Ann Axtell Morris stood still, keenly aware that any motion could send her tumbling a hundred feet to the desert floor below. The young archaeologist’s climb into an ancient cliff dwelling had yielded a cache of Navajo objects. But Morris had underestimated how difficult it would be to get back down.
“I knew that nobody in camp had no idea where I was,” Morris wrote in a 1933 account. “Whatever was to be done I had to do myself.” Slowly, she inched her way down the cliff wall, jettisoning her shoes along the way and resolving to give up her daredevil ways once she made in down safely.
That resolution didn’t last: “I believe I kept [the promise] all of three days,” she wrote.
Morris’ relentless fascination with the relics of ancient life catapulted her into a storied career in archaeology. Yet during her lifetime, her contributions to the archaeology of the American Southwest and Mexico were largely overlooked due to her sex.
The “treasure hunter”
Born in 1900, Morris became fascinated with the past at an early age. She found her way to archaeology in the 1920s. It was a golden age for the field, which had become more scientific and professionalized in the late 19th century. The discipline was unwelcoming to women, however: Despite gains in women’s education, the majority of the profession was male, and women faced discrimination in employment, publication, and fieldwork.
That didn’t dissuade her. After graduating from Smith College, she trained professionally in France, doing fieldwork in prehistoric archaeology. In 1923, she married Earl Halstead Morris, a prominent archaeologist known for his work in the American Southwest and Mexico who is rumored to have helped inspire the character of Indiana Jones.
Though Morris often downplayed her own expertise and portrayed herself as an archaeologist’s wife along for the ride, she was an accomplished archaeologist in her own right. In excavations in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, Aztec Ruins in New Mexico, and Mesa Verde in Colorado, she documented ancient petroglyphs, cave painting and wall art in watercolor.
At Maya ruins in Chichén Itzá in Mexico, Morris excavated alongside men despite being hired to act as a nanny and chaperone for the children on site. And she contributed to a growing understanding of the lives and culture of ancient Native Americans and Indigenous Mexicans whose complex societies had been overlooked.
Buried between the lines
Despite her accomplishments, though, Morris’ work was often buried in papers that bore her husband’s name or went entirely uncredited. Though she authored two popular books about archaeological fieldwork for a general audience, she often worked without pay and was passed over for opportunities that were instead offered to her husband. And she struggled with health problems and alcoholism, dying in 1945 at age 45.
Morris’ legacy has grown in recent years as scholars revisit the stories of pioneering women in the field. She is widely credited with helping open the field to other women and inspiring generations of readers with a passion for archaeology. An upcoming biopic, Canyon Del Muerto, looks back on her pioneering life.
Despite the challenges and the vagaries of her rugged, adventurous life, Morris is now remembered as a trailblazer. “To my way of thinking,” she wrote in 1934, “archaeology is the most interesting and exciting career in the world.”