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Earl H. Morris personal papers

Identifier: EHM

Scope and Contents

The Earl H. Morris personal papers at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History consist of materials created by Earl Morris and his associates in the course of his work as an archaeologist in the southwestern United States ("southwest" hence) and Mesoamerica. The collection is a record of archaeological field methods in first half of the 20th century as well as the growth of archaeology as an academic discipline. More specifically, records document excavations and restoration projects at several sites in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona including Aztec Ruins National Monument, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto, Kawaika-a, Mesa Verde, and smaller sites in the areas surrounding Gallup, Shiprock, Durango, Gobernador Canyon, and the La Plata River valley. Sites in Mesoamerica include Quirigua and Chichen Itza. These sites are significant to descendent communities including the Hopi, Navajo, Ute, and Zuni nations.

While supervising excavations, Morris made notes and, occasionally, kept narrative journals. These were subsequently turned into field reports and object catalogues that were in turn submitted to the sponsoring organization or permit-granting authority. Notes and reports were sometimes adapted into articles or books for publication. These field reports, object catalogues, and journals provide a detailed look at the tools, processes, and methods of documentation employed in archaeological excavation from the period of 1915 to 1940. In many cases these documents give the provenience (location of origin) of excavated objects and human remains which were subsequently sent to institutions around the country, most frequently the University of Colorado, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

Other types of records appear less frequently: Permit applications and related correspondence document Morris' interactions with the Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture. Wage books and journal entries provide a window into the day-to-day operations of excavation as well as the names of individuals who worked with Morris including members of indigenous communities. Journal entries that are more personal in nature, particularly those associated with excavations at Canyon del Muerto and Durango, give a tangible impression of living conditions, infrastructure, and availability of public services in communities across the Four Corners region.

The collection's extensive professional correspondence illustrates a network of relationships between some of the era's most influential archaeologists and anthropologists. Morris frequently wrote to colleagues to structure collaborations, ask for advice, discuss others' work, and share developments with ongoing projects. In this way, the letters track the changing body of knowledge about the history of the southwest from the perspective of non-indigenous academics. Embedded throughout the correspondence are discussions of legal and ethical issues and evidence of disagreements within the field. Biographical details and pictures of daily life are abundant in more personal correspondence between family, friends, and close colleagues.

Several manuscripts are present in the collection which have never been published in their original form. In addition, manuscripts of published works, through iterative versions and editorial markup, show the authors' writing and research process. Some manuscript files include photographic prints with associated captions as well as original maps and illustrations.

Reference files are present for a scattering of topics in which Morris took interest. These take the form of typewritten and handwritten notes on paper as well as brief notes and citations on index cards. While their authorship is uncertain, most can tentatively be attributed to Morris himself or his secretary, Marian L. Cook.

The photographs in the collection greatly enhance the value of their textual counterparts. Morris took photographs to record standing structures, the process of excavation, surrounding landscapes, members of the excavation crew, and visitors. Most photographs were taken out of doors at the site of excavation. A smaller number, especially those of excavated objects, were taken in a studio setting. These visual resources lend clarity to journals, field reports, and catalogues and serve as the sole record of activities when documents do not exist. Morris primarily produced glass plate (silver gelatin) negatives. There are approximately 400 of these in the collection as well as approximately 3,000 photographic prints.

Most of the documents within the collection are typewritten on 8.5" x 11" paper. Some documents, especially in the case of official reports and correspondence, are copies on onion skin (transparency) paper. Documents produced in the field (journals, field books, maps) were more often handwritten than typed and commonly take the form of notebooks with ruled or gridlined paper. There are approximately 80 oversize items in the collection the majority of which are maps and diagrams of individual sites.

For many years the collection was used as a tool for research by staff and faculty at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. These researchers occasionally left handwritten notes on original documents or incorporated their own research files, correspondence, and photographs into the existing collection. This was done most identifiably and extensively by Roy L. Carlson who sought to publish Morris' unpublished works through a series of grants from the National Science Foundation in the 1960s. Materials attributed to Carlson have been separated at the file level and given titles that reflect their ownership. They have not been removed from the collection.


