at one of the most important archaeological sites in the region and which museum should get the artifacts they found.
Moorehead’s bit part in this drama really just serves as context, I think. Despite the title of this post, I don’t think it’s really reasonable to cast him rather than Wetherill as the villain of the story. Instead, Moorehead just illustrates that there was more to archaeology in the 1890s than Wetherill and Hewett, and that it is best to interpret the history of research at Chaco within that broader context.
Moorehead, W. (1908). Ruins at Aztec and on the Rio La Plata, New Mexico American Anthropologist, 10 (2), 255-263 DOI: 10.1525/aa.1908.10.2.02a00080
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