A procession of life-size orange pronghorns leaps across a sandstone wall shaded from the harsh summer light. Painted by Navajo and Jemez Pueblo artist Dibe Yazhi, or “Little Lamb,” in Canyon del Muerto in 1804, the pronghorns long remained unknown to all but the canyon’s residents or those who made the arduous journey across the desert to see them.
In 1923, archaeologist and artist Ann Axtell Morris made the voyage to Canyon del Muerto, by then part of Northeastern Arizona, and the artwork inspired her to pick up a paintbrush. In documenting Little Lamb’s work, she imagined the scene in a way only another artist can, infusing the science of archaeology with creativity:
Little Lamb had climbed out upon a narrow ledge which he used as a scaffold, but the stepping stones which had made the ledge accessible have long since washed away. Therefore I had to remain upon the ground below and some distance away to derive my proper perspective for my painting. I spread my huge Double Elephant-size water-color paper and for several happy days wrestled with the problem of color, scale, and exact line.
The paintings further actualized Ann’s pursuit of her avant-garde childhood dreams “to dig for buried treasure, and explore among the Indians, and paint pictures, and wear a gun, and go to college.” (She, of course, fulfilled them all.) Keep in mind that Ann was born in 1900, 20 years before women got the right to vote. Her pioneering spirit balked at the boundaries for women of that era.
Ann studied archaeology, graduated from Smith College and went on to work in France. When she returned to the U.S. in 1923, she met and married renowned archaeologist Earl H. Morris, an inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. The couple honeymooned in Canyon del Muerto, where they began a decade of archaeological study together. Ann joked that their wedding announcement should have read, “Mr. and Mrs. Earl Halstead Morris at home (in a tent), Canyon of the Dead, Arizona, September 1923.” Living an unconventional married life, Ann and Earl worked and lived together in the field between their areas of study, which included Canyon del Muerto in Arizona, Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico and Chichen Itza on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
In addition to typical fieldwork, Ann made large watercolor paintings depicting artifacts, pictographs, Indigenous people, expedition life and the surrounding landscapes. Wealthy East Coast businessman and explorer Charles L. Bernheimer commissioned her paintings to document the brilliant colors lacquered on the rock canvas — a job unsuited to the black and white photos of the day. Ann’s painting of Canyon del Muerto’s Antelope House was later displayed at a New York City museum, vividly sharing the Indigenous history and art of the Southwestern desert with East Coast urbanites. Today, the National Park Service considers Ann’s paintings instrumental in developing “methods and standards of pictorial documentation that are still in use today.”
During her most adventurous years, Ann published two books: Digging in the Yucatan (1931) and Digging in the Southwest (1933). These beautifully written memoirs capture her sense of humor and intellect while celebrating her unconventional lifestyle, including mishaps driving a Model T across the desert and nearly falling to her death from a cliff. Ann and Earl also collaborated on research and reports, although Ann never published any scholarly articles.
Decades after Ann and Earl died, an unpublished technical report surfaced in Earl’s archives at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. The paper references a collection of Basketmaker III sandals, dated A.D. 400 to 700, excavated from Canyon del Muerto between 1923 and 1927.
Despite the detail and accuracy of the document, it did not have an author attribution. But one detail was clear: It was not in Earl’s handwriting.
Kelley Ann Hays-Gilpin, professor and chair of anthropology at Northern Arizona University, was beguiled by the anonymous and incomplete report. In the 1990s, she joined forces with Ann and Earl’s daughter, anthropologist Elizabeth Morris, to investigate the mystery.
In response to my interview request, Hays-Gilpin suggests we meet at the Pecos Archaeology Conference. Founded in 1927, the conference is an annual gathering of Southwestern archaeologists who share the latest research or advances in the field, followed by a raucous (and I’m not exaggerating) party. Ann described a similar archaeological gathering in 1923 that further enticed me to attend:
When archaeologists are about their business, they necessarily see little of one another or anybody else for that matter. But about once a year, they throw down their picks and shovels, snap the elastics around their notebooks, and struggle over endless miles through incredible difficulties in order all to arrive at the same place at the same time. And then what fun! ... For an assorted gang of thoroughbred good sports, witty conversationalists, and loyal friends, I whole-heartedly recommend American archaeologists.