  • 1897-1984


Conditions Governing Access

Some items in this collection have been restricted either in keeping with the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials or because of legal protections afforded to archaeological sites by the 1979 Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA). Detailed explanations are available below. By default, these items are not available for in-person research or for viewing online. Individuals or groups seeking access to restricted material should contact the museum at the address below.

Many photographs in this collection show the remains of native ancestors as well burial sites. With the goal of practicing cultural sensitivity, the museum has restricted all images of human remains, images meant to document burial sites, and images of funerary objects. Whether in person or through digital copy, these items are unavailable to the general public. In cases when museum staff could not determine the origin of an object, we have used context to make case-by-case judgments while erring on the side of restricting the image. Textual documents which inventory or otherwise concern human remains, however, have not been restricted. Researchers should be aware that they will frequently encounter descriptions of remains in field catalogues, reports, and journals. In these documents, deceased individuals are frequently referred to as 'specimens' or 'mummies.' In addition, field journals and photographs occasionally document unethical treatment of these individuals. Individuals or groups with concerns about the public availability of this material are encouraged to contact the museum at the email provided above.

Section §470hh of ARPA states that “Information concerning the nature and location of any archaeological resource for which the excavation or removal requires a permit or other permission under this chapter … may not be made available to the public…” Accordingly, we have restricted items that provide detailed information about the location of an archaeological site. The restricted items in this category are most often maps and, less frequently, textual documents that provide instructions on how to navigate to a site. Those seeking access to these items or those with concerns should contact the musem at the email provided above.

Biographical / Historical

Earl Halstead Morris, 1889-1956, was an American archaeologist active in Mesoamerica and the United States southwest. Morris led excavations in the field from 1916-1940 for the University of Colorado (CU), American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and the School of American Archaeology (SAA). These excavations lead to the production of 69 publications in the period of 1911-1956 and to the accumulation of extensive museum collections of pottery, stone implements, baskets, sandals, and human remains at the institutions for which he worked. Morris corresponded and collaborated with influential archaeologists, anthropologists, and scientists including Nels Nelson, A. V. Kidder, Jesse Nusbaum, Walter Fewkes, Edgar Hewett, Clark Wissler, A. E. Douglass, Junius Henderson, and Sylvanus G. Morley.

Childhood and family

Morris was born in 1889 in Chama, New Mexico Territory, the only child of Scott Neering Morris, a teamster and construction engineer, and Juliette Amanda Halstead, a teacher. Until the death of Morris' father in 1904, the family moved frequently for economic opportunity, primarily between lumber camps and mining boomtowns in southwestern Colorado and northern New Mexico. They occasionally returned to the valley of the San Juan River in northern New Mexico for the winter. Morris' father had an interest in archaeology, collecting pottery and other objects in the vicinity of their winter residences and occasionally selling his collections. He encouraged this interest in young son and also provided Morris with "a good knowledge of practical mechanics and especially of earth moving" which would come to serve in Morris' career. His mother provided him with a well-rounded education despite lack of consistent attendance in school and he graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in Farmington, New Mexico in 1908. With the help of an unnamed benefactor, he matriculated at the University of Colorado at Boulder in the same year.

Early career

While pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology, Morris made the acquaintance of Junius Henderson, founder of the Museum of Natural History at CU, who would provide Morris with opportunities for pursuing archaeology. In the same period, he also met archaeologist Edgar L. Hewett by chance on a train. Hewett, a well-known archaeologist instrumental in the enactment of the 1906 Antiquities Act, invited Morris to join him on excavation at present-day Bandalier National Monument in 1911. Morris again joined Hewett in 1912 on excavation at Quirigua, Guatemala, this time dropping out of school to do so. In Quirigua Morris made the acquaintance of Sylvanus G. Morley of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Morley would later offer him a position as director of excavations at Chichen Itza. In 1913, University of Colorado Museum founder Junius Henderson secured $300 for Morris to conduct excavations "in the country east of Mesa Verde" adjacent to the La Plata river. Henderson again secured $300 for further excavations in the summer of 1914, a year in which Morris would also return to Quirigua, this time under the supervision of Neil Judd. Morris resumed his education at CU at an undetermined point and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1914 and a master’s degree in 1915.

