Ann Axtell Morris, Archaeologist of the Southwest

Lovers of archaeology are in for a treat. Following the success of The Dig, a British film that chronicles the excavation of the Sutton Hoo burial in England in 1939, an American archaeologist is now coming to your favorite streaming device. Film crews are wrapping up their work in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona on the film Canyon del Muerto about the life and work of the undeservedly-forgotten archaeologist Ann Axtell Morris (1900-1945), in the 1920s and 1930s. The movie is slated for release this year.

Ann Axtell Morris' book on her Southwestern archaeological experiences
Ann Axtell Morris’ book on her Southwestern archaeological experiences

Why make a movie about Ann Axtell Morris? Good reasons are found in her only publications, two books written for general readers, Digging in Yucatan, and Digging in the Southwest, which I discuss here. Her course through archaeology was meteoric, rising fast and high, and burning out all too soon. From her home in Nebraska, she went to Smith College in Massachusetts to study history, and then to France for a year to study prehistoric archaeology. Her goal was to do archaeological research in the American Southwest, a region that she thought had been sadly neglected archaeologically. At the precocious age of 23 she was able to achieve her goal after her marriage to the archaeologist Earl Morris, with whom she pursued field archaeology in all its many moods for two decades from the Yucatan in Mexico to the Ancestral Puebloan ruins in the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona (of which the Canyon del Muerto of the film’s title is a part). Sadly, the last ten years of her life saw a steady decline in her health ending in an untimely death, and today her notable achievements as a field archaeologist have been almost totally obliterated by time. I hope Canyon del Muerto will awaken interest in this pioneering archaeologist, and that her popular books will bring her knowledge and ability within reach of a new generation of readers.

Ann and Earl Morris worked on sites from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan to Mummy Cave in the Canyon del Muerto for two decades and achieved outstanding results which are unfortunately all but buried in technical reports (some of which incorporated Ann’s accomplished watercolors). There is nothing remarkable about this bare résumé; the first half of the 20th century was after all one of the most romantic periods of archaeological research and is a vast tale of great discoveries and colorful characters, often forgotten today. What makes Ann Morris stand out (apart from being a pioneering and successful woman archaeologist in a field dominated at the time by men) is the person who emerges from her books.

Ann Morris was a superb English stylist, remarkably so for such a young writer, and she tells her story with enthusiasm and excitement. Her prose has an immediacy that reminds one of an informal snapshot taken by a Kodak Brownie camera, as opposed to the serious formal posing required for studio photography. Her prose flows like a southwestern arroyo after a thunderstorm, and has a freshness that makes it a book of the sunlight outdoors in an Arizona desert, rather than a text composed in an academic study that “smells of the lamp.” She attempts to explain to her reader what archaeologists have found, their sites, and artifacts, monumental architecture, and art, but above all she wants to tell readers what archaeological fieldwork was like (as opposed to academic or literary archaeology). A few select (lightly edited) quotes from Digging in the Southwest (published by Doubleday, Doran & Co., Garden City, New York, 1934) will give the flavor of her writing. I feel like saying “selected at random” because there were so many rich pages that could have been mined for nuggets. She tells us what archaeology is, “archaeology might be defined as a rescue expedition sent into the far places of the earth to recover the scattered pages of man’s autobiography”(p. xv), and what were its goals, “instead of being tethered within the small present, bounded on one side by a hazy tomorrow and on the other by a very few centuries of carefully dated yesterdays, the long stream of human existence can be traced ever backward through the millennia…ever backward, the trail runs, and it is given to the archaeologist to trace its way” (p. xvii). After noting that America’s rich claim to antiquity were buried in blind oblivion, she goes on to say “then came the Archaeologists! Like a species of industrious gophers, they have spread from Alaska to Patagonia. They dig and they pry and they probe. They photograph and they map and they measure. Lost cities are being found again, fallen temples are being rebuilt, and broken pottery is being mended…each one has taken it on himself to restore some small fraction of long-lost history to its rightful place” (p. 6). And finally, “[the goal of archaeology] may have been achieved and may have been a thrilling one, but…[the] method and meticulous points of prosy detail are enshrined in vast scientific tomes which but few people ever see and fewer have the tenacity to read. One receives a most unfortunate and false impression that archaeology is not really half as much fun as it ought to be, and that archaeologists are dry things, squeezed empty of all human qualities. Now I for one know better, for I have been and I have seen” (p. 10). And so she has.

I hope that this film will be a success and that Ann Morris’ books will delight a new generation of readers. Today they are very rarely seen on the secondhand book market. Yet they are among the best accounts of the thrill of archaeological exploration and faithfully and amusingly capture the romance of archaeology in an era that is becoming something of an “ancient artifact.” Though Ann was ahead of her time in many ways and wrote thoughtfully about the Indigenous peoples with whom she worked, her cavalier attitude to prehistoric human remains is no longer acceptable. And of course, the culture history is well done but is now obsolete, as is to be expected after a further century of fieldwork in the area. We must accept the books for what they are, and not for what they should be, because they succeed in telling the story of archaeological research with such verve and attention to telling detail that one can almost smell the smoke from the campfires, hear the excitement in the voices of the archaeologists, and feel the heat of the desert as the summer clouds pile up on the western horizon.