Locating Hays-Gilpin at the 2021 conference, held in Mancos, Colorado, is easy among the small crowd. She’s wearing Yoda earrings; nearly everyone else, myself included, wears an Indiana Jones-style (or Earl Morris-style) felt-brimmed hat. While most attendees gather to listen to the lectures, we find a quiet spot to sit in a sprawling, pine-edged meadow on the flanks of the La Plata Mountains. As a woman wearing a real macaw walks past, Hays-Gilpin recounts her and Elizabeth’s exciting quest to identify the sandal report’s scribe: “It took us just god-awful forever. And then it was a process of discovery.” Although the initial graphology analysis proved challenging, it became clear that Ann had written the report.
Despite Ann lending her hand to many of Earl’s technical reports behind the scenes, Hays-Gilpin explains that the paper “never got published [and remained] just a handwritten manuscript in the archives. She never even tried to publish [it]. And I don’t know why she thought it wouldn’t happen. Was it not finished? ... [It’s] what we don’t really know.” (Another, more detailed technical report written by Ann remains in the Arizona State Museum’s archives.)
Hays-Gilpin and Elizabeth agreed on the next step: completing the Morrises’ research. In 1998, they and Ann Cordy Deegan published Prehistoric Sandals From Northeastern Arizona: The Earl H. Morris and Ann Axtell Morris Research. Their work built on Ann’s manuscript and incorporated Earl’s 1931 sandal research from the region’s Prayer Rock District, where Hays-Gilpin’s and Elizabeth’s Ph.D. dissertations were focused.
Inspired by nature and nurture, Elizabeth followed in her parents’ footsteps. In 1960, she became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Arizona, and she taught at Colorado State University for 18 years. She maintained a lifelong commitment to her work, publishing and giving presentations until she died in 2012.
While Elizabeth proved to be a familial key to finalizing her parents’ research, her memories of Ann were faint, according to Hays-Gilpin. For most of Elizabeth’s childhood, Ann was ill and troubled by alcoholism and perhaps postpartum depression; she died in 1945, at age 45. “I wonder what we would have done today,” Hays-Gilpin says. “Would we have been looking at postpartum depression, which we still don’t understand, but we recognize enough? It’s very common. Would she have gotten that diagnosis and some treatments that would have helped her keep her life going in a good direction?”
Before her illness, Ann’s maverick spirit and marriage to Earl allowed her a relatively unique lifestyle and career, but her work remained limited by the era’s perceptions of women. Hays-Gilpin explains that although female archaeologists in the U.S. participated in fieldwork, in the 1920s and ’30s, academia shunted their careers toward museum work instead of the prestigious jobs as professors and department heads granted to their male counterparts. While academic archaeological reports were written primarily by men, women penned popular accounts typically demeaned by male scholars. Ann’s publishers, for example, marketed her books to children despite their detailed and in-depth understanding of the period’s most groundbreaking archaeology.
Contemporary anthropologist Nancy J. Parezo considers popular accounts such as Ann’s vital because they demystified the discipline for the public, unveiling the methods, research, ethics issues (such as antiquities trafficking) and lifestyles of early 20th century archaeologists. They made archaeology relevant and exciting to the public, undoubtedly helping to increase support and funding for research and protection of cultural sites. In continuing to publish despite the limitations of academia, Ann paved the way for other women in archaeology.
Although Hays-Gilpin had previously read Digging in the Southwest, through her work with the sandal report, she realized Ann’s pioneering contributions to the field of archaeology and women in science. “It was at that point that I think I started to see how much she had accomplished in her fairly short life,” she says. “She was doing this pretty detailed and pioneering work as well as writing those popular books, painting, all the fieldwork, keeping all of the catalogs of the artifacts they were collecting. She was one of the earliest people to do rock art recording, I think, and I don’t think she’s gotten enough credit for that.”
After the gathering of archaeologists in 1923, Ann and Earl drove to Canyon del Muerto, where they began a decade of work together. Fittingly, after attending the Pecos Conference in 2021, I loosely follow the Model T tracks Ann left in the sand during her first magical year of working in the desert. As I sit in a Jeep passenger seat, my Navajo guide, Dave Wilson, drives into the scene Ann depicted with her pen and paintbrush:
Sheer, brilliantly red walls, hundreds of feet in height, twist tortuously as a serpent toward the distant mountains. The narrow coiling strip of canyon floor is rarely more than a quarter of a mile wide and often measures less than a hundred yards. It has been cut down through solid Arizona rock to such a depth below the plateau that it gives one the impression of inhabiting a straightened, crooked little world all of one’s own.