Morris' early activities impressed recently appointed CU President Livingston Farrand. In 1915, Farrand arranged for Morris to work under the supervision of Nels Nelson, archaeologist with AMNH, in the Galisteo Basin south of Lamy, New Mexico. Nelson was at this time attempting to prove the effectiveness of applying the technique of stratigraphy to the United States Southwest whereby the order and position of archaeological remains are examined to establish a timeline of occupation. The results of Nelson's excavations that summer would prove influential; it was previously thought that sites in the area were not old enough or occupied continuously to a degree that would produce results. This experience most likely had a deep impression on Morris who would, like other southwest archaeologists, turn his career toward the task of establishing a timeline of occupation for the region.

In the same year, as Morris writes, President Farrand "arranged for cooperative field work between the University and the American Museum of Natural History of New York" which would extend through 1916 . As with earlier Morris excavations, this work occurred in the La Plata area -- concentrating on sites 36, 39, and 40 -- and in the area of Goberndador Canyon in San Juan County, New Mexico. Farrand concurrently secured a scholarship for Morris to study at Columbia University. Morris matriculated at Columbia but did not remain for long, however, preferring to take his "first big opportunity" as director of excavation with the American Museum of Natural History at present-day Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Morris worked as director of excavations at Aztec Ruins between 1916 and 1923, excavating the site and restoring its masonry walls. It was at Aztec Ruins that Morris met A. E. Douglass when the latter showed up hoping to examine wood used in the site's construction. Douglass was attempting to establish a reliable dating system based on examination of tree rings, a technique later known as the science of dendrochronology, and Morris was convinced of the importance of Douglass' work. The two would continue to collaborate over the course of their careers.

In 1922 and 1923, in addition to his work at Aztec Ruins, he again took the lead on cooperative excavations between CU and AMNH "in the Navajo country southwest of Mesa Verde" and, more specifically, at Canyon del Muerto. Morris also continued his work in the La Plata area in 1922, this time sponsored only by CU, working at sites 18 and 19.

At the culmination of this period, Morris met Ann McChean Axtell, an archaeologist, illustrator, and graduate of Smith College who had recently studied and worked at the School of Prehistoric Research in France. It appears that Morris was immediately smitten, writing that "an image of the owner of the name [Ann Axtell] floated ever between my eyes and the desert night." Though neither writes of their courtship, they were married in 1923 and spent a field season together at Canyon del Muerto.

Chichen Itza

In 1924 Sylvanus Morley was preparing to excavate and restore portions of the city of Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula, Mexico. Morley offered Morris the position of director of excavations on behalf of the Carnegie Institution and both Ann and Earl moved to the Yucatan the same year. Their work was concentrated on the Temple of the Warriors and, below it, the Chacmool Temple. The excavation of the latter structure was particularly daunting. A. V. Kidder, archaeologist at the Peabody Insitute at Harvard University, writes of the excavation of Chacmool Temple: "I was at Chichen at the time. I could not see how on earth this could be done. But it offered just the sort of challenge that Earl loved...". Ann, Earl, and illustrator Jean Charlot published a book in 1931, Temple of Warriors, which describes their findings for a popular audience.

During the summers of this period, Earl returned to the southwestern United States to work at Canyon de Chelly, sites near Shiprock, New Mexico, the Mimbres valley in Grant County, New Meixco, Kawaika-A on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona, and at various basketmaker sites near Durango, Colorado.

Return to southwest

Earl remained in his position at Chichen Itza until 1929 when he left to return to southwest archaeology full time. Over the course of the next 11 years, Morris was sponsored by AMNH, CU, and the Carnegie Institution, sometimes jointly, to conduct excavations in the La Plata valley, Canyon de Chelly including Canyon del Muerto, at basketmaker sites near Durango, and sites in the area of Gobernador Canyon. Through these excavations, he sought to build the body of evidence for establishing distinct chronological periods in the history of the southwest. His monumental work, Archaeological Studies in the La Plata District, presents many of his findings.

