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Joe Ben Wheat papers

Identifier: JBW

Scope and Contents

Please note that this collection is undergoing processing.

This collection contains documents, photographs, and objects collected or created by Joe Ben Wheat (1916-1997), archaeologist, anthropologist and curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History. Textual material in the collection includes correspondence, newspaper clippings, magazines, academic journal articles, student papers and dissertations, manuscripts, maps, archaeological site reports, professional society conference materials, and ephemera. Photographic material includes photographic prints, negatives, oversized photographs, x-rays, slides, and film reels. The collection can be divided into several different topical areas including textile research, archaeological excavations such as Olsen-Chubbuck and Jurgens, administrative records, and personal papers.


  • 1916-1997


Conditions Governing Access

This collection is being processed. The collection does not have a formal archival arrangement and materials are housed haphazardly in boxes which are stored in different rooms. For this reason it may not be possible to make the collection available for research. Contact for more information. The collection will be fully processed in early 2024. The first portions of the collection to be processed are Joe Ben's textile research records (expected completion July 2023), Jurgens site records (August 2023), Olsen-Chubbock records (September 2023), and Magna Site records (September 2023).

Biographical / Historical

Joe Ben Wheat was born in Van Horn, Texas, in 1916 and had a prolific career as an archaeologist and anthropologist. He served as a curator at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History for 33 years.

Joe Ben developed an interest in archaeology as a child while searching for arrowheads and other items in the hills surrounding Van Horn. He later reminisced that “I was interested in the people who made them as much as I was in the artifacts. What kind of people were they and how did they do this and so on. So [I] really got hooked on that.” Wheat pursued his undergraduate education at three different institutions as his dedication to the field opened up a progressively broader set of connections and opportunities. Wheat attended Sul Ross Teachers College, Texas Tech University, and finally the University of California at Berkeley before graduating from the latter in 1937.

Following graduation, he directed archaeological surveys for the WPA and Smithsonian Institution in addition to serving in the U. S. Army Air Force during WWII. He enrolled in the graduate program at University of Arizona in 1947 where he received his M.A. in Anthropology in 1949 and a Ph.D. in 1953 under Emil Haury and Edward Spicer. While a student, he worked as a graduate assistant, teacher, field foreman at the Point of Pines field school, and ranger/archaeologist at Grand Canyon National Park. The subject of his dissertation, published in two parts, was titled Mogollon Culture prior to A.D. 1000 and Crooked Ridge Village: Arizona W:10:15.

Wheat accepted a position at the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History (CUMNH) in Boulder, CO in 1953 and became its first Curator of Anthropology. He would remain in this position until his retirement in 1986.

Wheat’s work at CUMNH is notable for its breadth. He continued his research into prehistoric cultures of the Southwest by conducting a field school at the Yellow Jacket complex near Cortez, CO from 1954 until 1991 with few interruptions. The field school at Yellow Jacket was notable not only for its archaeological significance but also for the opportunities it provided to members of its majority-female field crews during the 1960s and 1970s. Wheat also developed an interest in High Plains PaleoIndian culture, conducting studies of lithic analysis and bison butchering techniques at numerous excavations including the Olsen-Chubbuck bison kill site (1958, 1960) and the Jurgens site (1968, 1970). Heeding a call for archaeologists to come to Sudan ahead of construction of the Aswan Dam, Wheat conducted surveys and excavations in Sudan and also Tunisia in 1962, 1963, and 1966.

In the 1970s Wheat began a research project into Navajo and Pueblo textiles that would come to define a large part of his legacy. Possibly in connection with an effort to build out the ethnographic collections at CUMNH, he began investigating the subject in 1972 and found existing literature to be lacking. Seeing this gap, he designed a method for analyzing and photographing textiles and used a sabbatical to embark on a major research endeavor: in less than a year Wheat visited more than 50 museums and analyzed over 2,000 textiles. He analyzed the materials, dyes, and structure of these textiles to create a picture of how historical change and cultural exchange influenced their production. Subsequent research resulted in landmark publications including Navajo Blankets from the collection of Anthony Berlant (1954), The Gift of Spiderwoman: Southwest Textiles, the Navajo Tradition (1984) and Blanket Weaving in the Southwest (2003), published posthumously. Wheat was arguably the foremost academic expert on Navajo and Pueblo textiles of the 19th century and beyond.

During his career, Wheat also took part in significant collections development efforts at CUMNH that resulted in the creation of research-quality ethnographic and archaeological collections and diverse comparative collections. Collections housed at the museum from his excavations alone total more than 1,333,560 individual items. He also obtained both the Earl H. Morris and the Anna O. Shepard archives for the museum which continue to be sources of public interest and are integral to curation of museum collections.

Wheat’s contributions to his field are impressive both in terms of publications, of which there are approximately 78, and professional service. He was admired for his roles of teacher and mentor. He served on numerous graduate committees, worked with student interns in the museum, and remained accessible to his students even after his retirement.

Joe Ben Wheat died at the age of 81 in 1997. He was survived by his wife Barbara K. Wheat who subsequently donated many of their personal collections to the museum.