Canyon del Muerto is a 25-mile-long tributary of Canyon de Chelly, now a national monument near the Navajo Nation town of Chinle. Today, 80 families still live in the monument, which is co-managed by the Park Service, the tribe and the canyon community to protect cultural sites, maintain Indigenous homelands and manage limited tourism. Other than on the trail to White House Ruins, visiting the canyon’s bottom, 1,000 feet below its rim, is permitted only with a Navajo guide. Dressed in a white cowboy hat and pinstripe shirt, Wilson, 73, was born in Canyon del Muerto, his family’s home for generations; today, he and his son continue a family guiding tradition at Beauty Way Jeep Tours.
The history of this canyon is a tapestry woven with diverse cultural threads. As we drive, Wilson points out the homes of present-day families alongside 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan dwellings tucked into the alcoves of 200 million-year-old sandstone. Archaic people hunted and gathered here as early as 2500 B.C., and around 200 B.C., the cultural group known as Basketmakers occupied the canyon, leaving colorful pictographs on the walls. After that, the Ancestral Puebloans built multi-storied structures between A.D. 750 and 1300.
Wilson points out two square rock shelters, built between 1300 and the early 1700s by Hopis on the canyon floor. Then, roughly 400 years ago, the Navajo people reached and occupied these canyons.
In 1778, Don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, the cartographer for the Domínguez-Escalante Expedition, marked the location of Canyon de Chelly and Canyon del Muerto on his maps. That was during a period of unrest between the Navajo people and the government of New Mexico, which would change hands from Spain to Mexico, and then to the U.S., in the next century. A Spanish intrusion in 1805 resulted in the deaths of some 115 Navajos at a site that became known as Massacre Cave. Little Lamb carried on with his paintings during these brutal conflicts. The regional turbulence continued through the 1846-48 Mexican-American War, with U.S. forces studying the canyon for new routes to travel west — one result being the first lithograph made of Canyon del Muerto, in 1849. Near the end of the Civil War, the U.S. military, led by Kit Carson, aimed to gain control of the region and invaded the Navajo Nation in 1864.
Dave stops at a monolithic buttress known as Tse’laa’, or Navajo Fortress Rock. An estimated 200 Navajos hid atop the 700-foot formation to evade capture during “The Fearing Time.” They sustained themselves with dried food and used ponderosa pine logs like ladders in the stone cracks to descend into the canyon for water at night. After they surrendered to the troops, they and 10,000 other Navajos were forced to walk hundreds of miles to New Mexico and detained for four years. Many died of starvation and other ailments during the Long Walk and captivity. An 1868 treaty effectively formed the Navajo Nation and permitted Navajo families to return home, including to Canyon del Muerto.
At Wilson’s urging, I use my camera lens to zoom in on the rock and see that the ponderosa logs are still there.
Around that time, geographical surveyor Timothy O’Sullivan made a scientific foray into the canyon and made the first known photograph. Other non-Indigenous explorers traveled to Canyon del Muerto, but the arrival of the Morrises in 1923 came at the start of a decade of research and efforts to protect cultural sites from looting, vandalism and erosion. The couple’s work bolstered the case for designating the canyons a national monument, which happened in 1931.
As we round a bend in the canyon, Wilson laughs when I gasp, “Antelope House!” As I crane my neck to see the procession of animals dancing above us, he urges me to stand on my seat in the roofless Jeep for a better view. Next to the relatively modern pronghorns drawn by Little Lamb are much older pictographs depicting humans, animals and landscapes. The rock tells stories spanning thousands of years.
While hand-drawn images on canyon walls withstand the effects of aging, perishable goods such as yucca fiber sandals are less resilient. Ann’s once-unpublished manuscript reported that the delicate footwear demonstrated exquisite craftsmanship and artistry. Of this, Earl pondered, “Why [they] should have chosen the making of footgear that would be worn out in little more time than it took to produce it, as the avenue in which to express their utmost in inventive skill and artistic genius, we shall never know.”
It’s equally compelling to ponder the same about Ann’s ancient sandal report, written with careful attention to detail despite never being published. Perhaps the value of one’s creative efforts and the art of documentation does not need to be understood in the present; those efforts first need to be recorded and reimagined by brush, pen and new eyes to stretch their stories from one generation to the next. Ann’s stories rippled beyond her lifetime, paving the way for future research, opening doors for women in archaeology and furthering our public understanding of Canyon del Muerto’s past and present.
With camera lifted over my eye, I snap a photo of the Antelope panel and another of Wilson smiling in the driver’s seat — another set of hands recording, through a different lens, the stories living within the walls of Canyon del Muerto.