During this period Morris also oversaw several restoration projects. In 1932, working on behalf of the Carnegie Institution, he restored and shored up the tower at Mummy Cave, Canyon del Muerto. In 1933, the director of the National Parks Service requested that the Carnegie Institution loan Morris' time and expertise to work on the reconstruction of the Great Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument and repair several structures in Mesa Verde National Park. The work at Aztec Ruins was completed in October of 1934 and serves as the centerpiece for visitors to Aztec Ruins National Monument.

Later Life

Morris did not participate in any extended excavations between 1941 and his death in 1956. In Boulder, Colorado, he lived a relatively sedentary life due to health problems, family responsibilities, and labor shortages caused by the onset of WWII. He continued to publish extensively in this period, completing 25 books and articles including an extensive work, Basket Maker II Sites near Durango, Colorado with Robert F. Burgh. His accomplishments were celebrated in this time period with Morris receiving significant honors: in 1942, he received an honorary doctorate from CU and in 1953 he received the Alfred Vincent Kidder medal for achievement in southwest and Mesoamerican archaeology.

Ann Axtell Morris passed away in 1945. Earl subsequently remarried to Lucile Bowman, a teacher in Boulder. At his death in 1956, Earl was survived by Lucile and his two daughters with Ann, Elizabeth Ann Morris and Sarah Lane Morris.

Works consulted

Kidder, A. V. (1957). Earl Halstead Morris. American Antiquity, 12(3), 390-397.
Lange, F. W. and Leonard, D. (eds.). (1985). Among ancient ruins: The legacy of Earl H. Morris. Johnson Books.
Lister, F. C. and Lister, R. H. (1968). Earl Morris and southwestern archaeology. The University of New Mexico Press.
Lister, R. H. and Lister, F. C. (1990). Aztec Ruins National Monument: Administrative history of an archaeological preserve. Southwest Cultural Resources Center professional papers no. 24.
Morris, A. A. (1933). Digging in the southwest. Cadmus Books. Morris, E. A. (1956). A Bibliography of Earl H. Morris. Southwestern Lore, 22(3), 40-43. Morris, E. A. (2000). Morris, Earl Halstead. In American National Biography. Morris, E. H. (undated.) My sixty years in archaeology. EHM05_001_001 in the Earl H. Morris papers, University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Morris, E. H. (1932). Biographical material prepared for Scribner’s. EHM05_001_002 in the Earl H. Morris papers, University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Rodeck, H. G. (1956). Earl Morris and the University of Colorado Museum. Southwestern Lore, 22(3), 32-39.


38.5 linear feet

86 boxes

Language of Materials


Processing Note

This collection was most recently processed between October 2019 and October 2020 by Will Gregg, archivist, and Alex Elliott, anthropology collections assistant and graduate student, with funding from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). Processing was guided by Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) 2013. Initial processing by Rhonda Wright in 2011.

The collection was donated in many parts: of those accessions known for certain, one accession occurred soon after Morris' death in 1956, an unknown number in the 1980s, one in 2002, and one in 2006. Accessions dating from the 1980s onward, and perhaps before, originated from Elizabeth Morris, Earl Morris' daughter. The original order of the collection is not known. It is likely that the collection was rearranged in part in 1961 when, as part of a National Science Foundation grant, Roy L. Carlson used the collection to research and publish Morris' unpublished works.

With funding from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission, the collection was rearranged, described, and partially digitzed in 2019 and 2020. Before rearrangement, the collection had two series, Correspondence and Archaeology, totaling 329 folders stored in filing cabinets. Photographs were not yet formally incorporated into the collection and were stored in cabinets in another room along with oversized material. The 2019-2020 rearrangement retained the first series, Correspondence, largley untouched. The second series, Archaeology, saw significant reworking due to significant problems in its organization. It was expanded into five series: Fieldwork, Manuscripts, Reference files, Biographical material, and Ephemera. The bulk of the material went into the first of these new series, Fieldwork.

Processing in 2019-2020 built on work already done in 2011 by Rhonda Wright, a Museum and Field Studies graduate student. Rhonda undertook a project to re-number folders in the collection and enter informationg about them into the museum database.

Finding aid to the Earl H. Morris personal papers
Will J. Gregg
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
National Historic Preservation and Records Commission

Repository Details

Part of the CU Museum of Natural History Repository

15th and Broadway
Henderson Building
University of Colorado at Boulder
Boulder Colorado 80302