Joe Ben Wheat timeline

21 April 1916
Van Horn, TX
Van Horn, TX
Informal archaeology training from Victor J. Smith (professor at Sul Ross Teachers College).
Van Horn, TX
Graduates high school.
Alpine, TX
Enters Sul Ross Teachers College.
Attends meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in in Alpine. Meets head of history department at Texas Tech at same meeting.
Lubbock, TX
Begins sophomore year at Texas Tech.
Participates in student trip to Mexico under supervision of William Curry Holden.
Meets Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.
Purchases first textiles in personal collection.
Berkeley, CA
Begins junior year at the University of California, Berkeley.
Van Horn, TX
Works at family business to pay off college debts.
Serves as field director of a WPA archaeological project responsible for a district north of Lubbock to Abilene along the Brazos River.
Serves in the United States Army Airforce as an airman and intelligence officer. Spends over a year on Saipan in the Mariana Islands stationed with the 499 Bombing Group.
Kansas City, MO
Completes a semester at the Kansas City Art Institute.
Chicago, IL
Attends meeting of the American Anthropological Association.
6 April 1947
Marries Francis Irene "Pat" Moore
Leads the Smithsonian River Basin Survey project in Texas after being given the position by Frank H. H. Roberts.
Receives invitation to to apply for a graduate assistantship at the University of Arizona.
Tucson, AZ
Enrolls in graduate school at the University of Arizona.
Becomes field supervisor at the Point of Pines field school.
Tucson, AZ
M.A. University of Arizona.
Tucson, AZ
Ph.D. University of Arizona under Emil Haury and Edward Spicer.
Boulder, CO
Professor of Natural History and first Curator of Anthropology at University of Colorado Museum of Natural History (CUMNH).
Yellow Jacket, CO
Yellow Jacket field school begins.
Boulder, CO
Arranges acquisition of the Earl Morris pottery collection for CUMNH.
1958, 1960
Kit Carson, CO
Excavations at the Olsen-Chubbuck bison kill site.
Secretary of the Society for American Archaeology.
1962, 1963, and 1966
Archaeological work in Sudan and Tunisia.
Boulder, CO
Receives National Science Foundation grant to publish unpublished work from the Earl Morris archives with Roy Carlson.
1968, 1970
Greeley, CO
Excavations at the Jurgens Site.
San Luis Valley
Excavations at Magna Site.
Begins textile research project.
President of the Council for Museum Anthropology.
Colorado State Archaeologists' award.
Robert L. Stearns award.
Boulder, CO.
Takes mandatory retirement at the University of Colorado.
Death of wife Francis Irene Moore.
Clarence T. Hurst award.
Byron S. Cummings award.
End of Yellow Jacket field school.
Marries Barbara Kile Zernickow (first met early 1940s).
12 June 1997
Boulder, CO
Date of death. Survived by wife Barbara K. Wheat and two brothers.


47 linear feet (The collection is currently housed in 13 filing cabinet drawers, 28 bankers boxes, three six-inch Hollinger boxes, and 31 slide cases. There are also approximately 112 loose maps. There are a total of 642 folders, 36 binders, 118 loose objects, and 7,034 slides. )

Language of Materials



As processing continues, Joe Ben's large and topically complex papers will be subdivided into several different collections. Our plan for arrangement is the following.

Joe Ben Wheat collection on textiles
Research notes, manuscripts, and slides related to Joe Ben Wheat's extensive study of Southwestern weaving.

Joe Ben Wheat papers Personal papers, photographs, and objects.

Joe Ben Wheat collection on jewelry
Joe Ben Wheat's notes, manuscripts, and slides related to a study of Southwestern jewelry.

Jurgens Site records
Records related to excavation of a PaleoIndian site in northeastern Colorado.

Olsen-Chubbuck Site records Records related to excavation of a PaleoIndian site in eastern Colorado.

Magna Site records Records related to excavation of a PaleoIndian site in Colorado's San Luis Valley.

The Chispa Creek Site collection
Records related to excavation of a PaleoIndian site in Culberson County, Texas.

Yellow Jacket collection (already processed) Records related to excavation of an Ancestral Puebloan site in southwestern Colorado.

The North African Salvage Archaeology records Records related to excavation of sites in North Africa including Libya and Sudan.

Curatorial files Administrative records created in the course of executing Wheat's responsiblities as Anthropology curator.

Processing Information

This collection is being processed.

With funding from Colorado's State Historical Fund, museum staff undertook a project to inventory the entirety of the collection and create basic descriptions in the first half of 2021 by building on prior, partial inventories. We opened every drawer and box containing material related to Joe Ben Wheat's career during this process and created a spreadsheet with descriptions of the containers encountered and their contents. Folder titles or, in the case of loose material, derived titles were entered into a spreadsheet and correlated with box and location information. Several boxes had box inventories taped to the outside of the box or were placed inside the box. These inventories were checked for accuracy and then incorporated into the larger inventory.

In 2022 we secured funding from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to process the collection. This work began in November of 2022 and is ongoing.

Finding aid to the Joe Ben Wheat papers
In Progress
Natalie A. Patton and Will Gregg
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Initial processing sponsored by the Colorado State Historical Fund in 2021. Additional processing and major digitization funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) in 2022 and 2023.
Edition statement
Second edition

Repository Details

Part of the CU Museum of Natural History Repository

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